Not So Massively: Yearning for an MMO future free of loot

    
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Throughout all of the Drama over Anthem‘s loot issues, I’ve just been rolling my eyes. Not because I think Bioware screwed up — arguably it has, but that’s beside the point — but because people are acting like this is a surprise.

Every online game I’ve ever played with loot as a core progression mechanic has had the same problems. The only thing that changes is the degree. There’s too little loot, or too much loot, or not good enough loot. It’s a fundamental flaw of the concept that will never be fixed.

This isn’t an entirely a new idea. I don’t claim to be that original a thinker. I’m sure you’ve heard arguments before on why gear treadmills are a less than stellar example of game design.

The term “treadmill” is used for a reason, after all. You grind for better gear so you can grind harder content for even better gear so you can grind even harder content, and on and on so that you get absolutely nowhere. It’s a trick to fool people into believing they’re becoming better players because they see bigger numbers, but in reality you’re just in an endless cycle that doesn’t grow your character or help you grow as a player.

What I see as a huge problem with loot — and the source of the issues of Anthem and Diablo III and countless others before and after them — is that loot is binary. An item is an upgrade or it isn’t. If it’s not an upgrade, it’s trash.

You can’t let people upgrade all their equipment slots every session. That would lead to a level of power creep that no game could ever sustain. Therefore upgrades need to be a slow trickle. But you also can’t have people logging off without having earned anything. Hence loot pieces fall from the heavens like rain showers, but only a few of them are ever good enough to be worth equipping.

And of course when you do get an upgrade, it makes your old item trash. Nothing says fun like vendoring an item you spent weeks grinding for because it’s now worthless.

If you balance it just right, you can give people just enough upgrades to keep them satisfied without overly frustrating them. You’ll still get people complaining that there’s too much loot or too little, but if you’re lucky, they’ll be the minority.

But even when it works, it doesn’t work. You’ll still get unlucky sessions when people log off having progressed not at all. It will still be a treadmill. And we’ll still be buried beneath mountains of trash loot.

Consider how much of your life has been spent dealing with garbage loot in video games. Think of the time you’ve spent picking it up, looking it over to determine it’s not worth anything, arranging your inventory to accommodate it, going back to town to vendor it, actually vendoring it, dropping it, or recycling it.
Pause for a moment and consider how much of your life has been spent dealing with garbage loot in video games. Think of the time you’ve spent picking it up, looking it over to determine it’s not worth anything, arranging your inventory to accommodate it, going back to town to vendor it, actually vendoring it, dropping it, or recycling it. Even if it’s only a few minutes a session, add all those minutes from all those sessions down through your life together and realize just much of your life has been wasted on worthless pixels.

It’s OK to shiver, Chuck.

I just want loot to go away, guys. I’m so very tired.

This might seem an odd stance for someone whose column focuses on ARPGs, looter shooters, and other games that shower loot down upon you. In their defense, they at least handle loot better than traditional MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. Traditional MMOs make you work harder for less, worse loot. At least ARPGs and their ilk require less grinding (if all you want to do is progress through content and see the story, anyway), and sometimes their loot is even interesting, defining a build or changing how you play somehow.

But it’s never been the loot that appeals to me about ARPGs. I like that they’re fast-paced, action-packed, and solo-friendly. I’d love to be able to enjoy those things without the lead weight of loot as it currently exists hanging around my neck.

The thing is, other methods of progression don’t have that baggage. Conventional leveling gives you new abilities and new build options. Your character grows out as well as up. Endless leveling like Diablo III‘s Paragon levels have some issues with power creep, but it’s a continuous path upward, with no invalidation of past effort or garbage loot to wade through. Both forms of leveling make every session rewarding because you’ll always be earning XP toward the next level.

Then there’s cosmetic progression to consider. New skins, outfits, and the like have all the “opening presents” excitement of traditional loot with none of the downsides. A new hat doesn’t make your old hat worthless. You can wear whichever you like based on your mood.

