Saturday, March 16, 2019

More Than Shooters, More Than Looters

I am not now, nor will I ever be, an Anthem player. All the same, I seem to know quite a lot about it. For one thing, I know it's a "Looter Shooter", a term I don't ever recall seeing until last week.

The name itself may be relatively new but the looter shooter genre (sub-genre, whatever) claims a history stretching all the way back to the 1970s. It also seems to encompass a staggering range of games, most which, on the face of it, have little in common.

The PC Gamer article from last summer (linked above) traces the origins as far back as Dungeons and Dragons' random loot tables, which sounds a bit like tracing the origins of cyberpunk back to Caxton's introduction of the printing press. Still, it's an intriguing timeline that goes some way towards explaining, or at least illuminating, a few anomalous entries in the MMORPG catalog.

I always thought there was something off about including Hellgate: London, Tabula Rasa, Defiance and even Warframe, the only one I've actually played, in the core genre. That's indicative. Even though I sometimes trawl the web for new MMORPGs to try, and even though some of these games arrived when the field was considerably less crowded than it is now, most of them never appealed to me. I was never really sure what they were.

It was always clear, even from the few crumbs of detail I was able to scavenge back then, that neither Hellgate: London nor Tabula Rasa was likely to play much like the MMOs I enjoyed. There seemed to be altogether too much desperate running and shooting and nowhere near enough pottering around pleasant countryside performing trivial tasks for locals too lazy or inept to manage for themselves.

By the time Defiance arrived I was somewhat more inured to the idea of roaming the wasteland, ever alert for the whoomp of an inter-dimensional portal that would herald the imminent incursion of death from above. Rift pretty much turned the key in that lock for me.

Even so, I never really connected the dots between those distinctly low-key entries to the MMO genre and the more recent surge of big names like the Destiny and Division franchises. As for linking any of them to the Diablo series or Borderlands...

Diablo, of course, is another game I've never played in any of its incarnations, although sometimes it's hard to remember that, so very much have I read about it over the years. And, anyway, I always thought of Diablo and its ilk (Path of Exile, Torchlight), as "ARPGs" not "looter shooters".

ARPG is another slippery term. I first encountered it when I bought Dungeon Siege back in 2002. By that time I'd already been playing MMORPGs for several years but I was still interested in some kind of offline alternative as backup for those occasions when my Internet connection was having issues. It's hard to believe now, but back around the turn of the millennium some ISPs considered a day or two to be a very reasonable response to a hardware failure in their system.

Dungeon Siege was a big disappointment. It looked fantastic and it was as slick as butter but I found it utterly pointless. Who wants to run from place to place, mowing down hundreds of enemies, stacking your bags with junk and then sorting through it for the good stuff? Not me. It seemed like the dullest kind of busy-work. Still does.

So much so, in fact, that when I ran into what felt like a similar always-on loot fountain at the start of EverQuest II's Rise of Kunark expansion in 2007 I walked away in disgust. I ran all the way back to the low-loot safety of EverQuest, where I stayed for six months until the taint of too much, too fast faded.

Ever since then I've been extremely wary of anything calling itself an "ARPG". Not that it's always been easy to sift out the suspects. The waters have been muddied by the adoption of the acronym to describe games that use the mouse for combat, like DCUO, Neverwinter Online or Black Desert. Technically, I believe, we should be using the acronym ACRPG (Action Combat Role Playing Game) for those but no-one ever does.

It would, then, be quite useful if the term "looter shooter" replaced ARG for those games whose primary purpose is to kill vast numbers of enemies for vast piles of loot. I would safely be able to put all of those to one side and forget about them, leaving me to concentrate on trying to work out which mouse-mode ARPGs deserve a closer look.

Given my well-established predilection for inventory management it is, perhaps, somewhat surprising that I don't like loot fountain games more than I do. Or, indeed, at all. I'm not entirely sure why it is. There are probably a number of reasons. The foremost, however, is undoubtedly that I find such games silly.

