Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Dichotomous Dance of the Looter Loop

Have you ever had a moment when your mental capacity for buying into a game as an entertainment medium sloughs off, and you're left mindlessly running through the motions of playing it, your thoughts idle enough to notice you're sat in front of a Skinner box? I've been having more and more of those lately, and it's always centered around the idea of progression. 

Progression obviously means different things in different design contexts, so I'm not really calling out the umbrella term, but I find some choices in progression... curious. The style of progression I take umbrage with is most readily traced (through personal experience) back to Diablo, and can be divided into two significant parts. These two parts synthesize readily with each other, but can and will function on their own as principles guiding other systems. 

The first component is a skill development system and/or level curve designed from the outset to encompass multiple iterations of a narrative clear of the game on iterative difficulty levels. Forms of this can vary, from higher difficulty levels being set later on a single avatar power curve (Diablo, Borderlands), to the first narrative playthrough granting the avatar the entire scope of their abilities and using higher difficulties to push the player's grasp on them to the limit (Devil May Cry).

The assumption built into these curves is that people will be playing the game on harder difficulties, but even ignoring that optimism, designing around a later playthrough neglects the first playthrough experience. The assumption that there will be a later playthrough, even if 100% fulfilled (an absurd expectation), is founded on a first playthrough, and depending on the design of the game, these first clears (sans a full toolbox) can prompt some uncharacteristically harsh obstacles. 

Infamous for me (and quite a few people) was the fight with Cerberus in Devil May Cry 3. It's in the third mission, and it's the first real boss of the game; you fight another demon with a boss-denoting health bar in mission 2, but that eventually returns as part of normal encounters later in the game, whereas Cerberus is only fought again in a boss rush mission at the end of the game. Cerberus is the first encounter with an enemy with its own arena, special rules for dealing damage, and multiple phases with different patterns to contend with. 

It's also the first of several bosses that, when defeated, become weapons for Dante to use, granting him another entire moveset to work into his repertoire and tap into on the fly. The problem is, as it's the first boss to follow this structure, you are stuck fighting him with your basic moveset, which, unless you took some time to grind out some basic abilities, is a whole two combos deep, with maybe one extra move if you choose the one of four combat styles that gives you more weapon skills. 

Furthermore, because it's going to be your initial run of the game, and you're only on the first boss, unless you did a grind to get some money to buy upgrades, your health bar is going to be pretty pathetic, too! The process of acquiring your health upgrades is also part of this power curve that the game expects you to take on in the first playthrough. Yet, because the first boss is also part of the aforementioned boss rush mission at the climax of the game, and they didn't feel like having multiple versions of the boss, you're fighting a boss that is meant to be a roughly equal threat to your full health bar at the end of the game, with a little under half of that health bar, with a much smaller pool of moves, while you're still getting accustomed to the game's foibles.

It's not a great encounter, and the problem of acquiring tools to round out a whole moveset across a playthrough at a rate that makes the difficulty curve for that initial run a downward slope instead of an upward one is something the series repeats in DMC4 and DMC5, only with more characters to exacerbate the issue in each iteration.

Under the other style of curve I mentioned, we have Diablo and Borderlands, which both have similar enough problems that I'll be using Borderlands to elucidate upon them for my familiarity with the games. The original Borderlands is an experimental, stumbling mess, in my opinion, which is commendable, but if you removed the skill trees (and maybe even the action skills), you probably still would have had a functional and enjoyable game. The skill trees are so simple that it's hard to call them that, and if you're actually spending your skill points as you level, it's hard to not stumble into a workable build. Its gameplay loop is propped up almost entirely by the gunplay and the loot side of its design, which I'll discuss later.

Borderlands 2 (and the aptly-named interlude game using the same engine, the Pre-Sequel) has a more diverse set of skill trees for each character, with more significant investment required to reach the capstone (final) skill in each, but, in turn, more potent bonuses with each point spent that help each character and build style feel different as they progress. These trees are deep enough that they also usually each have room for one or two "gamechangers", which act as binary skills to either pick up or ignore that either offer a significant change to an action skill's functionality, or a new addition to your toolbox, be that a new melee attack or another extra effect.

