Video games are arguably the West's fastest growing pastime over the last 30 years, from the humble beginnings of Pong and Pacman, to the early days of hyper violent sickeningly beautiful carnage with Mortal Kombat and Doom. All the while Nintendo appealed to the family audience seeing massive success with Mario and Zelda games. Then in the early 2000s games like Halo, Call of Duty, and Grand Theft Auto dominated the markets and still do to this day.
The video game industry has been growing nonstop since it started in the 1970s and based on the evidence it has no signs of slowing down. Kids and adults in all aspects of Western culture can't get enough of video games. We're always searching for the next game to latch onto and play until our eyes burn out. I should know because in 2019 I spent roughly 1000 hours playing video games on my PS4 alone.
In total I own 4 video game consoles -- a PS4, Nintendo Switch, Apple laptop, and iPhone. Each piece of hardware offers me a different gaming experience. My iPhone keeps me company on train rides and loathsome family get togethers. My laptop "focuses" my brain on strategic games in the middle of classes while I pretend to take notes. My PS4 allows for the larger-than-life epics I so desperately crave. Epic gun fights and mighty heroes conquering evil in bloody duels so graphic my sweet grandma would recoil at the sight. My Nintendo Switch fulfills the more family friendly games I remember from my childhood days of playing on my Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS. Games like Pokémon, Super Smash Bros, and Zelda. All of which are supposedly "kids" games yet Pokémon is a dog fighting simulator. Smash Bros. pits Luigi against Peach to see who can send the other flying into the stratosphere first. And Zelda tasks Link with murdering goblin tribes attempting to survive the harsh landscapes of Hyrule. While those are all relatively accurate depictions of the games, they still are over the top. Still amongst all games, none appeal to me more than looter shooters.
A "looter shooter" is a game in which you shoot things and then loot their corpses. Sounds simple and violent enough for any 13-year-old boy to get behind. However, there's a much deeper level than that. In most looter shooters, the goal is to acquire the best items in the game. You start off as powerful heroes and grow stronger as the game progresses. Usually through leveling and ability upgrades. As your level grows, so do the enemies. With each new power you gain the bad guys seem to grow twice as strong. To someone new to these games, this may seem daunting. Have no fear because the stronger the villains the better the loot. And the better the loot the closer you are to winning the game. Although it seems you can never truly win.
Looter shooters are designed so that the next item you desire is always just out of reach. The feeling that you’re so close to getting it but then the boss doesn’t drop it. In these games bosses and enemies have dedicated "loot pools." A "loot pool" is all the items that have the potential to drop from said enemy. Each item is then given a percentage to drop from that specific enemy. For example, there’s a dragon who can drop a sword, a bow, a halberd, a helmet, and a magic staff. The sword has a 50% chance, the bow 20%, the halberd 15%, the helmet 12%, and the magic staff 3%. Usually, the rarer the item the stronger. Side note, looter shooters are so addictive they get a math hating moron to excitedly figure out percent’s in his head for 3 minutes. Now back to the main topic. Let’s say you’ve fought this dragon 10 times and each time it takes you 15 minutes because he’s such a deadly beast. Most players will have gotten the sword, bow, halberd, and helmet by now. In fact, you’ve probably got each of them twice and the sword 9 times. What do you do with all this loot? You pick it up and toss it in storage. And that’s where our problem truly begins.
Looter shooter players are constantly desiring more storage for their endless supply of stuff. Just like their real-life counterparts. Over my short 21 years I've had so much useless shit that selling half of it on eBay and buying a storage locker still isn't enough. My childhood bedroom is packed full of shit I haven't touched in 4 years. Old toys and books that I'll never play with or read again. Holding onto them thinking someday my kids will get the same enjoyment I did. Clothes I never wear but refuse to get rid of because it'd make me feel guilty for just tossing away money. Looter shooters capitalize on these feelings so expertly. Players will spend hours "farming" bosses for loot. "Farming" is when a player performs a repetitive action to gain experience, in game currency, or items. I've spent upwards of 200 hours farming in my lifetime and for what? To repeatedly be let down when the dragon doesn't drop that stupid fucking magic staff which I need to be considered "cool" in the context of this game. I've wasted so much time when I could've learned a new language or become a better guitar player. Oh, but the gameplay, it's so smooth and satisfying I just want more.
These games know how to make combat feel exciting even though you've experienced nearly all it has to offer about halfway through. Your actions carry a weight and you see it play out in front of your eyes. Equipping the sword and hacking off ghoul limbs. Then switching to your bow and sneaking around a snowy fortress dropping clueless guards one by one. Finally, you get the magic staff and you charge headfirst into the enemy barracks. With two clicks of a button everyone in the room is burnt to dust. But you can't get enough from one use. You travel to fortresses all over the map leaving a trail of death everywhere you go. You can let out all that frustration from farming on the soldiers and monsters who dare oppose you. Looter shooters know how to make junk feel useful.
The players are the biggest reason for these games' success. Youtubers and streamers that design "builds" for characters and weapons. A build is a specific skill set up of a character that maximizes the damage potential of weapons in the game. Players will spend just as many hours working on the builds as they did farming the weapons. Testing out each skill and its effect on combat and survivability. Streaming their tests on Twitch for some reason. Attempting to make funny comments while running around in game for 5 hours. They upload their findings to YouTube for all the lazier gamers to use. Now the process is almost complete. You have the items you want and the perfect build to complement the items. What’s next? Well, that's pretty much it. The game is essentially over. You can use your build to farm for more items. Or you can wait around until the next expansion pack drops in 3 months. Then you can finally use the build killing an array of new enemies. Only to find out that new items have dropped along with skill changes made by the developers. Now the build you spent two weeks attaining is rendered useless. But the desire to return to that level of power brings players back again and again.
I've played countless looter shooters in my day; Borderlands, Destiny, The Division, etc. But those are just games classified as such. There's a plethora of other games that utilize ideas of looter shooters while being a different game altogether. The Fallout games are a perfect example. Those games focus more on story and character building so it feels like the items you acquire will have an effect on outcome of the story. Instead of hours spent farming you walk aimlessly bringing life back to a desolate wasteland. Both types of games heavily exploit a player's desire for more shit. You want more, more, more until your storage is full. Then you complain that the developers didn't give you enough storage options even though you have 200 spaces in your storage. That's 200 individual items. Most of the time a player will have multiple copies of the same item with slight variations. This magic staff shoots a fireball, but this one shoots lightning bolts. They have the same name and identical stats but that slight difference will cause players to have more than one.
Many items also share the same feature so players will fill up their storage but only have 125 unique weapons, which is still too many. Think of it like having 5 striped shirts all with identical stripe layouts. Instead of going for different sized stripes or vertical instead of horizontal stripes, players are opting for different colors of the same shirt. Something I still am all too guilty of. Thankfully I've learned to part ways with a lot of my shit. Now I'm learning to not acquire all this shit in the first place and instead pick my items wisely and with purpose.
Mr. Petracca is a graduating senior at Ithaca College. He's a gamer, writer, actor, and comedian from New York City.