Ideally one method of progression should not become the be all and end all. A mix of different options is best. It creates the widest appeal and allows each option to soften the flaws of the others. You can’t earn a new cosmetic every session — no art team in the world can keep up with that demand — but you can earn XP every session. You can’t keep learning new abilities forever — it would break game balance — but you can keep earning cosmetics indefinitely.

Even loot can still have a place. We can keep the loot that’s actually interesting: the rare build-defining items with awesome powers.

In my ideal game, gear is something you pick to customize your character. It becomes a part of the character’s identity, just as how Sting is a defining part of Frodo’s story or how the Ashbringer helped define Tirion Fordring.

That seems so much more compelling to me than a never-ending treadmill of meaningless stat boosts.

Of all places, I see hope in games like Overwatch and Fortnite. These are games that are built around cosmetics as their only form of ongoing progression. I may not be a huge fan of either game, but I do hope their success helps accustom players and developers alike to the idea of horizontal progression.

Because honestly, gear as it exists now seems to be a popular design paradigm simply because it’s what people are used to. It’s certainly not the best option.

The world of online gaming is changing. As the gray area between single-player and MMO becomes ever wider, Massively OP’s Tyler Edwards delves into this new and expanding frontier biweekly in Not So Massively, our column on battle royales, OARPGs, looter-shooters, and other multiplayer online titles that aren’t quite MMORPGs.

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Susan Moses

MMOs should, and do, have multiple progression paths. You may be grinding faction points with a particular group, or you may be unlocking new content via quest/story progression, or you may be increasing your crafting level, or you may be increasing how much gold/currency you have, or you may be doing something for a unique title/cosmetic/mount/house-decoration or just achievement points. But what do players gravitate towards? Things that make them more powerful, which is usually gear.

With gear, there can be 5 to 12 slots for things to be upgraded that directly affect your combat abilities, and that’s what players want. They want to make progress. They want to work towards something that makes them stronger and see a path by which they can accomplish it.

An MMO without progression would suck. You would play it and be done with it during the first week. If it had all the other progression like leveling, titles and the like, you might take a whole month before you were done with it, but believe me, you would be done with it very quickly. Just like how when you level in an MMO that has a lot of expansions, you skip over all the old raids as you are leveling because “There’s no reason to do it” and you’d never find a group to do the old content for worthless loot anyway, an MMO with no loot would have empty raids. Anything difficult or time consuming would simply not be done.

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Anton Mochalin

Why speak of Anthem (which was not particularly big even at launch and received “mediocre” ratings from both critics and users) and Diablo 3 (which doesn’t even resemble an MMO) while there are games like Warframe? I notice this particular author doesn’t like to mention Warframe which is one of the most important games in the genre right now.

And Warframe does loot right. So maybe this particular author should get himself better acquainted with the genre he covers instead of theorizing about “loot is bad”. And loot is not going to go anywhere anyway.

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PanagiotisLial1

Am I the only one would love loot drops to be just currency and materials? and everything being craftable?

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Tobasco da Gama

Every time this topic comes up, I bring up Warframe, because it absolutely nails this idea. Almost any time you log in and do almost any random mission, you’re gaining progress toward something. The exceptions are mainly Warframes themselves, which I think is totally fair since each one is basically an entire character class.

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Paragon Lost

MMORPGs should always have loot. Can’t speak for other MMO’s, I have no interest in them.

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FisticuffCloud

I think one of the problems with loot is that it becomes a question of math and not skill. In most modern MMOs the only reason to acquire gear is to become more powerful. The numbers on the gear gets calculated into different ratings and from there you can figure out what is mathematically better. These mathematical ratings then become the new META. Your gameplay is then dictated by numbers and, in my opinion, the fun is removed.

Creativity gets thrown out the window and instead of following your own path you are restricted to a pre-determined path. I think that loot with stats is a by-product of this number crunching. If you choose a more creative option with your class you are punished by the numbers.

A great example of this is heirloom gear in WoW. The advantage that those items provided was massive. You could easily dominate 1v1s in PVP by just simply having a piece or two of heirloom gear. You could still be outskilled but it was not easy to defeat an heirloom wearer without your own piece of heirloom gear.

