One of the most recent trends in shooter game design is the shoot and loot. A shoot and loot game is basically an adaptation of Diablo’s looting system applied to shooting games. Almost all of the guns players find have been randomly generated within the parameters of a level (as in RPG stat, not game world) and the player keeps looting weapons off of enemies to try and find the best gun that they can. This means the developers can fill their game with millions of guns without making every individual gun by hand. The trend started around 2009 when Borderlands was released and has gotten more popular in recent years with the release of Borderlands 2, Destiny and The Division. Even Bethesda has begun to catch on with Fallout 4 having randomised weapon mods and random effects on “legendary” weapons.
Initially I was amazed by the idea, Borderlands sounded like the game I really wanted, a game all about finding cool guns. I stuck with the idea long enough to beat Borderlands 1 and get roughly halfway through Borderlands 2, but I can say now that I’m thoroughly sick of the trend and the way it’s being executed.
Having cool and powerful guns in games is really fun. However motivation to continue playing a game is often driven not by having your desires completely fulfilled but by chasing something you desire. In games like Half-life and Bioshock the chase is in the player’s arsenal which grows over time and offers players more choices in what weapon they will use. Each weapon the player gets enhances the amount of fun the player is having, building up to a final weapon and a full arsenal. In some games they’ll pull the rug out from under the player, take away all of their guns and put them back into the chase which if abused could feel exploitative and annoying. Shoot and Loot games also have you chasing new guns but the guns you get don’t build up to an arsenal of options. Instead the drive for new guns comes entirely from the fact that your previous guns are getting worse relative to the amount of health your enemies have. The player doesn’t get anything new, they’re just trying to sustain what they had.
Like I said before a game that keeps dumping the player back to square one should feel annoying and exploitative, however shoot and loots thrive on it and people play them for hours so they must be doing something that most players aren’t noticing. In terms of difficulty and actual gameplay change the difference between guns is often pretty minimal. This is because shoot and loots have a high average time to kill and although the numbers might be big the difference between one gun and the next is often measured in milliseconds. I think what really drives the players isn’t the change in gameplay or the increasing numbers, I think it’s entirely in the game feel that the players get caught in. Most games balance their time to kill very consistently which means as a player gets better at the game they understand in a kind of rhythmic way how long it takes to kill a certain enemy with a certain weapon. In shoot and loot games there’s very little consistency to the time to kill. At the start of the game players get used to an enjoyable rhythm of play but slowly their weapons fall out of that rhythm. What players are told is that they’re searching for increasingly more powerful guns with bigger and bigger numbers but what they feel is that their guns are getting worse and when they find a new gun they’re really just returning to the rhythm they felt at the start.
Like I said in the beginning I was initially amazed by the concept of a shoot and loot because I love games with cool guns. Hell, at some points when playing these games I’ve enjoyed myself immensely, but more often than not the enjoyment is killed very quickly. For example, in borderlands 1 I found T.K’s Wave which fired a horizontal line of projectiles that would bob up and down. This weapon seemed really cool but it just didn’t cut it compared to the other guns that I had found and would soon find. This is the main reason I just can’t stand the way shoot and loots are made, their systems intentionally outdate a player’s guns undermining what I really want from the game and what I suspect most other players want, that being cool guns. If they focused the chase on finding weird new guns that worked differently the player would be searching not for straight up better guns, but guns that fit their play style better, or alternatively guns that just seem really silly and fun. If you look at our archive you’ll find Jake’s article on Shadow Warrior 2. I don’t think Shadow Warrior 2 was perfect but it succeeded in making most of the guns feel different and fit different purposes which is what I think shoot and loots should be about.
The search for cool guns rather than search for bigger numbers.