Of all the systems in any RPG, items/loot/gear (whatever you want to call it) are often representations of character progression and development. In D&D, it was using that normal sword, then getting a masterwork version, then getting a Sword +1, then the almighty Vorpal Sword of Death +12 (aka the HACKMASTER). Conversely, White Wolf fairly much ignored items, developing really only normal quality items and ignoring the rest. Klaives and glaives, magically enchanted items and such DO exist and are extraordinarily rare (a facet that, as I write this, I realize they did a wonderful job on). In visual based media, Warcraft continues their ever long progression into anime/physically impossible for any one person to actually wear this trend (I submit the following as evidence: Firadin). Other games such as Rift, D&D’s upcoming Daggerdale, and even to an extent Dragon Age II have done little to buck this trend of gear representing the character’s progression. On the other hand, games like God of War, Legend of Zelda, and otherwise have it in a better place: the item as a tool. They however lack the interactivity with the item, either choosing a static use or a scaling increase of power as the character grows.
What’s Wrong With Items These Days?
Basically, according to sources around the blogosphere and opinions of other gamers, it’s the fact that gear progression as representation of character progression occurs. Conversely, there are plenty of people around the web, playing these games, or writing about them that feel this is perfectly fine. It’s not a cut and dry issue; rather, a matter of personal preference and Pavlovian conditioning (Eh. It’s a blue. SWEET A PURP WITH TWO MORE SPIRIT WAHOOOOOOOO). It seems that overall the designers have forgotten the purpose of the items they develop: that they are tools! People do not replace tools lightly, as it is expensive and a resource sink.
Furthering this disconnect between the item as a tool and the item as a representation of character progression, the player base, in effort to quantify their relative power levels, uses this as a means of comparison between their own characters and that of the other players. It incentivizes the end-game of raiding games, the continual playing and dungeon delving of persistent campaigns through the gathering of weaponry and armor. In essence, the developers design a game built upon the Cold War idea of the “Arms’ Race.” If the bad guy has a Vorpal Sword +5, the player wants a Vorpal Sword +6 to fight him. If Priest Player X has the wand off Random WoW boss in Random WoW raid, then Player Y wants the heroic version to be “better.”
Whatever has happened to the idea of the One Ring? Or, the Spear of Destiny? Or Mjoelnir? The list goes on and on about specific tools that inherently are epic because of their magical and normal qualities and the wielder’s ability with them. Legend of Zelda reflects this idea, as does Werewolf, in the idea of the weapon or armor being a specifically named object, with a specific set of amazing qualities that define it (see: The Mirror Shield, the Master Sword, the Klaive of the Sacred Heart, &c). In games where the point is to go from level 1 (think zones) to the end, or where character development through roleplay and mechanics are of the utmost importance, the utility of items are reduced to their barest quality: a tool. Something one puts away and uses in specific situations in which they are absolutely necessary. This does not however offer much interactivity with the item, rather than applying its use. Yet, for the most part, this is fine.
Wait; So What’s the Point?
Honestly, I don’t know if there is one aside to say that the development of items and gear seems to be a matter or function of focus. As stated earlier, in games where the end-game or further challenges continually grow ever stronger, gear seems to need to be the focus of character progression. In games that focus on the player, items seem to be just a tool. As I continue the development of the Cultura Roleplaying System, I hope to focus on the idea of the item as a tool while still yet offering a level of interactivity so that the player may determine specific facets of that item (from its weight to Skill Bonuses and so on).
In sum, there are a lot of different philosophies that can go into developing the way that items are looked at in your game. Finding what’s right for you seems to be exactly the point.