Even with randomized loot like Diablo you still run into this issue. An incredibly rare item could drop and if its stats weren’t good enough it wasn’t ideal so nobody wanted it.

I think the gameplay systems need to change in order to make loot useful and attractive. Item decay could help the economy and make items truly rare and useful. Skill based systems can take some of the META factors out. Most importantly though, I think that class systems need to change. Why can’t we have plate wielding spell casters? Why can’t we be healing rogues? Once class walls are broken we can make gear universal or semi-universal.

Great article. Thanks for the enjoyable read.

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BalsBigBrother

Path of Exile has show the way imo. They have so many routes for upgrading your loot that even white “trash” level items can be turned into something useful if you get lucky.

If your only choice is to use something or throw it away because its not up to scratch that is rather limiting by its nature.

However if you can look at an item and think well “a” is ok but I need to change “b” & “c” and your game offers those option then nothing need be considered trash.

I have no objections to making it a hard process, rng or even time consuming just as long as there are several routes to potential upgrades. That way you always have the option to go another direction if one way doesn’t seem to be working for you.

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Anstalt

Loot, in and of itself, is not the problem. All the problems you listed with loot are only a problem when the game is based around vertical progression. When increasing power is the goal, it raises all the problems you listed – too much loot and power creep is unmanageable, too little and players are bored / frustrated. Old gear becoming trash is irritating.

When you change to horizontal progression, you eliminate most of the problems. Loot is no longer binary – good or bad – but is always a side-grade because relative power remains the same. Instead, all loot becomes a possibility, all loot could fit into a possible build.

That said, whilst I’m a massive fan of horizontal progression, I agree with your overall sentiment that attaching progression to loot/gear is a weak idea and I hate seeing it. I always feel that I’m never happy until I’ve got BiS (or close to it) because that’s the only time I can accurately measure my personel performance. I can really commit to PvP and know that my progression from crap to good is purely down to my player skill, and not just because I got some near gear.

I much prefer progression through improved skill sets and builds, as well as less tangible progression. My greatest satisfaction, in terms of progression, comes from mastering the combat system and the class I’m playing. I love that feeling when I can play my class perfectly in all situations and I love the learning experience. Sadly, this is only really possible with a deep combat system and they are very rare. If the combat system is really shallow, such as all action combat games I’ve ever played, then it’s too easy to master so the learning experience is only a few hours long and completely unsatisfying.

Finally, I’m curious about your final statement. I haven’t played either Overwatch or Fortnite but I wasn’t aware that they had any progression, let alone horizontal progression? Granted, the FPS genre is one of the few that does occasionally use horizontal progression but yeh, didn’t think either of those had any progression.

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angrakhan

I think you are failing to understand that most people enjoy vertical progression. It tickles those deep pleasure centers in our brain. It’s why these kinds of games sell. They want to see measurable improvement in their character much like they want to see in themselves in real life. People want to get a raise, earn a promotion, earn that degree, get a new car, a new house, find that someone special. Working hard to achieve a measurable improvement in our life is very natural to us, so why is it so surprising we want it in our games?

I’m one of these players. At the point I no longer see progression either through reaching the ‘best in slot’ point of my character or you’ve put some huge wall in front of me like hardcore raiding, or maybe I’m 95% of the way to ‘BIS’ but now I have to grind for months for that last 5%, I’m done. Why? I’ve got better things to do, frankly. I can spend that time working on one of the many things listed above or if I’m just focused on gaming, there’s a multitude of other games on the market to try. No reason to marry myself to just one game for life in order to be ‘best of the best of the best’ when I can be ‘near to the best’ in a whole pile of games instead. There’s so many amazing virtual worlds to explore out there. I don’t know why people have this attitude as if you have to pick one game to play for the rest of your life.

I remember when the were in the marketing hype phase of GW2. On paper it sounded amazing to me. No more gear grind? As a casual player, that sounded right up my alley! I could play up to where I had my gear set and be ‘done’. I could just enjoy the game. Right? Well I did just that. Rolled my perfect character (Charr rogue, to be exact) and went all the way through the game. Got my gear. Ran some dungeons. Know what happened? I got bored. QUICK. I wasn’t going anywhere so why was I even logging on? So I didn’t.

