Whether you’re stringing combos together in a hack and slash, clearing a dungeon in an RPG, or your ammo is hitting the red-zone in an FPS, one thing is certain: you want more stuff. You don’t care if you have two hundred of the consumable that you’ve only used twice; you can always use six more—which is, in my book, more than enough reason to break every barrel in sight. Then again, should you? Why spend time destroying the environment, stalking your minimap, and turning every corner? Is it worth leaving no stone unturned?
Let’s break out the deconstructionism for a moment and figure out what exactly makes up a loot system. First and foremost, we have to account for genre. How items are handled and what impact they’ll have on a game is largely determined by, well, what sort of game it is. Tactical games that emphasize rationing and efficient use of resources shouldn’t constantly pelt you with health and ammo, right? Nor should a party-based JRPG only provide enough weapons for half of your team.
Now take a look at the frequency factor. I’m not just talking about how many swords you find versus how many chests contain health potions; there’s much more to it than that. It falls to the developer to keep the player well-stocked, but prevent them from becoming overpowered. At the same time, they have to prevent exploration from becoming boring, which means keeping items valuable. Why would you explore all six branches of that dungeon if the first three yielded nothing but worthless plate-mail for your magic-based character?
On the other hand, finding too much of the same item is annoying. Wouldn’t it get boring if you found nothing but staves and robes while playing as a mage? If nothing else, your inventory would surely become a cluttered hell. The looting sweet spot is somewhere in the middle; we want to find a variety of new, different stuff. Sure we sound like kids on Christmas Eve, but it works.
Let’s take the example of finding irrelevant loot one step further. Although this may bring up some rather painful memories, picture this: Every last crate, in every last dungeon, on every last continent of “Obligatory Crossover RPG #76” contains little more than a handful of gold, or, at best, low-level ammunition. After a few hours of finding that crap, you don’t care if the next one could contain the “Demon Sword of Invincible Awesomeness” because it stopped being worth the effort of checking a long time ago.
Situations like these throw predictability into the spotlight. Has the game rewarded exploration in the past? Did other secret nooks in the level house some impressive rewards? This boils down to what you can expect to get out of a world. You aren’t exactly waiting with bated breath to see what the next round of enemies drops if the previous ten all dropped the same ingredient. Obviously, areas will be themed to provide certain materials—thus the invention of grinding—to diversify the world, but mixing it up in any way adds a lot to the mix. And with so many items to hide, from coins to consumables, or even scandalous photos of the character’s girlfriend (kudos to Splatterhouse), you virtually have to try for monotony.
But why does all of this even matter? What need is there for logic in good ol’ fashioned loot-whoring?
The answer isn’t exactly mind-blowing; it’s something every gamer knows. However, you’ll probably find the reasoning behind it a bit more interesting. But simply put, it’s because style and difficulty are important.
Because items will influence the combat of a game in one way or another, difficulty will be affected by what you’ve found—whether it’s the quality of your equipment or how high your player reserves (health and mana) tend to stay. This is where balance becomes most important. God of War III, for example, would be an annoying hell without the occasional hidden health chest, and I’ve yet to not be happy to find some ammo in Binary Domain.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the one problem that’s far worse than a game being stupidly, needlessly difficult: a game that’s just too damn easy. (I love you to bits Kingdoms of Amalur, but I’m looking at you.) Boredom aside, the immediate problem is how disparaging easy gameplay proves to be. Advanced enemy A.I., the exploitation of elemental weaknesses, and damage ratios go out the window if you’re just going to one-shot everything without breaking a sweat. Granted, I like one-shotting my way through grunt enemies as much as the next guy, but it’s sure to get old. It’s not exactly <i>survival</i> horror if you’re never going to die, right?
And believe it or not, there’s actually an artistic quality to loot design—at least in an atmospheric sense. Think about it; who else but GearBox can claim to have successfully marketed gun porn? And what RPG can stand up to the Monster Hunter franchise’s item variety?
There’s far more to each weapon cache and crafting recipe than just combat benefit, because they allow a game to develop its own unique flavor and flare. The crafting-heavy armament system of the Elder Scrolls games is very different from the dungeon-crawl style of Kingdoms of Amalur, 3D platformers are nothing without a bazillion-and-one items to collect, and you’re sure to check every last box in Resonance of Fate for your umpteenth weapon attachment. There’s no shortage of examples here, but I’ll assume you get the point.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s an answer to the question, “What makes a good loot system?” If a loot system can stay fresh and engaging by offering a variety of items in different ways, hold the balance of a game intact, and seize the opportunity to make a game stand apart in an already crowded genre, there won’t be any problems. Item hunting certainly isn’t everything to a game, but it carries enough weight to make or break many genres, so it needs to be done right.
Date: January 17, 2013