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This article originally appeared in issue 68 of Game Informer's Australian magazine, written by Nathan Lawrence.
A well-crafted loot system converts gamers into bowerbirds [a bird found in Australia that collects colorful items]. We run around collecting shiny bling, gathering up swag to build a shrine to our in-game achievements. There's a reason why games with loot mechanics have such an allure to the average gamer: these systems tie directly into certain mental processes that tempt us to come back for more. While some games have more rewarding loot systems than others, they all tap into basic psychological principles that make us believe that we will be rewarded if we persist.
Personally speaking, the futility of the quest for loot came to a head recently with Destiny 1.0. After more than 100 hours of play, I found that the hunt was triggering a series of negative emotions.
I still felt elation on the occasions when I scored meaningful drops, but the frustration and guilt when I netted an already-owned piece of swag that a teammate desperately wanted outweighed the positives.
Destiny's loot loop simply wasn't fun anymore and I stopped playing. It was only after quitting the game that I began to question why the allure of loot kept me, and countless others, coming back for hundreds of hours of potential disappointment...
Classical ConditioningJamie Madigan is a Ph.D. psychologist who runs the website Psychology
of Games. He says there's a strong reason why loot is so compelling to
players. "Humans are very susceptible," says Madigan.
Our brains release a chemical called dopamine to make us feel happy when something good happens. Dopamine is also released at the first sign of something that has, in the past, been positive.
If you come across a chest in a loot-oriented game, your brain releases dopamine because opening a chest in the past has resulted in coveted loot. Making things more complicated, unexpected meaningful loot results in a bigger dopamine hit, which keeps players coming back for more in the hope that above-average rewards might again ensue.
The trick, though, is that the sporadic nature of loot means our brain is constantly trying to figure out how to get that dopamine hit, despite the other, logical parts of our mind knowing there’s no way to actually control the unsystematic environment.
"They can be influenced by rewards. You see some sort of stimulus in the environment and you perform an action based on that stimulus, and then you get a reward. And because you got a reward, you are then on the lookout for that stimulus in the future. That's basic psychology 101 classical conditioning where you increase behaviours by rewarding them and decrease them by punishing them."
This means that an in-game cue becomes associated with the potential of reward, which is why players tirelessly pursue items such as chests, caves, missions and specific enemy types. This classical conditioning process is made even more effective by adding a dash of randomness on top.
"The random element to these types of reward systems makes them that much more engaging because sometimes you get something and sometimes you get nothing, and sometimes you get something that is spectacularly awesome," says Madigan.
"That randomness leverages part of the way our brains are put together... we're really sensitive to patterns and deviations from what we predict or what we expect to happen.
"We open a treasure chest once and we get something that is far and away better than the 10 other times we've opened a similar treasure chest. When unexpected pleasures like that happen, we pay more attention and we devote more time and mental energy to figuring out why it happened so that we can get it to happen again in the future."
Poker FaceThe catch with a random number generator (RNG) is that the haphazard nature of rewards means we're never able to accurately predict what will happen, despite what our brain is telling us. Both Madigan and Emil Hodzic, psychologist at the Video Game Addiction Treatment Clinic, compared loot mechanics to poker machines. "[Loot is] basically a slot machine built into a game mechanic," explains Hodzic. "In behavioural psychology, it's called a 'random ratio of reinforcement.'
"People talk about Borderlands and the loot drops for the different weapons. That kind of mechanic proves to be one of the most powerful in terms of reinforcing and persisting in a particular behaviour, [because] it involves the combination of a person having tension and anticipation and the hope that there's going to be something great dropped this time. More often than not, it doesn't get fulfilled."
Not getting the desired loot may sound like it would evoke a negative reaction, but the opposite is actually true.
"What that [lack of fulfilment] does is it builds up more tension and anticipation, and makes you want to try it the next time," says Hodzic. "After you've done it for a while, hopefully, you get the ideal loot and eventually, because you're getting something, it's reinforcing you to keep trying." In other words, the tension of not finding loot is just as important to our mental state as actually discovering it.
But there are limits...
Auto Loot FarmingYou needn't look far beyond games such as Destiny to see how important loot is to players, and also to see evidence of how frustrating it can be when loot doesn't feel balanced. When in-game exploits and in-game rewards aren't aligned, the community looks for ways to exploit the system.
Not long after the launch of Destiny, players discovered and shared the location of the infamous "loot cave." With the right amount of firepower, players could farm goodies by exploiting a glitch that meant killed enemies would respawn every few seconds, dropping personalised loot for all.
It didn't take long for Bungie to nerf the straightforward farming afforded by the loot cave. The reason it was so popular, though, is because Destiny makes use of a random number generator for its loot system: every time a player opens a chest, kills an enemy or completes a specific mission, there's a chance they'll score a piece of kit, a weapon or, most compellingly, a coloured Engram that could lead to that rare exotic item you've been patiently waiting for.
Without the incentive of a guaranteed meaningful reward in the wider game, the loot cave became an easy way to tip the RNG in a player's favour by sheer attrition. Loot cave devotees were looking for a shortcut around the unpredictability.
Diablo III serves as a similar example of a loot system made less appealing by players tipping the RNG too far into their favour. When the divisive Auction House - where players could trade and sell items - was a part of the game, it became the most efficient way to guarantee the acquisition of weapons and gear.
Ironically, this undermined the allure of Diablo III's loot system, which is exactly why Blizzard removed it from the game.
While the random nature of loot systems can make them more appealing, there's a fine line between satisfying and "unfair." Striking this balance is key to player retention: if quality loot is too easy to come by, then it becomes meaningless and unexciting; if it's too hard to acquire, frustration replaces tension and eventually the player quits.
Up next: More on Blizzard's approach to loot...
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