Horizontal progression? Pfft.. please. So instead of a big single-shot nuke that has a long casting time, you give me an insta-cast dot that works out to the same dps? Yah I can see the lipstick on that non-progression-based pig a mile a way. Color me bored in advance.

Cosmetics? I couldn’t care less, frankly.

I want power. I want to go back through an area or dungeon that gave me trouble 2 weeks ago and faceroll the thing. I want to feel heroic and awesome. If 2 weeks into a game the same areas are just as hard as they were day one I start to ask what I’m even doing in the game. Instead of a gear treadmill, I’m in a RPG version of Groundhog Day where the same content repeats over and over and never gets better.

So, yah… give me levels, give me loot grind. Give me vertical progression. And yah, if I hit the gear cap or close to it too fast, I’m out, so you better have some DLC already in the works when you launch, and a roadmap that’s going to keep me engaged for a while.

What do I find myself playing most these days? Grim Dawn. Why? It has great itemization, a ton of content with 3 difficulty modes to go through to keep the vertical progression going, and when you max out a character the game has 35 other classes to work though. I don’t care who you are, that’s gonna take a while. All this for a very reasonable price.

As to the Overwatch/Fortnight BR progression it’s via cosmetics. There is no loot or level progression in those.

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Anstalt

Whilst I can definitely see some of your points, I firmly that people love PROGRESSION in any form, not just vertical. It’s rare to even see horizontal progression in a game so most people don’t even know what it is. A well designed horizontal progression route can stimulate those pleasure centres just as well as a vertical one whilst eliminating tons of problems that most MMOs have.

That said, vertical progression (beyond the problems mentioned in this article) mostly causes issue with the multiplayer component of the game. By segregating the community into tiny little segments you make it much harder to group up. To me, thats the opposite of what devs should be aiming for in the massively multiplayer genre. Surely we want players playing together as much as possible in as convenient a way as possible? But, if you – the devs and players – don’t really care about being massively multiplayer and don’t care about the community then vertical progression will cause you a lot less problems.

But, yes, you need to keep that carrot there. The horizontal progression still needs to be measurable and meaningful otherwise a lot of people won’t bother.

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Iridescence

I like some kind of progression and really don’t care at all how my character looks in an online game so I want him to be either gaining power or gaining wealth or something similar. If your character isn’t advancing at all what is the point of even playing? An RPG needs some way to progress your character beyond new dress-up costumes.

K38FishTacos
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K38FishTacos

“most people enjoy vertical progression”

It would be interesting to see some kind of data on this. I wonder if it is “most people” in the context of gaming and to what extent it varies by genre and sub-genre.

I know gamers who hate it and shun mmorpgs and arpgs because they aren’t into all the looting, organizing inventory, etc. and they just want to get to the pew pew.

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MurderHobo

I don’t know how the DIKU and tabletop-derived MMOs can handle it. It’s an ancient and well-tread problem.

I see the next generation of MMO, or at least a branch of it, finding synergy in the mechanics of survival games. There is little need for artifacts when the crafting and resource systems are skill-based games unto themselves. You don’t have to kill the dragon. It didn’t forge the sword he’s hoarding, and though it might be powerful, it needn’t be exclusive.

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Anstalt

Surely thats just going back to the older days of SWG etc, rather than stealing from the survival genre?

Whatever their muse, I agree that there will be a branch of future MMOs not reliant on gear loot. We already know that Camelot Unchained is going to be that way (as well as being based around horizontal progression) and I think some of the other crowd-funded MMOs are going full player economy, rather than loot, too.

What I like best about that approach (from my experience in SWG) was that it actually opened up multiple routes to getting the best gear. You could grind the mats yourself, then craft yourself and get the best gear. You could grind just the best mats and get a crafter mate to convert it to gear. Or, you could just buy the best gear, and there were millions of routes to get money in the game. Even if you never grouped up or spoke to a single other person, you could still just grind the easy missions for cash and then buy awesome gear. Nobody was forced into a certain playstyle in order to get gear.

