Lootin’ and shootin’. We’ve all loved it since Borderlands smooshed the two together like french fries in soft serve, and it’s hard to remember a time before all guns had a random assortment of stats and perks. I’ve largely been supportive of this as both a huge RPG and FPS fan, but after pouring countless hours into a variety of these games (mainly Destiny) I’ve noticed some issues with turning guns into loot. I’m hesitant to call them inherent incompatibilities between the genres, because obviously there’s a huge amount of fun to be had here, but I do think there needs to be some evolution to stop the genre stagnating.
Here’s the golden rule for loot games in general; the diversity of your loot is proportional to the depth of the game. If there’s no gameplay or design depth, you can’t have an interesting loot system. Path of Exile is one of the best examples of this, to the point it’s intimidating for a lot of people, including me. The game is designed from the top down for choice. You’re free to sculpt and tweak your build in countless ways, using the multitude of skills both passive and active available to you. The loot feeds into this; so many items are powerful and interesting contextually, and how you acquire them also varies greatly, from the gameplay systems they add with every update, to their unique currency system. Add to this the ability for the developers to add new skills and tweak old ones, potentially spawning completely new build with loot to support them. All of this leads to a game with very rewarding loot.
One of the crucial differences between these different types of loot games is the fact your character’s playstyle in a typical ARPG or MMO is defined by the skills your class or build has. Weapons are nothing more than stat sticks; your lvl 1 axe swings exactly the same as your endgame legendary one. It’s the skills and archetype of your class that gives gameplay variety, and these are modified independently from loot. Guns in a looter shooter aren’t the same, because they are simultaneously your loot and primary gameplay tool. Guns feel different to shoot, and player preference comes into play. There’s nothing more frustrating than being forced to use guns just because they’re a statistical upgrade, even if you hate the weapon type and find it unsatisfying.
Of course this can work in your favour, and create some truly memorable items. I still remember the first legendary weapon I got in the original Destiny. It was an assault rifle that rolled with two perks that sped up reloads to ridiculous levels when combined, and felt truly special when I used it. But this also creates its own issue; no one wants to lose their loot. I’ve seen countless debates across the internet regarding when Bungie should force players to leave their favourite weapons behind and grind for something new. There are good arguments on each side; why should I arbitrarily be forced to give up my god rolled 110 rpm handcannon, just to grind for the exact same gun stat-wise with a new skin? On the other hand, it’s a freakin’ MMO style loot game and getting new loot is kinda the point. The problem is how do you make new loot inciting without power creeping the game into oblivion?
This is the framework you need to analyse loot under. Keep in mind I’m not advocating for even a fraction of Path of Exile’s complexity to be added to something like Destiny, but it’s simply a fact that mechanical complexity is always going to be limited by being a shooter. At the end of the day, gameplay will always boil down to aiming a gun at an enemy and pressing the trigger, and loot will always exist to make that loop as efficient as possible. This limits the parameters to which loot can modify the player experience. Ask any longtime Destiny player what two perks are quintessential to the game and they’ll tell you outlaw and kill clip. These two perks work together in unison to create a killing machine, outlaw massively increases reload speed on a headshot kill, and kill clip gives you bonus damage after said reload. It’s not flashy, but on any primary gun designed to take down the basic baddies it just works. There are plenty of other perks in the game but not a lot matches the raw efficiency of this combo when tackling pve content, and it’s telling that it’s basically been a mainstay since day one.
It makes sense that these basic stats of the guns are the ones most sought after to capitalise on, because again the nature of FPS weapons limits design. Crit chance is based on headshots not a statistic, attack speed or rate of fire is balanced between different weapon classes to stop archetypes becoming overpowered, and AI enemies aren’t nimble enough for accuracy to be of huge importance. Even more stat based game like The Division 2 still boil down to min maxing damage from your weapons, with limited options to make builds with your other skills. Some of the best loot in ARPGs will completely change how you play the game, giving a lot of variety to how you play (the gear sets in Diablo 3 come to mind.) The guns are always going to be the star of the show, and that leaves the space for interesting RPG elements limited.
This is probably an unpopular opinion but I’m just going to come out and say it, they should experiment with adding tanking and support roles to the game. Before the pitchforks come out, I don’t mean a carbon copy of the holy trinity you see in MMO’s, but rather just smaller lanes you can customise your character down that add utility to the group. Destiny has already proven it’s willing to explore this space, Lumina, one of the latest exotic hand cannons dropped into the game has a healing component to it. They’ve also been really talking up being an action MMO going forward, and the more they can do to explore the spaces around ‘point the best gun at the bad guy,’ the more scope they’ll have for meaningful ways to customise your play style.
A lot of this critique of the looter shooter mechanics may make it sound like I hate these games or think they’re too simplistic, but that’s not the case. I completely recognise that part of the reason for their popularity is the approachable nature of recognisable FPS mechanics mixed with light RPG elements, and Destiny over the years has let me get my MMO fix without needing to commit my life to it. I simply think it’s time to push the boat out a bit on what the genre can achieve, and what it asks of players.