I’ve never really liked item sets in these silly RPGs and their cousins, MMOs.
From Diablo to Titan Quest to Torchlight to World of Warcraft, there always seems to be a subset of items that function as a set, where equipping more than one of the set gives some sort of bonus. That’s fine design, since it gives gear a little more meaning and fun, rooted in that sweet, sweet loot pinata jackpot endorphin rush. The item sets themselves don’t bother me, actually, it’s just that actually putting together a set based on random (and usually very rare) loot drops is an exercise in futility.
Combine the leveling mechanism (gain experience points from killing stuff and quests, level up, be stronger and more specialer, ad infinitum) with the rarity of actually acquiring those set items, and the fact that you have to kill a lot of pinatas to get said gear and well… more often than not, the activity of grinding to try to acquire those set pieces makes them obsolete by the time you get all of them because you’ve leveled up a few times (or more) trying to get them.
I do call that bad design, at least if those sets are meant to ever be completed when they might be relevant to the bulk of gameplay. (And if they are not meant to be so completed, why have them at all?) Why offer the Perseus Hunter set for the dashing midlevel Hunter if they have almost no chance whatsoever of assembling the set before they start shopping for the Artemis Set? The storytelling often included in item sets is fractured beyond usability, and the function of the gear gets lost to the winds.
Yes, yes, there’s a market for gear sets for “twinks” in WoW (sometimes, anyway, and mostly just for stuff that doesn’t Bind on Pickup), and gear sets are great for role players, especially with appearance tabs (if you’re lucky enough to have them, like LOTRO). Some “endgame” gear sets are good, too, since you’re not leveling up any more, and character progression is largely based on gear. Item sets aren’t wholly useless by any means, they are just… silly.
At the level cap, you can at least “sidegrade” to gear set pieces if they wind up being better as a set than whatever other random stuff you’ve collected. That’s solid design to keep people playing when the leveling system has fallen into uselessness. Bonus points if those sets look sweet together. Guild Wars largely gets this right, since the level cap (and gear effectiveness cap!) is reached pretty easily, and at that point, chasing item sets makes more sense.
And yet, item sets simply aren’t all that special in the leveling content, since the rarity of special items for the set runs contrary to the core leveling mechanic of the game. Some players will collect the sets anyway, knowing full well that they will be largely useless once collected, but many will just use a set item for as long as it’s useful on its own, since the set bonuses are extremely unlikely to ever come into play at all. It’s just another piece of random loot at that point.
That’s just… silly.
Of course, I do think that games need a bit of silly here and there to break up all the Serious Gaming Business, but game elements that are internally conflicted like this just set off my “wait, what’s the point?” alarms. It’s that clash and tension between leveling and collecting stuff for a narrow level band that bugs me.
So… how to do it better? Would item set pieces work better if they were extremely common rather than rare and special? Maybe give a real chance for the set to be collected in time for it to be useful? Maybe shift item sets from random loot drops to purchasable items? Enhance the purchasable set with upgrades from loot drops, to catch the best of both worlds? Maybe work like the “satchel loot” from WoW’s Dungeon Finder (guaranteed high quality gear for running dungeons… not really a “set”, but definitely themed and visually unified)? As in, you’re guaranteed a set item if you do certain tasks, and set items are paced properly to be useful for when you get them and a bit beyond?
What else could we do as designers?
And yes, I know that these sets are one more layer of addiction for the completionist and collection (pack rat) mentalities of players, but since there’s never really much of a payoff (considering pacing and obsoletion of item sets once fully collected), I’d argue that it’s not a very effective layer of addiction. (Of course, maybe that’s a good thing…)
It’s just that the randomness of the loot mechanic and the rarity of item sets, layered on top of the leveling system, well… it’s silly.