For any form of entertainment there's a point beyond which it becomes impossible to continue to suspend disbelief. Once that point is passed there's really no return. If you're watching a movie or reading a novel and you find yourself thinking "Well, that would never happen..." you might as well give up.

In video games most things that happen would never happen so the bar is set slightly differently. For me, when it doesn't make any real difference what I kill because everything drops everything all the time, well that would never happen...

About the only MMORPG - well, kind of - that used something like this mechanic and got away with it was the original Guild Wars. There was (still is, I guess) an awful lot of loot in that game, all of it color-coded, most of it non-specific to the mobs that dropped it. I didn't like it but it wasn't quite annoying enough to ruin the rest of the game, most of which I did like. Sometimes it came close, though.

Guild Wars 2 has followed that path, somewhat. The sheer quantity of items that drop there these days is staggering. It's also a frequent source of complaint. For a long while it didn't really bother me too much, mostly because GW2 also has a decent range of options for disposing of the detritus quickly and painlessly - auto-loot, auto-banking, mass salvage...

It does seem to be getting worse, though. I am starting to find even the parts I used to enjoy, like opening all the little boxes and bags that drop to see what's inside, irritating. Once again, it's nowhere in itself enough to make me stop playing but add it to the game's other ongoing longueurs and things mount up. I've reached the stage where even one more minor annoyance makes me feel like playing something else instead.

The other major thing I have against ARPGs or Looter Shooters or whatever we're going to call them, something to which I alluded earlier, is the way the mechanic emphasizes the sheer pointlessness of the whole endeavor. Video games are pointless enough to begin with, without having that meaninglessness repeatedly driven home by a never-ending shower of stuff, almost none of which you want or need.

For me it turns the entire process into the fantasy equivalent of sorting your garbage for re-cycling. And yes, I do understand that that's ironic given, as I said, my love of inventory management. It's not for nothing I chose Emerson's oft-misquoted line "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" as my personal motto. Some inventory management is fun and some isn't. It's important to know the difference.

The upshot of all this is that it really makes no nevermind to me whether BioWare sort out their loot tables or not. No doubt they will, eventually, although whether anyone will be left to care by then is probably the bigger question. Meanwhile it's moderately entertaining, watching them flail and fail.

The real concern from my perspective isn't so much whether any of the particular Looter Shooters gets its looting or its shooting right. No, it's more how that success might cast a longer shadow across the wider genre.

With both EQ and EQII opening retro-servers today that at least pay lip service to returning to the values of the past, I'm kind of looking forward to a return to the days of camping specific mobs for specific drops. I always liked doing that.

Looking ahead, I think limited loot is going to feature quite high on my tick list of features that make an MMORPG worth trying. Assuming we get ever any new MMOs that look worth trying in the first place...


  1. Conversely I love ARPGs and their ilk. On reflection though, ironically, the loot is my least favourite thing about them. A lot of people seem to view the deluge of loot as the main appeal, but I can't imagine relating to a game in such a shallow way.

    I just hate loot as a mechanic in general, though. At least in ARPGs, it tends to be more rewarding than in MMORPGs. You spend hours grinding for loot, but you get lots of incremental upgrades on the way, and there's a chance of finding items that alter or enhance your character in exciting and dramatic ways. In MMOs, you spend hours grinding for loot, probably don't get anything useful at all except maybe once a week if you're lucky, and even when you do get something useful it's just a meaningless numbers boost that offers no excitement at all. And if you aren't lucky with drops, enjoying being locked out of the story altogether!

    If I had my way, item drops would be very rare, and serve only as an element of character customization. One sword might boost haste, and another crit, but they're roughly even in power, and which one you prefer depends on your build. That's my ideal.

    Anyway, getting back to ARPGs, it's the gameplay and not the loot that appeals to me. I love how fast-paced and visceral the combat tends to be. Some of them also have pretty good stories.

    I could also say something about how overblown the furor over Anthem's loot is, and how the game is actually pretty excellent, but that's a topic for another day.