K38FishTacos
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K38FishTacos

I remember in the table-top D&D I played back in the day, leveling up was slow, there was not grinding, and there was permadeath (unless you got someone to use a very rare wish use from a very rare item, or a resurrection of some kind).

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flying_dutchman

Yeah, I agree. Loot has always been a problem in games. Even pen and paper games. Look at how useless gold is in DnD.. or Pathfider. MMO’s have it even worse.

I’ve always thought the best system would be to have monsters only drop materials and then force those materials to be turned into loot by crafting characters. That way crafted gear has a point and the market doesn’t get screwed up because you have 5 million players trying to pawn off 100’s of useless drops on the AH.

Yes… it doesn’t save every problem, Monsters still need to drop gold, which means you still have to deal with MMO inflation, but it’s at least a step in the right direction IMHO.

It’s the system I use for my Litrpg webnovels…. *Cough* Shameless plug *Cough*

Still, even if you pick another system you’ve still gotta come up with SOMETHING. Players need to be rewarded with power for killing bosses. Cosmetic only rewards are just a stop-gap. Level caps themselves are just a stop-gap. The gear treadmill is just a stop gap.

The fundamental problem is that designers just can’t make enough content to keep players occupied. The only real way to fix these is for someone to come up with a system that can procedural generate quality content. Then you don’t need a level cap, you don’t need a gear-treadmill. Players can just keep discovering new raids, knocking out bosses, leveling up, taking their loot and going home. Which is all any of us really want.

Not sure I’ll see it in my lifetime but I’m sure someone will manage it eventually.

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styopa

“Monsters still need to drop gold”…why?
I mean *some*, surely (dragons have piles of gold, as do some intelligent mobs like bandits, etc) but if one is postulating a quasi-medieval fantasy world and all the challenges within it from Bears to Spiders to Ghosts…none of them would have loot except that which fell into their possession by accident.

When was the last time in a fantasy novel, anyone did anything for straight up cash? Generally they were solving other people’s problems for altruistic reasons, or solving their own because they couldn’t escape them in the first place.

But $? For every fantasy protagonist who was in it for cash (there are some) there’s at least one or more who was desperately broke, EVEN THOUGH they were helping people.

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Tobasco da Gama

The ironic thing is that despite being the equivalent of multi-billionaires in the context of the game worlds we populate, we’re still just a bunch of homeless sociopaths. :(

K38FishTacos
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K38FishTacos

The DM running the campaign can change it in any way. If players like the campaign and its rules, they will play.

smuggler-in-a-yt
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smuggler-in-a-yt

An unfortunately fail in the translation between old school pencil and paper into the modern era.

Smart DMs back in the day would make the loot-haul an adventure in itself. One adventure, after felling a rather modest dragon, the remaining adventurers were left with a rather sizable horde of coins. Figuring out the logistics of it, moving it discretely, and banking it made for one of the best stories ever.

There’s just no translation into the MMO space for this. The lack of real story GMs who engage with players is partly to blame for this. And so you default to the lowest common denominator – over-reliance on systems like inventory or encumbrance instead of creative storytelling.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

Smart DMs back in the day would make the loot-haul an adventure in itself. One adventure, after felling a rather modest dragon, the remaining adventurers were left with a rather sizable horde of coins. Figuring out the logistics of it, moving it discretely, and banking it made for one of the best stories ever.

Oh boy. I’m the reason my old DM insists on vanilla 1st edition AD&D rules. Melt the coins into a single blob and cast Item (turns a single object into a felt patch on the wizard’s robe). Memory is fuzzy, that was either something in 2nd Ed. or Unearthed Arcana.

smuggler-in-a-yt
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smuggler-in-a-yt

That sounds like a bonus XP award, to me.

And either a conveniently placed anti-magic zone or a empowered fireball during the next encounter.

I couldn’t find a good enough image of Nixon’s head screaming “The loot! The Loot! The Loot is on fire!” So here you go…

100 Cups of Coffee

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Bývörðæįr mòr Vas´Ðrakken

Everyone likes watching the loot pinata explode then drop stuff even if it is only a few coins.

