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Game Design In Theory

Loot and Shoot and Doot

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You’re doing looter shooters wrong.

I understand this is a big claim. A bold claim, even. But just about everyone who’s doing looter-shooters is doing it wrong.

This is partly related to something I brought up in another blogpost, so you may wanna read that one first, especially the bit about Minecraft Dungeons and how it handles gear churn. I’m not gonna go into details here because I already wrote about it.

So, let’s start with a question: What is the point of a looter-shooter, a Diablo-like, or any other game where your gameplay loop is all about finding cool shit?

It’s about finding cool shit, duh!

Like, I don’t know why this is so confusing. Looter-shooters are about loot. Loot-centric games are about loot, it’s in the name! But for some reason, developers seem to just…not understand what’s interesting about loot, half the time. Hell, they seem averse to giving the player effective tools for using that loot. This goes beyond the gear churn I described in Shake It Up–gear churn is desirable, but not being able to use gear at all is not.

Level Requirements Are Bad

It’s really frustrating to see so many games aping Destiny’s UI style, because they regularly miss the one really good thing about Destiny’s loot system: the fact that there are no level requirements, because your gear is your level.

Every piece of gear in Destiny and Destiny 2 has a number, and your character has a number, but your character’s number is the average of the numbers on all the gear you’re carrying, and there are no restrictions on when you can equip gear with higher numbers on. This means that, when you find more powerful gear, you can make use of it right away.

Contrast with Borderlands 3, which also has a big number on its gear telling you roughly how powerful the gear is–but Borderlands 3 also has level requirements. Get a drop with a higher level than yours? Guess you gotta grind more just to use the thing you just picked up–and during that grind, you’re probably gonna pick up a dozen more guns, at least one of which will have better numbers than the one you grabbed, so it’s like you never got that loot drop in the first place. Let me say that again, slowly: Because of the level requirement, this loot drop in a loot-centric game never actually mattered.

This is not a good thing. This is a bad thing.

Why Can’t I Carry All These Guns???

Inventory space is something that both Borderlands and Destiny get wrong, to varying degrees. Both of these franchises have long had limited inventory space–you have to pick and choose what you carry. Every so often, you’re forced to contend with the fact that Ye Can’t Get Ye Loot because your inventory’s full.

This would be interesting in a game where choosing what to carry is deep and interesting–I don’t mind at all that there’s limited inventory in games like Neverlooted Dungeon, because in Neverlooted Dungeon, each inventory slot can carry a spare weapon, a potion or food item, or even just a rock that I can throw on that suspicious-looking spot on the floor. In Neverlooted Dungeon, there’s multiple kinds of thing-I-want-to-carry, that serve entirely different purposes–I’m not looking for the biggest number, I’m asking the question “What do I think I’ll need?”

But Borderlands and Destiny are not that kind of game. You do have some of that question in Borderlands–maintaining a good spread of elemental effects in Borderlands, for example, or knowing that you’ve already got good guns but need a better shield drop.

But in Destiny 2, every single type of item has its own inventory, and all of them have extremely limited capacity–and for armor, you ONLY care about the bigger number, because everything else that armor does is handled with armor mods. (Note that I came into D2 after the armor reworks, so I can’t really say anything about the old mechanics). You’re never asking the question of which item to spend your limited inventory capacity on, because that question is not interesting; the answer is always “whatever has the biggest number”, followed possibly by “I really like this particular gun”. At this point, why even have an inventory limit at all?

No, seriously, why limit the player’s inventory? Half the problem I have with lategame Borderlands is that 90% of the reward from any given encounter is guns, and I physically cannot carry that many guns, even with backpack upgrades. Destiny hands out guns a lot less often, but there’s no particular mechanical importance to the fact that I can only carry 9 spare guns of each type. Destiny 2 sends the guns you can’t hold in inventory straight to your vault anyway! It’s not even really a limit, it’s just extra steps between picking up the gun and being able to equip it!

Wait, why do I even HAVE all these guns?

And that kind of leads into the thing that Borderlands is uniquely bad at, although Destiny has this problem as well: a lot of the loot is just not interesting or useful.