The problem is, the capstone is usually what ties an entire low-tier skill build together, and you get it at level 31, which is, as you might expect, a level you'd hit around the end of your first playthrough through the base game. So here, too, the game expects you to have a coherent skill situation no earlier than the final quest, and the endpoint of what you might expect a casual player to get out of the game. Where it differs is that the game lets you develop your skill tree to a higher level cap than what you need to hit that capstone at 31. In fact, in the base game, you can play up to level 50, which is enough to hit a capstone in one skill tree and invest enough skill points in one of the remaining trees to hit the gamechanger tier, resulting in kind of a hybridized build with a solid foot in one tree and a potentially synergistic foot in another.

That, for me, is the appeal of the skill tree as a form of avatar development: seeing how different things complement each other and coming up with interesting or efficient modes of play. The part of me that really wants to fill out the entire skill tree for completion's sake is left in the dust by the limitation of the level cap, but there are plenty of games to scratch that itch.

Including, it turns out, Borderlands. You see, all the games in the Borderlands series so far eventually accrued multiple level cap increases, enough that, even in BL2/TPS, you can comfortably grab two trees' capstones and the third tree's gamechanger when you hit the final level cap. It's a kind of subversive glee, the feeling of seeing synergies synchronize across skill trees when you're used to a single tree's power. However, this satisfaction comes at the end of a long, long road through two separate difficulty levels, with extra rules on both encounter and individual enemy difficulty, still bound up in the problem of dealing with the experience curve and a still-incomplete skill build. The stopgap measures? The loot, of course!

The second is the namesake of the looter label, and what most people would point to as Diablo's primary influence on design throughout gaming. The loot in question usually has a grading system that denotes rarity, with rarer items having a more powerful base array of stats, which are then modified by random attributes assigned to it. The degree to which this gear gates your progress can vary, but often it's of enough importance that, sometimes more than experience, looter games are, aptly, focused on farming loot to bolster the avatar's power to meet the difficulty curve. 

Farming for drops isn't necessarily the core, as fighting enemies en masse for specific drops can happen even in games with more standardized equipment. Instead, the key point lies in the loot itself, and the granular randomization of its properties. For this reason, I wouldn't necessarily consider, for example, Warframe or Monster Hunter, in their core loops, to be looter games, as they're primarily focused on farming enemies for materials in order to build designated tools to expedite the process ad infinitum. However, both approach the looter design of progression in at least one component of their power accrual.

Warframe has Riven Mods, which are special modifications for the player's existing equipment. These are ostensibly all unique, and are composed of wildly varying bonuses, with the potential for steep downsides that, in exchange bolster the upsides' potency significantly. Normal mods also exist, and make up a lot more of the game's equivalent of a system to develop the avatar's power, but they are more limited in their potency by virtue of their static, but reliable, statistics.

Monster Hunter (pre-World) has charms, which take up a unique equip slot and can have random amounts of skill points on them; these skill points are what armor sets in the series are built around, as reaching certain thresholds of the points will activate the relevant skills, which confer serious benefits to the hunter. Charms can provide these otherwise rigid skill points in configurations which allow for a lot more flexibility of armor set choices, which makes them a key component of the player's toolkit. This has been somewhat altered in Monster Hunter World, due to the changes to armor skills and the shift from charms to socketable jewels as a farmable resource that allow further customization of armor sets. 

In any case, the loot in Diablo-descendant loot systems is often the biggest pillar of gameplay, because while experience curves will eventually run dry on a reasonable pace, the loot not only scales to the player's level, but has many minute variations besides. These variations might be invisible modifiers as in more directly Diablo-like games, or they may have visible components with less visible statistical effects, a la Borderlands' fairly complex (but legible and able to be learned) parts system. 

