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 could never have imagined on my own. I don’t play video games to spend hours sifting through garbage. If I wanted to put my hands in piles of rotting rubbish to rummage around for anything of value, I’d go to the dump and lose my mind in sheer ecstasy. But – and I don’t think this is a particularly popular activity – picking up garbage sucks, Actually. I don’t want to do it. So why do so many video games think I’m some sort of garbage-loving freak?
There was a time, not too long ago, when I felt I could safely identify a “loot game” from a distance. If not really a genre, loot games have mostly been a subset of RPGs that use a constant trickle 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 defining feature of MMOs like World of Warcraft. It’s an obvious combination: MMOs want players to stick around for hundreds or thousands of hours anyway, so why not give them a steady stream of rewards to sell, with the occasional thrill of a truly awesome item drop?
Then Borderlands happened, translating an idea that had mostly existed in fantasy RPGs into first-person shooters. I loved it at the time: It was exciting to open a chest and find a shotgun that fired 27 flaming bullets at once or whatever. But if I could go back in time and kill baby Borderlands in the crib for the slim chance of sending today’s big-budget games to another timeline, I think I could do it.
Loot systems have contaminated and weighed down so much of today’s shooters and action games with useless junk. God of War and Gotham Knights certainly didn’t begin development with the shared power fantasy of a sultry sanitation worker. But here we are.
The sin of meaningless statistics
In 2021, we spoke to a range of game developers for an article titled Why Bad Items Must Exist in Games. For the most part, the items we highlight fit into a few categories. There are bad items that add an interesting and memorable variation to a game: “Long past the point where it was a liability, I wore [Morrowind’s] stupid Colovian Fur Helm because I started to think it was funny slaying ghosts and monsters while wearing a conical nipple shield,” Jody wrote. Then there are bad items that just serve as a useful point of reference for better items. In Borderlands 2, For example, picking up a named weapon makes it stand out and stand out from the sea of mostly crappy, randomly generated pistols and SMGs. It’s this last form of loot that far too many games are now abusing.
Here’s just a short list of games from recent years that have copied Diablo-esque color-coded 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 by Team Ninja
- Horizon Zero Dawn and Forbidden West
- God of war
- Dying Light 2
- Marvel’s Avengers
- Escape from Tarkov
- Hogwarts legacy
Perhaps I was being overly harsh in blaming Borderlands for this loot-obsessed design mush, as Bungie’s Destiny 2 and its Gear Score probably deserve more of the blame. As our Robin Valentine recently wrote of the negative reception to the forthcoming Suicide Squad, “The standard approach to games like this is to chase the Destiny model – a slow treadmill of progression based on ever-improving weapons and accessories. […] That’s just not the superhero fantasy. When they increase in power, it’s by leaps and bounds, not 3% better armor penetration.”
Nearly every game above is guilty of the sin of meaningless stats: equipment with tiny bumps to numbers that we’ll never observe while playing. They are a little hand trick. This kind of loot dangles a reward for you with a little dopamine hit of incrementally “better gear” thrown in, and if it feeds you that constantly, you might not notice that the numbers mean jack shit most of the time.
RPGs are guilty of this too, of course, but there’s a design history that can justify a proliferation of loot. In older, often harder RPGs, the difference of a few defense points between a leather jerkin and a steel cuirass can be significant. In turn-based games, the methodical process of equipping your party with the best gear you can find and pay for is key to both strategy and taste, because the game’s power fantasy harks back to forming a D&D adventure party. In Diablo, the idea is to run through the game so many times that the loot has to scale up exponentially. You’re also just, like, many clicksand loot effects can help fill the interactivity gaps other games already have with more nuanced verbs like “point a gun” and “button combinations.”
Loot feels so patently out of place in God of War, because it’s not a game you play over and over, or impressive enough to completely turn your strategy on its head, or be the core of a warrior god’s power fantasy. It feels out of place in action games like Nioh, as the depth should come from combat execution, not fringe gear improvements.
In triple-A design, loot is now the pink slime of game mechanics: some filler you spray between the flesh to make sure no one finds an opening. The result is a smoothed-out homogeneity that dilutes their unique strengths.
Layered loot often makes games more boring, samey or unnecessarily padded; but what really bothers me is the boredom.
If there’s a game with worse loot than Final Fantasy Origin: Stranger of Paradise, I’ve never seen it. Every enemy drops loot; you can easily pick up a hundred pieces in a single 20 minute mission. The vast majority of them are insignificant white or green rarity gear that you’ll never use, and there’s so much of it that the developers have a whole additional system for automatically clearing the items you pick up. The sad thing is, among that loot is Stranger of Paradise a shockingly fun action RPG that takes jobs and skills from all over the Final Fantasy series.
People would be raving about this combat system if Stranger of Paradise hadn’t been immediately memorized.
Other recent action games from Team Ninja, such as Nioh and Wo Long, have also been showered with endless loot. I haven’t seen a single player praise these systems, yet for some reason they persist. How did sucking up endless junk loot become standard? Sure, players like little treats for killing enemies, but once we understand that every item we pick up will just be the same junk with slightly different stats, we’re going to mentally write everything off under the highest rarity.
A poorly implemented Diablo loot system just becomes background noise; an irritant to filter out when we should be having fun. Why do we endure pausing to clear our maximum inventory in genres that once let us just play?
In the old God of War games from the 2000s, and in action contemporaries like Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden, you would earn a few new weapon types throughout the game. Each acquisition was a key moment, offering an entirely new playstyle and often new combos to unlock to further enhance each weapon. It was amazing!
This is not an outdated design. It’s a confident design. It’s how you build an action game that says “go fuck it” instead of, I don’t know, “become the god of chores.” Building variety in loot-based games is cool – I like that you can customize Kratos’ ax to steal lives or poison enemies – but throw in farming crafting components, upgrade gear, and luck and cool down stats and you’ve got the action right drowned out in hyper-atomized boredom.
Do battles in battle royales like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Call of Duty Warzone really benefit from the minutes spent sifting through containers full of common weapon drops in hopes of finding a rare one? Apex’s strength is its movement and gunfights; Fortnite’s is the ever-changing variety of skills and activities. Both could survive or even thrive without differentiated loot. Call of Duty Warzone’s seems even less important given that players rejected ground loot, pushing the developers to prioritize their unique loadouts instead.
Loot rarity has become such a common language in modern games that I wonder if it’s ever the best solution, or just an easy shortcut. At least the rare game like extraction shooter Escape From Tarkov does something to make loot feel really valuable – you can permanently lose your hard-earned Legend to another player who knocks you out. But most of the time, loot just causes the sameness of games that might otherwise reach for their own identities. Ubiquitous does not always mean good. Even 50 Cent has to take out the trash sometimes, but that doesn’t mean he likes it.