What makes one loot game grindy and addictive and another simply so fun that you choose to keep playing? The same thing that makes a night of drinking with friends a party but a morning drinking vodka from a paper bag self destruction. Context and circumstances.
Having both a deep and enduring love of games and a long personal and professional familiarity with addiction has provided me with some insights into the rise of the looter game. I’ve watched with interest as games began demanding more and more of a players time and attention. I’ve even been playing them the whole time, culminating with the current age of games that are begging to be played forever to the exclusion of all others. It’s easy for those who don’t enjoy these kinds of games to say that players are addicted but that misses the crucial, yet subtle, difference between use and addiction. Nothing has driven this difference home for me more than playing Anthem, The Division 2 and Borderlands 2 in quick succession this month.
There’s a famous study that has informed the debate around behavioral health and addiction treatment for the last several decades. Over the years the findings of this study have been proven beyond all doubt in the field even as they failed to be widely implemented . Outcomes in programs that are informed by this study are always better than those that aren’t. And yet only a tiny percentage of programs use the model.
The study, known as Rat Park, split lab rats into two groups and tried to addict both of them to heroin. One group of rats lived in miserable, empty boring cages and one lived in miraculous little rat theme parks with practical split floor plans, swimming pools and massage parlors. Both groups of rats had access to morphine water and plain water. The rats in rat jail strongly, I mean really strongly, preferred heroin laced water to plain water and would inevitably become addicted as the study progressed. Eventually jail rats ignored the plain water all together.
Rats in the theme park cages preferred the plain water. They still used a little heroin here and there, just to have a rat hootenanny in between wheel runs and little rat roller coaster rides but they almost never became addicted. And when rats from rat jail WERE addicted they found it much easier to dry out in rat park than rat jail. And yet the vast majority of treatment programs in America remain rat jails. Why? Because rat jail is easier to build than rat park. How does this relate to looter shooter design?
Well, most of the recent looter shooters are rat jails. They provide one really fun distraction amidst a sea of repetitive tedium. It’s easier to addict a player to loot and mechanics than it is to engage a player holistically. I don’t think there’s anything nefarious about it, I doubt developers even realize they’re making depressing rat jails. I, likewise, don’t think there’s anything purposely nefarious about most treatment programs in America. It’s just...rat park is expensive as hell to make and rat jail only requires beds, nurses and sickly green wall paint.
I realized this strange correlation between two important things in my life early this month when I heard about the recent updates to Borderlands and Borderlands 2 on PC. I have a youtube channel where I over analyze games that usually piss me off. I was coming off of two titles that wanted to be games I never stop playing and thinking about how strangely similar they were in important ways. Anthem and The Division 2 certainly have many obvious differences of course. One is a solid if unspectacular web of intricate mechanics and systems that all work well together and the other is a total train wreck but they have one very important thing in common. The reward for all the players effort boils down to loot and the basic mechanics themselves. They keep you playing because it feels good to play and every so often you get a hit of heroin water.
I had always realized this at some deep level I’m sure but it was only replaying Borderlands 2 that brought the difference into sharp focus. I rarely replay games but I was in between big releases, saw the updated graphics to BL2 and decided I’d play it for a few hours to see if the fresh coat of paint made much of a difference in a game with a cell shaded art style. I figured I’d get a snarky 10 minute video about the pointlessness of remastering a game that doesn’t rely on resolution but instead I found myself replaying the entire thing. Now Borderlands 2 isn’t some perfect game but it is surprisingly enjoyable despite having a bunch of things that also piss me off. Like hours and hours of inventory management. Hours and hours of pressing buttons to open boxes and then pressing the same button up to seven more times to pick shit up from the boxes. Occasionally janky combat, needlessly slow progression and frustrating deaths against certain enemies. I am, admittedly, very easily frustrated.
Still, even as I found myself mildly pissed off fairly regularly something kept pushing me through in a thoroughly active state of engagement. I never got bored in the way I did with the Division 2, Far Cry 5, Anthem, or Assasins Creed Odyssey. Those games have much higher production values and in many ways much more streamlined and polished gameplay or inventory systems. The Division 2 in particular plays like a team of a thousand developers sanded down every single edge until the experience was so smooth and inoffensive you’d never find something to complain about. So what was it? Why did I enjoy this huge, long, basically open world loot filled game when AC Odyssey felt like it had been purposely designed to waste my time? Why did I genuinely enjoy my second 60+ hours with BL 2 when the Division 2 had me playing in a kind of generally positive, sleep like state of zen? Why did I never get bored here while Anthem kept me playing even as my frustration continued to rise to marriage risking levels of salt.