The assumed gameplay loop woven between the experience curve or other character-based progression curve is that you will be fighting enemies, which drop, randomly, assorted items with variance from a very large pool with rarities (and thus, potency) that match the designed difficulty levels of the enemies in question. When you run out of character-based progression to make, or when the higher-grade difficulties of enemies challenge you too much, you can fight enemies you're capable of taking out until they drop more suitably powerful items. While still on the progression curve, sometimes items can drop with very beneficial qualities that will keep them relevant for quite a while, or they might drop with qualities that make them unusable.

Meanwhile, at the end of the progression curve, the loop becomes that of pursuing the optimal item, for whatever designations you determine to be optimal. It's a perpetual accrual machine on an asymptotic graph of strength, and it can be quite relaxing if you can buy in, but that's my issue. Asymptotic as it is, it takes more and more time to get diminishing returns, and unless you're a really specific type of person, and one who can dedicate a job's worth of time to farming the same bosses over and over for things, this endgame, building a collection of unique and legendary weapons, isn't for you.

So, honestly, who is this design for, and who should we expect the designers to design for?

That's what's been working through my head for a while, and it's obviously not a black and white question. The only thing I can say is absolutely true is that designers are free to design for whatever audience they want to. If they want to make certain design decisions that exclude people for whatever reason, that's their prerogative. It's lost sales, but if they're adamant, it's their right.

I'm asking this because... Borderlands 2 only really starts feeling like an interesting game to play after clearing the final boss of the base game, when you have access to a capstone and a coherent build and access to your entire toolkit. Looking at achievement statistics, 30-40% of people (40% of tracked players on 360 via TrueAchievements, 32.8% on Steam) managed to make it that far. Only 28% on 360 and 17.5% on Steam made it to level 50, which isn't even the final level cap. So who, exactly, is this curve for? 

It's not for me, I've realized. I like the idea of messing around with complete skill builds, with synergistic messes of colored particle effects cascading off of my enemies as I spew bullets from unique guns in order to farm more, different unique guns, but... I don't like the process of playing through the game, basically. Every segment I get to, where streamers and other hardcore fans go "yay more excuses to kill stuff", I feel like it's a chore sapping away at my soul. Oh, great, it's the ascent to Captain Flynt's boat, it's Frostburn Canyon, it's the Wilderness Exploitation Preserve, it's obstacle after obstacle after obstacle between me and my zen loot farming with a build and gear loadout where I can handle everything. 

By the time I get to the end of a playthrough, I have long since wanted to play a different character, every time, but I've just played through the game and been tired of not having my skills available to me for the majority of it. I have had weeks of my life where I get two hours into a BL2 file and swap to a different character and end up burning out on the game entirely because I had to play the start of the game several times. And theoretically, I love the idea of being max level and farming for gear so I can take on the difficulty levels where only the enemies level up and you end up fighting the level scaling instead of the enemies themselves. That's honestly a really cool testament to how good some of your system design can be.

But then I remember that it involves playing the game through three times, at the least. And my brain remembers that I'm going to die someday and that this Skinner box is not going to be at all satisfying, and I stare vacantly at my desktop for a few minutes as I contemplate mortality and then give up and load the game up anyway to whittle away at this stupid task.

Because god dammit, I still kind of adore the loop. Sometimes, I crave the satisfaction of rolling a lot of dice and getting some good numbers once in a while. It's better to satisfy that craving on games that don't cost money. And even though it took Anthony Burch a full game and three goddamn DLCs to realize that people like character writing, it resulted in Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep, which is a really cool D&D pastiche worked into Borderlands 2 as both a cool expansion and good resolution for the emotional arc of the character in question.

I don't like the loop's grip on certain sorts of people, though, and I understand how empty the loop is. I've toned down how much I play looters nowadays, mainly because I've got so many other games waiting for me that I feel like any game without a clear offramp is probably going to be more of a timesink than it's worth. Unless it's an excuse to socialize, which is going to be my excuse for playing FFXIV for the foreseeable future.