Seeing shiny drop when you defeat a monster gives instant gratification. Back when I ran my first gaming group of D&D the very first time I did not give them gems and coins in the adventure, they all complained and asked them so if you have not spend the riches you found so far why would I think you want more?

That let to an argument at the table and we stopped playing for two weeks. After that I had to start to figure out the world we were playing in the place that wealth had in it, where there cities and basic story elements of world building. That took a year to get the most basic concepts that would work and much of it was based on re-creating old historical civilizations and blending them into the adventures that I made up during the game and did not bother to write down.

So players play to have fun.

They all have different motivations, yet rewarding them with something that shows them the effort of fighting more difficult monster is worth it leads to more excitement as they struggle to win. One thing my table said is that if there was no difference between the goblins and the dragons they would just fight the goblins and go home with treasure on their character sheets.

Players want a visible show of progress but it does not necessary have to be better and better gear. It can not be fetishes (trophies from kills of people) as that is evil road that creates sick people. But deeds of valor, created a scroll work to hang off the gear, embellished design work to commemorate battles, those are memory intensive as it leads to one off items, which is files that get out of hand fast. So you created decorative scroll work and one the item is text that explains the victory and an image that can be re-used. So you fought a goblin tribe invading your domain, so you get a scroll, medal, or inset for your Armour that shows more detail work to the normal looking gear.

For example say you are fighting hobgoblins and they shoot a cannon ball at the tank and he or she survives but is bounced out of position and maybe the clerk goes down and has to be revived, so when the win condition happens, they get a token to turn into a crafter (NPC or Player) and the design window opens up on it is the symbols that are unlocked by fighting hobgoblins, by being bounced by the cannon ball, by surviving incoming fire, and what ever else was already unlocked, and if the player is using a player crafter, the crafter created ten designs using the interface and creates a mix of buffs based on what the player has unlocked, and they click email player and the player gets a notification the design is ready. They pay the COD fee and they can see the designs, if they like the designs they can click approve and it applies to the gear. It could be as simple as a raised squared on their chest piece to a complex Celtic knot work on every inch and reinforced chest plate. The idea being that the gear you earn should be an archtype and the decorative elements should be customizable. So that every piece of gear is designed to work with the other gear but not necessarily every element that can be used with both set of gear.

That way the progress of getting better is more of unlocking more complex to use skills, and weapon types and animations, so as the person learns how to move around the environment the moves that they need to understand how the character is supposed to move are there at the start but if say you need to put the konami code in for some cool skill the player already has the physical ability to control the keyboard before they have to fight the key board to move around the battle field avoid hitting anything that puts the interface in front of the combat like say the chat windows that takes all the inputs that the player is trying to use to survive. We have all seen ourselves and others type up up down down wwwww ssssss dddddd aaaa and so forth or the long scrolling ……. spaces. Early games had the chat interface only accessible via the ~ or ` because it was not easy to mis click it on the old key boards. Modern games have enter, shift, tab, back space, delete and a dozen other keys hard coded to open the interface at the worst possible moment.

the long and short is the gear needs to be separated into Eight elements.
One the actual weapons that have to bind to rig points that can change
Two the Armor
Three the accessories
Four the Stat modifiers
Five the Customization
Six the Colors
Seven the layers what can go over what
Eight the optional layers that modify the appearance of the gear and only work with some other elements.

Then when you defeat enemies you can find tokens for colors, coins, new elements, and any of the other eight parts, as long as you can get those outside of combat, then if what you is not what you want you can trade the options for in game currency direct swap meet style swap, and you can earn in game currency by completing quests, as the final goal is to feel like you achieved something that day, you had fun, and the gear reminds you of what you have experienced. Positive experiences are what keep players playing a game through bad design. Negative experiences over whelm most positive experiences. So the trick is to re-enforce the memories of the things that the player felt were positive and not to try and game the system from the developers side of things.

K38FishTacos
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K38FishTacos

Great points.