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The Science Behind Why We Love Loot

by Game Informer Editorial on Oct 23, 2015 at 12:16 PM

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 Conditioning
Jamie 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.

Addicted to the Dopamine Rush

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 Face
The 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 Farming
You 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...

World Of Learning
Player feedback helps to shape the pursuit of loot in games such as World of Warcraft. It's not just about paying close attention to what's being said in forums, either, as telemetry data helps to fill the gap between what players assume to be the best solutions and what is statistically happening.

"I think one of the challenges when you're working on player feedback is trying to read between the lines and understand what's actually going to make the best experience," says Ion Hazzikostas, lead game designer on World of Warcraft. "In terms of loot, it's a case of players not understanding why the mechanic has such a strong appeal.

"A lot of the time the player feedback on EverQuest was, 'I should always just get what I want. This randomness is annoying: I should just go in, get all the items that I want and then be done.' It turns out, funnily, that that is like activating a cheat code in a game: suddenly you have all the items, you're levelled-up to max, you're invincible, and the game very quickly loses allure.

"We're trying to strike a happy medium [in WoW], making sure that people feel fulfilled and have something to look forward to. But we're not giving it all away in a way that's going to cheapen accomplishment."

In short, our rational self tells us we want something done in the most efficient way - like with the Auction House or loot cave - but the strongest appeal of loot as a mechanic is found in its randomised nature, which speaks to the less-rational, dopamine-influenced parts of our brains (see boxout).

Meaningful Shiny
The Diablo III Auction House turned out to be one misstep in the path to where loot is currently at in Diablo III. Game director Josh Mosqueira admits that loot is one of the driving factors that keep people playing. "The realisation is loot-based games tend to have people coming back for more. They're like, 'Oh, I got a reward,'" he says.

"Where we [Blizzard] get it wrong is we try to tune those rewards for the really hardcore players who have [played] 300 hours. If they're already spending that kind of time in your game, they're not the players that need that hit of getting a reward. What needs to happen with loot is we need to reverse that curve and have more loot drop at the beginning, and then players will think it's awesome."

Tapping Into Primal Urges

Believe it or not, randomised loot is particularly enticing because it ties into the survivalist mentality of our ancient ancestors. Jamie Madigan, operator of the Psychology of Games website, uses the example of a primitive “adaptive feature”

– our predecessors continued to search for food in certain bushes, despite the fact that other similar bushes didn’t reap the same rewards.

“[With RNG loot systems,] the random nature of the reward takes advantage of the way we’re wired,” says Madigan.

“It’s completely random [in games], but we are not really built to deal with randomness in that way, so we’re still inherently fixated on getting that reward. Every time we see something that we think might help us get that reward, we’re all the more interested. It’s a super-charged feedback loop.”

Millennia of foraging through plants for food, not knowing exactly what to expect but understating that there’s a chance of hitting the jackpot, has resulted in our psyches evolving in a certain way. According to Madigan, digital loot chests tap into this innate desire.

This can be a trap, though, if non-meaningful items are dropped too often. For example, my experience with Destiny was that I was finding a lot of loot, but I didn't need or keep the vast majority of it. Similarly, after scores of hours playing Borderlands, the overwhelming number of weapons reaped from countless felled foes, unlocked lockers and poorly plumbed toilets rarely tempted me to replace what I already had equipped.

As a result, the later stages of these two games tended to involve a certain amount of time dedicated to inventory management just to avoid hoarding meaningless gear. Mosqueira acknowledges this problem, and believes that rewards shouldn't be raining from the skies for the sake of it in Diablo III.

"You have to be dropping loot more often, but then the key is making sure that loot matters," says Mosqueira. "You want to make sure that every time there's a drop, it has to have some utility. If you're just forcing players to vacuum stuff up, it's terrible, especially when their inventory is full of junk. Then it actually becomes work."

In Diablo III, this is taken a step further when dedicated players hit endgame, where the treasure hunt is focused on very specific items. "Part of our philosophy when it comes to loot is that not all loot is created equal, and the quest for your perfect set is a journey that you take," says Wyatt Cheng, senior technical game designer on Diablo III. He is also quick to state that the endgame mission to complete the perfect set of gear isn't designed to feel as though it's manipulating people to continue playing indefinitely.

"We track our [player] retention as a metric of our success," says Cheng. "But it's not a number we're necessarily trying to maximise. What I care about is that players love the game. We're not trying to introduce mechanisms to string players along forever, playing a game if they don't love it anymore. We add new items to keep the game exciting and to provide content for the community that already love this game."

Stud Farming
Loot overload and the collection of thousands of the same item is part and parcel with the Lego video games. Since the beginning of the series, TT Games has used a plethora of spinning Lego studs and collectable pieces to capture the attention of players.

The collection of Lego loot is closely linked to the toys upon which the games are based. "The philosophy behind loot in the Lego games has always been to tie into the collectable nature of the Lego toy range," says Jamie Eden, game director on the recently released Lego Jurassic World.

"You only have to look at the popularity of Lego's mini-figure range as well as the play sets they've produced over the years. In-game [Lego studs] exist to give players, especially younger ones, something to be engaged in at all times, prompt exploration and deliver frequent rewards."

In this instance, it makes sense to link collecting pieces of digital Lego to the similar experience of collecting pieces in reality to construct something more meaningful. Beyond this, the collectable studs act as more than just loot, particularly for younger gamers.

"One thing I always find is that I always underestimate how players are drawn towards the studs," says Eden. "So we use them to help guide players through areas, draw them into new locations and promote exploration of non-critical areas."

In this respect, studs are used as an unofficial guide that helps casual players learn basic mechanics while also allowing loot-lovers to sate their urges to collect every last brick.

Swag Mortality
Through speaking with developers and academic experts on the topic, there's a strong undercurrent of the potential for loot mechanics to be used as manipulative tools, enticing players to spend more time with something than they'd originally planned. As soon as comparisons are made to poker machines, ethical questions arise as to whether loot mechanics are a potentially harmful element of contemporary video games.

Jamie Madigan doesn't believe that loot systems are necessarily good or bad. "[Loot is] a tool. It is more neutral than positive or negative," he says.

"You start getting into clearly problematic areas if you are talking about money exchanges, though. In a slot machine, you put a dollar in for every single pull of the lever. That's very different than [if] you've got this game that you play that you paid full price for and then the only thing you're putting into it is your time and effort.

"In general, loot-based games are not a problem because people like them and they play them and, by and large, people are choosing to spend their time [playing them] instead of any number of other frivolous things that they could be doing."

It's an important distinction to make because of all the gaming examples mentioned in this article, none of them require payments outside of the initial purchase or online subscription fees (for World of Warcraft). Loot can be a compelling mechanic to make players come back for more but, despite the way it plays on mental susceptibilities, it's still something that players can choose to engage or disengage with at any time.

"The accountability, first of all, gets checked by the age restriction on the game," says Hodzic. "There should be education or information about the risks that can come. In a sense, having a poker mechanic, for some people doesn't do anything, they just feel ripped off and they don't bother, but for other people they get sucked right in."

Enjoy hunting down loot. It can be a hugely rewarding mechanic that lets us wring more value out of our purchases. But be aware of how these systems are designed to appeal to our innate psychology. If you aren't having fun anymore yet you still feel inexplicably compelled to keep playing a particular game, there's likely a very good reason for that.