    1. I don't recognize much of that from my experience of either ARPGs or MMORPGs. Not that I really have any experience of the former - I quit right at the start because the whole thing seemed so ridiculous and not fun. On MMORPGs, though, I generally find the loot is meaningful and the drop rate there or thereabouts satisfying.

      Take EQ2, for example: leveling up from 1 to 100 there's a constant feed of good upgrades, many of which make a substantive difference. The main problem there, as with many MMOs, is that over time the speed of leveling has accelerated to the point that it's often difficult to appreciate the upgrades before they are in turn upgraded. That's not a flaw in the original design, though, just in the way the power curve operates in an aging game. One of the main appeals of Progression Servers is the way they bring back the concept of the meaningful upgrade.

      Your ideal item drop system sounds remarkably close to how loot worked in original EQ. When people talk about the long camps back then, the reason they were willing to spend hours, days or even weeks of their lives sitting in one spot waiting was that when the mob finally a) spwaned and b) dropped the item (neither always either certain or even predictable), taking possession of that item would significantly change gameplay. EQ used to run on the concept of game-changing items that were very rare or time-consuming to obtain but over time that became perceived as one of the game's (and the genre's) weak spots, which is how we go to where we are now. Personally I think there's a sweet spot somewhere between the two extremes.

      As for story, I literally cannot remember ever playing through any storyline in any online multiplayer game that came up even to the standard of a very run-of-the-mill genre novel. Mostly the quality doesn't even begin to approach that level. For comparison, I'm currently working my way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Amazon Prime; I just got to Season 5. Buffy is a genre fantasy tv show aimed at a young adult audience and broadcast on primetime network tv - a low bar by any standards - but compared to most video games I've ever played - on or offline - the narrative, dialog and acting might as well be Shakespeare at the RSC! It's not that I wouldn't love my video games to tell stories that good, that well, but so far they just don't. Maybe that will change eventually but it's been a very long wait so far...

  2. Tons of loot dropping in games like Diablo, for example, is all about positive reinforcement. Some people need/want positive reinforcement quickly. So in games where a lot of loot drops, they get a lot of positive reinforcement for doing the same things over and over (which keeps them playing for a while).

    1. It's an interesting psychological point. Clearly you're right or the games wouldn't be as successful as they are. It has precisely the opposite effect on me though, negatively re-inforcing some underlying doubt I must have about whether I should be spending my time playing the game at all.

    2. I'm the same way. I did enjoy playing Diablo 3, but it quickly became repetitive and I felt like I was wasting my life.

  3. The measure of a 'good' loot system in both the ARPG and the Looter-Shooter sub-genre isn't just the rate of loot drops, rather that is a contributing factor toward the actual measure:

    To what extent can I create/supplement new playstyles through the loot on offer.

    The most basic (and yet still very powerful, when done right) implementation of this is through Set Gear. Being able to mix and match different levels of different sets (6-piece bonus of one, 2-piece of another, or 4 and 4, etc) helps.

    But then mixed into this is ideally other one-off effects and even just interesting basic stat and gearing options besides.

    In essence, not just hunting down the singular 'BiS' options we frequently see for a given spec in the MMO space, but rather designing a gameplay idea and then chasing it down.

    It is that chase and being able to experiment the interplay between the gearing and the skills that provides the longevity.

    And it is also here that the rate of loot becomes an interesting function of the game. Too low and chasing down a singular given build or playstyle idea becomes an exercise in futility and frustration.

    After you get here, then it becomes about optimisation and being all you can be through the gear and stat options you have.

    Anthem is an interesting case here though, as it simply does not have the item diversity required to support the first type of fun in play I talked to. The loot chase solely revolves around the second aspect - optimisation.

    Same issues around rate of loot exist here, but with a whole missing layer, there isn't any sort of 'bonus' win available in starting a gear set for a second style of play that you might be interested in playing later.

    It's either better, or it isn't. And most of the time it isn't. And that isn't very fun for long, especially if the rate of loot is low.


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