You know how 90% of the reward from lategame encounters in Borderlands is a giant pile of guns? Y’know how all of those guns are Common, Uncommon, and Rare? Y’know how, at that point, anything that isn’t Epic or Legendary is completely pointless because it never has any of the good affixes or stats?

This is the core thing that I think most looter-shooter game designs fail at: The reason players enjoy having loot in looter-shooters is not because they like seeing a pretty particle effect made of guns. It’s because players like making their character more powerful, and they like finding new build options and interactions. It’s a combination of Challenge, Planning, and Discovery: you find a new item, it fits perfectly into your build; you feel competent because you figured out that this item is good for your build; you realize that there’s another item that drops from a certain boss that would work PERFECTLY with this build; now you have a reason to go do more fighting and get more loot.

Loot matters to the looter-shooter gameplay loop, not because there’s an inherent dopamine hit to finding an item, but because you get a dopamine hit from finding an item and finding a way to use it. Nobody gets excited at seeing a fountain of white-rarity guns in Borderlands because nobody uses guns of that tier. Just about all the Borderlands games have a feature that lets you straight-up skip the earlygame–which is the only part of the game where a white-tier gun matters, because in the earlygame a blue drop is a godsend.

This is especially apparent in the lategame of looter-shooters that have unique effects that can be attached to items at random, or unique items that only drop from certain encounters. Much of your power scaling in a game with these kinds of capital-U Unique features comes from interactions between those unique features. There’s a sniper rifle in Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands called Ironsides, which I’m regularly able to use well past the point where it should be underleveled, because it has this cool feature where it fires a ricocheting cannonball that bounces straight up on headshots, which basically doubles the damage of any headshot I land with it. I don’t want an orange-tier sniper rifle that does 200 more damage than my Ironsides, I want more guns like Ironsides, and when I play Wonderlands, I basically ignore anything that doesn’t have one of those funny flavor text snippets on it.

So here’s where I’m going with this.

I’ve had a design idea in my back pocket for a while: a looter-shooter where the thing you loot isn’t guns.

Instead, you loot modifiers. Your character’s gun stays mostly the same–I’m thinking of doing Overwatch-esque unique characters with unique loadouts–but your reward for kicking ass and taking names is that you get mod canisters, which can contain one or more effects. Most of these effects would be like a unique effect in Borderlands, or a passive in League of Legends, or some kind of unique item mechanic in a roguelike–something that has some mechanical complexity beyond “numbers go up”.

Maybe your character’s got a bog-standard assault rifle. You might find a mod canister that makes dudes explode if you kill them with a headshot, so now you play really cautiously, firing short bursts and trying to line up headshot kills. Or maybe you find a different mod canister that gives you bonus damage every 5th shot, so then you start looking for a mod that refills your gun or extends its magazine, so you can get more procs of that bonus damage per mag. Maybe you find a mod that gives you a percentage chance to hit everyone nearby with chain lightning, and that works pretty good with your AR, but your shotgun fires enough pellets that it’s practically a guaranteed proc whenever you fire it. Maybe you find a mod that makes your next shot leave an AoE fire zone every 2 seconds, and you pass that off to a sniper character, who’s taking a second or two between shots because his gun has to charge up first.

This would borrow ideas from a couple different places. For example, I’m totally stealing the Blacksmith from Minecraft Dungeons–giving the player a way to upgrade their mod canisters, but only by putting them in storage for a little while. There’s a thing Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands does in its end-game roguelike mode, where most of your reward for clearing encounters is a currency you use to roll for new gear at the end, and I think that’s better than dumping a giant pile of gear on the player while they’re nowhere near a place they can sell junk to. There’s a wide variety of item effects in different roguelikes that I wanna borrow from, as well as concepts from various mobas that I want to fiddle with.

The ultimate goal of this design, though, would be to make a better looter-shooter. And I think the way to do that is to maximize the utility of loot the player finds. No more useless drops, no more level requirements–if you pick up an equipable item, it should either be immediately useful to you, or immediately useful to another character.

Update: 2023-04-20

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