So this is a slightly less scripted post that I haven’t really sat through and planned out all that well; consider this me venting a little bit about my least favourite time of year: the heartbreak season.
And no, I’m not talking about actual heartbreak, but the X-45 Heartbreaker mount farm (formerly known as the big love rocket).
Of all the mounts - no, not just mounts, but all the rewards in the entire game, this has to be my white whale. I have thousands of attempts on my hands, and every february I suffer burnout after my repeated failed attempts of wresting this rocket out of the Crown Chemical Co.'s hands. Every time I see someone else riding this mount, an angry, ugly beast stirs somewhere in my ancient reptilian brain, and if I see someone loot it, that selsame beast rears its head and screams internally in my head.
Okay, I’m exaggerating - the bit is over. Envy is an ugly thing, and I don’t think it’s healthy for me to obsess over this - or anyone else, for that matter. What I really want to talk about here, is rare and exclusive items.
I have been pushing for ideas such as bad luck protection and deterministic means of collecting items in some other posts here on the CC, and in so doing, the idea of ‘rarity’ and ‘exclusivity’ has come up in conversation, either here on the CC or elsewhere. It has led me to wonder, what exactly is the purpose of an item being rare and/or exclusive. I don’t really have a strong answer, to be fair, because there’s many different points of view to it.
An item may be rare to make players feel unique and special; they got something that their friends didn’t get, and so they feel unique - instead of being the exact same as someone else. It might change how you experience your playthrough compared to either someone else in your shoes, or your other different runs of that game. Or, in a game where the economy is important, it might serve the purpose of letting you earn some cash, or flex your wealth by owning all the rare, pricy items.
On to exclusivity; which is an entirely different beast. Rare items are all exclusive, but not all exclusive items are what we would call, rare. Even if 1% of players on X item, I would distinguish an item that randomly dropped to them from an item they earned through some means of achievement, such as the gladiator mounts. I also think time-locked rewards fall under this distinction, such as the now-removed mage tower artifact appearances, or the legendary scarab mount from the Opening of Ahn’qiraj. The purpose of all exclusive items is to show your work, whether that was completing something difficult, being at the right place at the right time, or a mix of both.
I’m going back to talk about the Heartbreaker now. Where does this mount fit into the whole scheme. Well, it is time-locked, does that make it an exclusive item? Sort of, I suppose. You can only get this during Love is in the Air… which requires you to participate in that festival. Which I think is good. The problem with the rocket is that it is also a rare drop, and a very rare one at that. The purpose of only being able to collect this during Love is in the Air is obvious: this is a holiday themed item, and you can try again next year if you don’t get it this time. But what about the rarity… why is this item rare? Well, the economic side to this is just non-existent, you can’t trade or sell this item. It’s not going to change the way you play the game, because it’s a cosmetic item that you unlock permanently. So that leaves, it is rare because it is meant to feel unique, for a social reason.
You are meant to feel unique and different from the others that don’t have it, because you got lucky.
I think that’s fine. You got lucky one time and that has given you a postive experience that has, at least temporarily, made you stand out in the crowd.
… But I do not think it’s fine that the players, such as myself, who sink so many hours into the game in order to try to get this item, have all their efforts invalidated by a cold and heartless (pun intended) dice roll. Let’s talk about randomness, bad luck protection and deterministic rewards.
As I have already outlined, randomness serves a purpose. Many people curse RNG and all that it stands for, but randomess is good, actually. Too much randomess is bad. When the only thing that determines whether your succeed or not is a completely random chance, that is too much RNG. Imagine if you could only defeat a boss if they dropped randomly targeted pools of fire in those exact locations, and that only happened once out of ten times - that would be terrible combat design. Think back to the weekly disappointment box, where you got a completely random item (of a set loot table) that could be completely useless, or a BiS piece of gear with sockets and tertiary stats and oh my. Let’s remind ourselves of when spell procs were completely random too, where you could get really lucky with windfury and just oneshot everything, or… deal almost no amount of damage at all. All of these examples have existed, to some degree, and have since been ‘fixed’ by reducing the amount of randomness. Boss fights have randomness in them still, but that randomness is more controlled and don’t usually soft-lock the boss fight. The Great Vault can be manipulated in your favor by allowing you to choose from a selection of items, or a pity reward if you don’t want any of them - heck, even BFA gave you currency to allow you to purchase the right Azerite armour down the line. And spell procs now have built-in protections that makes their procs much more controlled, so that they don’t go absolutely crazy, and at the same time doesn’t cause major disappointment.
