Destiny to Outriders: Is a Perfect Looter Shooter Impossible?

04/29/2021 - 12:00 | By: Anson Chan
Someone's Got to Get It Right Eventually

It is often accepted that the first Borderlands game was responsible for the popularization of the looter shooter genre. At the time, looter shooters seemed like the peanut butter-chocolate of gaming, a revolutionary combination of two individually popular things into one irresistible package. Fast forward a decade and it would appear as though looter shooters are as popular as ever, constantly evolving thanks to new games like Outriders. If you look past the shiny next-gen coat of paint however, it's probable that Outriders will suffer from the same curse of mediocrity that every other looter shooter has suffered. From Destiny to The Division to Anthem, every single looter shooter has somehow managed to reach a stage where player dissatisfaction spikes to critical levels shortly after launch.

Naturally, one must ask why is there a Great Filter for a genre that has a decade of player feedback to draw from. It's not as if there's some deep mystery as to what players want from their looter shooters. Yet practically every looter shooter has fallen into the same exact pattern. The core gameplay leading up to the endgame is usually praised, then once people need to grind to finalize their builds, everything comes crashing down. In Destiny, low drop rates and a lack of Raid matchmaking became a point of anguish. Anthem's early strengths were quickly hampered by boring loot and very questionable design choices even prior to the endgame (i.e. having to find collectibles to progress the campaign). The Division had bullet-sponge enemies that took forever to kill, clashing with both the modern setting and the main point of having trash mobs to begin with. Outriders' endgame forces you to complete levels as fast as possible, otherwise your legendary drop rates are cut in half from 25% for gold medal times to 12.5% for silver to 6.25% for bronze, bottlenecking everyone into pure DPS builds. It's rather tempting to think that with such consistent missteps, developers are doing the exact opposite of what their audience wants on purpose.

To examine what went wrong, perhaps it would be best to figure out what's working so far first. It's typically agreed that most modern shooters have great core mechanics. Anthem for example would've been incredibly fun had it just been a more story-focused third-person action RPG, or a stripped down Mass Effect lite if you will. Everyone liked the Iron Man power armor experience, plus a pivot to story based content plays into BioWare's strengths. The same could probably be said about Destiny. It has great FPS mechanics and an insanely deep backstory that gets lost in the pursuit for loot. Outriders and Warframe are fantastically violent in ways that make the player feel like a god smiting fools left and right, overshadowed once again by drop rates. While it would be inaccurate to say that these games are terrible in their current form (some of them are actually quite enjoyable), it would also be somewhat irresponsible to recommend such games without mentioning the endgame experience. After all, it's hard to think of any other games whose mechanics exist for the sole purpose of causing frustration and artificially limiting progression.  

outriders all legendary
If promotional screenshots that feature endgame gear also showed the estimated time needed to grind for said gear, that would be great.

Indeed, it's bitterly ironic that the looter aspect of the looter shooter genre is often the most complained about, to the point that a game's other faults are practically masked by discussions on drop rates. A natural culprit is the Games as a Service business model. It provides incentives for developers to stretch out content and to focus on microtransactions. Live events that are only available for a limited time are a great example of this as they are designed to create a feeling of urgency via exclusive rewards. Warframe takes the concept to the extreme as it monetizes everything from crafting times to loot to the amount of loot that you can store in reserve to certain crafting mats (and more), complete with the bad drop rates and lengthy timers taken straight from mobile games. To be fair, Warframe is also a free game, and it has some legitimately fun and unique activities too, so the business model is often tolerated since developers can't eat positive reviews. Regardless, as satisfying as it may be to blame an entire genre's failings on Games as a Service, it's not the only cause. 


In fact, some looter shooters allow you to go from the tutorial to the endgame and actually get endgame-tier gear completely solo. In other words, multiplayer is there just for co-op gameplay. For such games, it makes zero sense why good gear isn't raining from the sky. If the entire game is PvE only, it's not like you're really hurting anyone by being grossly overpowered. Sure, some might say that having drops that are too frequent take away from the "challenge" of the genre, but as Borderlands demonstrated, it's possible to shower people with loot while keeping people addicted to the grind. Best of all, this creates a far better impression when players finally do put down the game.

outriders legendary sets
Outriders receives 200 hours of your time, you receive a mishmash of garbage loot, duplicates, and maybe some legendaries that enhance your build and let you not look like a murderhobo.

In any case, these games (especially Outriders) usually don't have microtransactions, so it's not like there's any practical need to keep players trapped in RNG hell—unless of course player retention numbers matter greatly to developers. It would explain a lot if that were the case. Imagine if your annual bonus depended entirely on how many people are still playing your game after a year. You would almost certainly be encouraged to the keep drop rates low and enemy HP high. That being said, it's hard to imagine why player number matters to developers unless microtransactions are involved, seeing as how the concept of infinite gameplay didn't really exist until fairly recently.

Alas, perhaps the simplest explanation is the best explanation. In this case, there is no simpler explanation other than people having higher expectations from their games. The first Borderlands came out more than a decade ago. Loot-centric games like MMORPGs have been around for even longer. While looter shooters have improved as a whole since then, the basics have not changed at all. Get to the endgame, farm some bosses/activities for a flash of gold hoping that it's some god tier weapon, repeat ad infinitum. Meanwhile, every other genre has seen an explosion of innovation, to say nothing of the shooter genre itself. Overwatch paved the way for hero shooters, its influence being felt in games such as Valorant, Paladins, and Rainbow 6: Siege to some small degree. PUBG almost singlehandedly started the battle-royale craze, leading to at least three incredibly popular competitors of varying styles: Apex Legends, Fortnite, and Call of Duty: WarzoneDOOM delivered an incredible single-player FPS campaign that was quickly followed by more excellent single-player FPS games like Metro Exodus, Titanfall 2, and Prey. Factor in the indie market's fantastic growth in quality, and looter shooters would look like they're innovating as fast as paint dries.

As easy as it would be to point fingers at developers, it should be kept in mind that looter shooters are relatively complex games with many mechanics that must work perfectly together. The quality of the story, mechanics, art style, character progression, loot progression, and more add up, and if one aspect is lacking, then it could drag everything else down. On top of that, the looter shooter genre lacked the revolutionary, genre-defining milestone games that other genres enjoyed. Borderlands was the Halo moment, laying down the basic mechanics for future games, though nothing really built on it afterwards. There was no Call of Duty to compete against, no The Last of Us to push the boundaries of storytelling, no Fallout to demonstrate the joys of non-linear gameplay. Destiny arguably came close in spite of its shortcomings, and even then the transition to Destiny 2 made it feel like two completely different teams worked on the games. The audience may know what it wants in a very broad sense, especially when it comes to things like acceptable RNG and transmog, but the real challenge is convincing developers (or perhaps more accurately, their upper management) that we want their games to be fun and provide long-term value just as much as they do, and that clinging to demonstrably outdated practices helps no one.

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Staff Writer

Hi everybody! I've been playing all kinds of games for decades now, from FPSes to city builders to the occasional platformer, and if nothing else, it's taught me that games are the ultimate form of art.