I play video games for many reasons: to flood my brain with dopamine from intense action, to hang out with my friends on Discord, to explore imaginary worlds I would never have thought of on my own. I don’t play video games to spend hours digging through garbage. If I wanted to shove my hands into piles of rotting garbage to find something of value, I’d go to a landfill and lose my mind in pure ecstasy. But – and I don’t think it’s particularly fashionable – garbage collection it sucks, Actually. I do not want to do it. So why do so many video games consider me some kind of trash-loving little freak?
There was a time, not too long ago, when I felt I could safely identify a “loot game” from a distance. If not quite a genre, loot games have tended to be a subset of role-playing games that use the constant feeding of new gear as bait and a key element of combat. Diablo gave us color-coded loot, and a few years later it became a hallmark of MMOs like World of Warcraft. It’s an obvious connection: MMOs want players to stick with the game for hundreds or thousands of hours anyway, so why not give them a steady stream of prizes to sell, with the occasional thrill of dropping some really great items?
Then Borderlands happened, translating an idea that existed mostly in fantasy RPGs into first-person shooters. I loved it at the time: it was exciting to open a case and find a shotgun that fired 27 flaming pellets at a time, or whatever. But if I could go back in time and kill a little Borderlands in a crib for a slim chance of sending today’s big-budget games into an alternate timeline, I think I could do it.
Loot systems have invaded so many of today’s shooters and action games, burdening them with useless garbage. Certainly God of War and Gotham Knights didn’t begin development with fantasies of a crazed sanitation worker’s shared power. But here we are.
The sin of meaningless statistics
In 2021, we spoke to many game developers about an article titled Why there must be bad elements in games. Most of the items we highlight fall into several categories. There are bad items that add interesting and memorable variety to the game: [Morrowind’s] stupid Colovian fur helmet because I started to think it was fun to defeat ghosts and monsters while wearing a conical pacifier,” Jody wrote. There are also bad items that just serve as a useful reference point for better items. In Borderlands 2 for example, when you pick up a named weapon, it grabs your attention, standing out from the sea in mostly crappy, randomly generated pistols and submachine guns.
Here’s a short list of games from the past few years that have copied Diablo’s colorful loot:
- Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
- Ghost Recon breakpoint
- Fortnite, Apex Legends and Call of Duty: Warzone
- Gotham Knights and soon Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League
- Nioh, Nioh 2, Final Fantasy Origin: Stranger of Paradise and Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty from Team Ninja
- Horizon Zero Dawn and the Forbidden West
- God of War
- dying light 2
- Marvel’s Avengers
- Escape from Tarkov
- Hogwarts Legacy
Perhaps I was too harsh in blaming Borderlands for this loot obsession, as Bungie’s Destiny 2 and its Gear Score probably deserve more blame. As our Robin Valentine recently wrote about the negative reception to the upcoming Suicide Squad: “The default approach in games like this is to chase the Destiny model – a slow treadmill of progression based on better and better weapons and accessories. […] It’s just not a superhero fantasy. When they get stronger, it’s in giant leaps, not 3% better armor penetration.
Almost every game above is guilty of the sin of nonsensical stats: hardware with little hits to the numbers that we’ll never notice while playing. It’s a light hand trick. This kind of loot hangs in front of you as a reward with a slight dopamine hit of progressively “better gear” inside, and if it keeps feeding you, you might not notice that the numbers mostly mean shit.
Of course, RPGs are to blame too, but there’s a design history there that might justify the loot spread. In older, often more difficult RPGs, the difference of a few points of defense between a leather jerkin and a steel cuirass could be stark. In turn-based games, the methodical process of equipping your team with the best equipment you can find and afford is key to both strategy and taste, because the power fantasy in the game alludes to the formation of a group of adventurers in D&D. In Diablo, you have to loop the game so many times that the loot must grow exponentially. You are also just click a lotand loot effects can help fill in the gaps in interactivity that other games already have, with more complex verbs like “gun aiming” and “button combinations”.
Loot seems so blatantly out of place with God of War because it’s not a game you play over and over again, or impactful enough to completely overturn your strategy, or core fantasy of being a god warrior. This seems out of place in an action game like Nioh, as depth should come from combat executions, not marginal gear upgrades.
In the triple-A design, the loot is now the pink slime of the game mechanic: a bit of filler that you inject between the meat to make sure no one finds a gap. The result is a smoothed uniformity that dilutes their unique qualities.
Multi-tiered loot often makes games boring, the same, or unnecessarily improved; but what really worries me is… boredom.
If there’s a game with worse loot than Final Fantasy Origin: Stranger of Paradise, I’ve never seen it. Each enemy drops loot; you can easily collect a hundred items in one 20 minute mission. The vast majority are irrelevant white or green rare gear that you’ll never use, and there’s so much of it that developers have built A whole extra system to automatically remove items you pick up. The sad part is that underneath that loot, Stranger of Paradise is a shockingly fun action RPG that pulls quests and abilities from across the Final Fantasy series.
People would rave about this combat system if Stranger of Paradise wasn’t immediately killed off with a meme.
Other recent Team Ninja action games like Nioh and Wo Long are similarly overloaded with endless loot. I haven’t seen a single player praise these systems, and yet for some reason they remain. How did dusting endless junk loot become standard? Sure, players like little tidbits for killing enemies, but as soon as we realize that every item we pick up will just be the same shit with slightly different stats, we’ll mentally write off anything below top tier rarity.
Diablo’s poorly implemented loot system becomes just background noise; annoying to filter out when we should be having fun. Why do we take pauses to clear our depleted stocks in genres that used to just let us play?
In old God of War games from the 2000s and modern action games like Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden, several new weapons could be acquired during the course of the game. Each acquisition was a major moment, offering a whole new playstyle and often new combos to unlock to further upgrade each weapon. It was fun!
This is not an outdated design. It’s a sure project. That’s how you build an action game that says “go bust shit” instead of, I don’t know, “become a god of duty.” Building variety in loot-based games is fun – I understand you can customize Kratos’ ax to steal life or poison enemies – but throw in components for farming, gear upgrades, and luck and cooldown stats and the action successfully sinks into hyper- atomized boredom.
Do fights in Battle Royale games like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Call of Duty Warzone really benefit from minutes spent sifting through bins full of common weapon drops in hopes of rarity? Apex’s strength lies in its movement and gunplay; Fortnite is an ever-changing variety of skills and activities. Both could survive and even thrive without layered loot. Call of Duty Warzone seems even less significant considering players have turned down ground loot and forced developers to prioritize their unique loadouts.
Loot scarcity has become such a common parlance in modern gaming that I wonder if it’s ever the best solution or just an easy shortcut. At least a rare game like extraction shooter Escape From Tarkov makes the loot feel really valuable – you can permanently lose your hard-earned legend to another player who takes you. But most of the time loot just unifies games that might otherwise be reaching for their own identities. Ubiquitous doesn’t always mean good. Even 50 Cent has to take out the garbage sometimes, but that doesn’t mean he enjoys it.