I really enjoy games like Diablo. There’s something about running through dungeons, smashing waves of monsters, and picking up random garbage loot that really ignites my primal, gaming flames. Hell, I played Marvel Heroes some dozens of hours and was still just crushed when Disney pulled a Disney and shut the whole thing down in favor of awful mobile games. So as a fan of that specific style of game, you’d think I’d be over the moon with the current state of AAA games, which seem to be just full of Diablo-style loot mechanics. But, well, I’m not.
I’m actually kinds put off by it and the emerging ubiquity of it. Games like Destiny 2, Fortnite, Ni no Kuni II, and even God of War and Assassin’s Creed are all example of games with procedural loot systems, that I believe suffer for having them. That’s because in games like these, procedural loot is often not as well considered as it is in a game built entirely around it like Diablo. This causes all sorts of problems, with balance, pacing, and progress as a result.
A game like Diablo, a dungeon-crawler if you will, is all about making those numbers go up. You grind, grind, and grind some more, and then you fight bosses and hope they drop something good. That’s the whole thing; you level up, progress your skill tree, find randomized items that gradually make you more and more powerful until you can make your way through the story and subsequently higher difficulties. That, boiled down to its essence, is the whole game. Even today with Diablo III and its more streamlined systems, the loop still follows those rules. You know what you’re getting into, the game is balanced appropriately, and nothing feels off. I can’t say the same for some of these other games.
God of War is a great example. You can read my review for further context, but I’ll get into it a bit here. God of War is a huge, complex tornado of systems that smash into each other with different results. It’s an action game, it’s an RPG with skill trees, and the whole armor system is based on part procedural drops, part story-gated unlocks. It’s also a somewhat linear narrative game, but also kind of an open world. It’s all over the place, and most of it works pretty well. Except for the armor part, which really dragged me out of the experience at times. I wanted to go through the story at a sensible pace, but the game wanted me to go out and search for side quests, so I could scrape together enough money and crafting materials to make and upgrade new armor pieces. But unless I totally abandoned my main quest I had no hope of having enough, so while the game was constantly throwing junk at me or stuff I needed to find junk to use, I couldn’t play around with armor the way I could so often with the weapons and runes.
It’s a similar situation with Ni no Kuni II. That game is also an action RPG with all kinds of stuff happening and different, intersecting systems. Because each character has three weapon slots and tons of equipment options, you have to constantly stop to clean up your inventory. Enemies drop equipment all the time, and most of it is junk. It’s also hard to notice sometimes when you get something, because there’s so much action on the screen. Inevitably, I found myself sifting through menus, finding the highest numbers, then looking for a shop to sell off all the crap I would never use. Otherwise Ni no Kuni II is a pretty fast-paced game, so having everything screech to a halt at these times made me question the point of it being there other than ticking a box.
What about Destiny? That’s basically Diablo with guns, right? Sure, but it’s also Diablo with guns, and with loot boxes. It’s also so based on loot it’s practically drowning. There are limited skills, but the trees are tiny and filled out quickly. So the game itself is plagued with complaints about it being light on content, despite all the loot. That’s because so much of Destiny is dropping hours of your life into very little gains. The game’s core mechanics are super fun, but you usually go through a whole ordeal, just to end up with an engram or a chest that gives you a couple of points of a power boost. Since everything’s scaled to you level, it makes it even more of a slog.
I don’t hate procedural loot systems. In the right game, it’s a great system that works in tandem with the others to make your game feel like it’s constantly in motion. Diablo is the perfect example – you’re in a constant state of becoming more powerful, and the flow of loot is a part of that. It makes sense that this concept finds its way into other games, especially in the games as service arena. But making constant loot drops feel good is more of a challenge than it might seem on the surface. If a game’s other systems don’t play with the loot, there’s a risk of balance and pacing issues that can really bring a game down. Food for thought!