These examples aren’t the same type of randomness as a specific loot drop, of course, but I’m using them to illustrate that randomness run amok is just not fun to play with. How does this apply to the Heartbreaker, and by proxy, all rare drops? It’s mostly about time investment, and fairness.
I get upset if I see someone loot the heartbreaker after I’ve put in so much work for it, but my frustration stems not necessarily just from envy… but from frustration at a system of rampant randomness. This is something echoed by a lot of players who have been farming for these sorts of mounts, the Heavenly Onyx Cloud Serpent from the Sha of Anger is another good example. They might have killed the world boss actually more than 10 000 times and still have more kills to look forward to. There’s no guarantee that you will ever get it, so even if you have sunk more hours into killing the Sha of Anger than you have into all the other things you could rather have done, it might all be for nothing. It is doubly bad for the Heartbreaker, because it’s only available for two weeks of the year - FOMO kicks in and you go into high gear to maximise your chances to get that elusive rocket. Hence my annual season of burnout.
So what exactly is the solution here, because I’ve seen a lot of different ones being offered up. Increase the drop rates: doesn’t solve the problem in of itself, but makes it much likelier to acquire something - but comes at the cost of making items more pervasive and thus less unique and memorable (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Add a deterministic way of getting it, such as purchasing the Heartbreaker for love tokens: I suppose that works, but it would really ruin the aspect of the item as a rarity. Remove the timegating elements and let you farm these things as hard as you want: did you not read about the problem being time-investment and burnout…? I’m sure there are other solutions as well, but here’s the one I prefer.
Bad luck protection. BLP is a pseudo-deterministic means of collecting something, but it caters to a very specific audience and is not something that even everyone will benefit from. The key distinction is in the name, bad luck protection. It is a system set in place to benefit only those who are being screwed over by the randomness, while also preserving the aspects of randomness as a whole. BLP only kicks in when you have already reached a certain threshold where you should have already, statistically speaking, actually gotten whatever you were looking for. It would be created proportional to the rarity of the item and thus not be universally applicable. An item with a 1% drop rate would likely be guaranteed to drop after the 100th time, because statistically you would have gotten it in 1 of 100 runs. (Math is not my strong suit, and chance is a particular weak side of mine - I might be wrong about the math here, but I stand by the philosophy). In all likelihood, you already have the item you want before you would have been guaranteed to get it anyway. It doesn’t invalidate the work others would have put into it, because by hitting the BLP cap, you have just proven that you have done at least as much work as is statistically warranted of you, and probably also more work than most people who already have that reward. And I’m sure there would have to be some caveats added in. Does it track your progress account-wide or character, as in, do you need to do 100 runs on any character or just 1 character to be guaranteed to get it? What about the Heartbreaker, which is only available 14 days a year, does the timegate factor into the BLP? Are all items subject to BLP, or only select ones? Plenty more, I’m sure.
I think that everyone that participates in the game should be able to collect everything in the game, if they put in the right amount of effort, and making some rewards practically impossible to collect without not just monumental effort, but also extreme luck, just feels really bad and leads to a lot of toxic behaviour, such as my annual burnout cycle, and for others, worse behaviour such as raging against others whom the system deemed were lucky enough.
Okay, I got it out of my system. If anything, I hope this can get the discussion going. Please, tear this off-the-cuff post to shreds, because I wrote all of this in the span of an hour in between queueing for the Heartbreaker farm after already feeling the creeping sensation of burnout churning in my stomach after only the third attempt this year. I think I’ve made some good points, but this post is not of the sort of quality I’d normally like to share. I hope it was somewhat entertaining to read, either way.
Edit: Also, the level requirement to be able to participate in the casino also known as the X-45 Heartbreaker farm has been rising every expansion, making many players feel obligated to level as many alts as possible in order to maximise their chances. I think it is being raised so that players don’t feel they need to create an alt, level it to 10, try their daily chance of looting the rocket, deleting the character, rinse and repeat. If RNG wasn’t so evil in the first place, that wouldn’t be a problem and so the restriction would be made unnecessary.