Start a conversation about Borderlands. Start a conversation about Destiny. Start a conversation about Diablo. What are you going to end up discussing more often than not? Dat loot. Who doesn’t love that feeling of gunning down an enemy and seeing something super-shiny and potentially valuable pop out of its lifeless corpse? Nobody. That’s who. But is this increasingly prevalent Skinnerian gameplay mechanic hurting the gaming experience more than it’s helping?
In-game reward systems have been something I’ve been struggling with for nearly as long as I’ve been gaming. Going all the way back to early RPG’s which combined the ability to use currency to purchase weapons for your characters with random drops and chests in dungeons. You could blow all of your hard-earned money from hours of grinding on a fancy new sword for your warrior and then immediately find a chest containing something better, making your purchase a gigantic waste.
As gaming has gone on to improve and mature in so many ways, this is one area that has failed to evolve with it. In fact, it has gotten progressively worse and now we may be reaching a breaking point. Games like Borderlands and Too Human throw so much loot at you that it becomes a massive distraction. With limited menu space and limitless items being chucked in your direction as you play the game you quickly have to begin sorting out what you want to use, what you want to sell, and what you need to discard to make room for more stuff to use or sell.
Deciding which weapon or armour you want to equip can be a titanic struggle in and of itself. There are typically several attributes, buffs, and sometimes bonuses for equipping certain items together where the player needs to decide which attributes they value over others to decide which way to go. This could take seconds or several minutes. And even if you take an hour calculating the best possible configuration of equipment to maximize your effectiveness, there are odds that the next enemy you kill will drop something so good that it will all but require you to equip it, meaning you no longer get the matching set bonus and potentially making the rest of your equipment no longer worth having. Back to square one.
Dragon Age II fixed this by scattering personalized upgrades for each secondary character across the game and players rebelled and demanded moar loot. Inquisition has sought to balance it out somewhat with an impressive focus on crafting and upgrading your own weapons, but it suffers from constant loot drops that clog up your inventory and make money all but worthless. Then there’s the fact that most of the good drops are unequippable for hour and hours thanks to maddening arbitrary level limitations (which no game should do, ever)coupled with very slow character leveling.
Then there’s the co-op factor. Some games subscribe to a first-come-first-serve rule on loot drops where it’s a race to claim each item, leading to a non-cooperative atmosphere in what is supposed to be a cooperative game. Others randomly assign loot, often giving members who may not even be able to use the item and may have only minimally contributed to the fight the spoils and leaving others in the cold. Destiny solved this problem somewhat by having different drops for each player, but it isn’t a game to bring up when idealizing loot mechanics.
Surely you’ve heard of Bungie’s now legendary Cave of Wonders, which was a low-level enemy spawn point where players could sit back and endlessly shoot the fodder, which would in turn drop stuff as good as any other enemies in the game since Destiny’s system doesn’t differentiate between the weakest and strongest foes in terms of loot. Well, until they patched it, a whole lot of players decided that instead of, you know, PLAYING THE GAME they’d just shoot into that hole in the ground to get the best equipment as fast as they could rather than obtain it via doing things that are fun.
This is probably the biggest single indicator that gamers’ ideas of what they want out of a gaming experience are changing in disturbing ways. Rather than exploring and achieving, we are becoming obsessed with immediate and constant positive reinforcement in the form of flashy (but usually useless) in-game rewards. I’m beginning to think that we may never get to a point where games are willing to make you really earn your rewards, lest gamers lose interest and move on almost immediately.
I actually found no small amount of satisfaction in working towards goals in Destiny; saving up and buying the legendary gear of my choosing instead of just going through motions and hoping for a random drop that suited both my playstyle and aesthetic desires. I’m glad Bungie left this option in, but I wonder if anyone else felt the same way when all I hear from other players is “lootlootlootloot”.
Diablo 3 ran into problems when gamers found out that the best way to get good gear was not playing the game, but in paying for it in its notorious Auction House, where real money could be traded for fictional goods. Naturally, this was exploited to the point where there was no practical reason to grind when you could buy for a few bucks what could take you dozens of hours to attain in-game.
In multiplayer gaming, nobody wants to be caught with underpowered gear. In PvP or co-op, you want to bring your A game without being held back by weak stats, and when a game’s culture starts to revolve around exploiting gameplay mechanics or auction/trade systems to attain the strongest equipment, then something is wrong.
Why should we be happy hoping for random drops? And is anybody pleased with a game that all but requires you to pay real money for the gear to compete? Is any of this potentially more rewarding than saving up for something that is perfect for you in-game and then buying it and knowing that you’re not going to get its like from the next chest you run across or enemy you kill?
I, for one, would love to see more gameplay rewards based on achievement and dedication rather than random loot mechanics. A focus on branching upgrades for equipment (something Destiny flirts with) instead of having the player constantly changing gear and perpetually seeking something better would put a lot more focus on the gameplay and exploration instead of hunting for exploits and really invest players into putting more thought into what they want out of their gear instead of just letting whatever random drop is the strongest rule their world. If nothing else, it’d be something different.