It’s the difference between rat park and rat jail. The difference between enjoying something and being addicted to something.
Before we get specifically into why Borderlands works so well I need to explain two things that people who rarely think deeply about addiction don’t seem to understand. First is the interesting fact that only a tiny sliver of people become addicted to something. Second: that tiny sliver of people become addicted to things because they are intrinsically awesome.
For a long time policy makers in our nation have crafted laws and allocated resources on a hilariously and fundamentally incorrect assumption. The assumption was that certain things, in and of themselves, caused addiction. If this assumption had been correct drugs, indeed, would have been an incalculable societal plague. But decades of research has proven that only about %5 of people who try a drug will ever become addicted to it. Addiction is caused when despair meets a stimulus at just the right moment. Give 100 people a hit of heroin once and it’s extremely likely none will become addicted. Give that 100 people heroin once a month for a year and eventually you’ll land on a person who gets that hit JUST at the moment when it magically erases all their despair and replaces it with a warm fuzzy blanket of euphoric disinterest. Which leads us to the second fact.
Heroin is, inarguably, awesome in the true sense of the word. I speak from a painful amount of experience on the matter both personal and professional. People only get addicted to things that provide a positive experience. People get addicted to cocaine not Ex-lax. They get addicted to sugary foods and not fresh spinach. They get addicted to shopping and not paying down debt.
The problem with addiction is never the substance or behavior itself. If alcoholism was an alcohol problem the world would be a cesspool of vomit stained sidewalks and violence against women. Well...much more of one than it already is. Alcohol can be used without becoming addicted. It’s fun to get drunk and getting drunk doesn’t make you A DRUNK. Getting drunk to the exclusion of anything else makes you a drunk.
Games have finally found the key to the rat brain with their loot systems. Watching Overwatch’s loot boxes open feels exactly like pulling a slot machine’s handle. Gambling can be fun because getting shiny stuff is fun, winning is fun and winning shiny stuff is double fun. The purpose of this essay isn’t to do a detailed history of the emergence of addictive loot and gameplay systems over the last ten years but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least call attention to the fact that games have begun to hone in on recreating the addictive reward cycle to the exclusion of all else.
I’ve watched as games went from loot being a fun reward that helped you progress to the end of a game, to loot being the driving force behind hundreds of hours of play, to being the entire reason for the hundreds of hours of play, to the explosion of Battle Royale modes which are the ultimate expression of the addictive loot reward game cycle. The crack cocaine of the looter game. A game mode that relies on random loot drops to decide who wins and loses. And then takes all of your loot away every 20 minutes so you have do it again. It should go without saying but I’ll note, again from deep personal experience, crack cocaine is inherently and spectacularly awesome. For a little bit. Then it’s nightmarishly horrific. Like Fortnite.
So when I criticize the design of the modern loot game I’m not making a value judgment about the core appeal of these systems. The inherent appeal is obvious and enjoyable. Getting loot in games if fun, as is heroin. I’m merely pointing out that the same general drive is at play here.
There’s a lot of hype surrounding BL3 and when you read posts about why people are hyped you almost always see things about how they love the loot system. Because I’d mainly been reading about people looking forward to a game that “gets loot right” I found myself quite a bit less excited than most. Because honestly I find the sheer volume of loot in Borderlands to be exhausting. You spend an outrageous amount of time picking shit up and then opening a menu and comparing it to other, similar shit. Then you spend more time equipping both and deciding which is marginally better before having to find a vending machine because your backpack is full, again, then selling one before doing it all again 17 minutes later. If the loot was the most important thing it’s likely I’d have stopped playing the game after 2 hours. I’ve got better things to be addicted to. I don’t like inventory management. It feels like homework. It feels like something I must do in order to keep playing the game part of a game. Fallout 76 felt like the developers had mathematically arrived at a time limit I was allowed to play before paying for whatever fun I’d had by doing fucking math. I have the unpopular opinion that almost every game ever would be improved by cutting the amount of shit I have to pick up by half. I’m replaying Wolfenstein 2 and the amount of times I have to look at the floor and aim at a 1 mm squared point in space to pick up armor is borderline horrific. In the last 3 years I must have spent 100 hours looking at the ground while strafing side to side pressing x on my controller. Or E on my keyboard.
Now BL2 is less toxically awful in this regard because at least %6.38 of the time you’re picking shit up you get something fun. The guns are very cool and it is fun to use the different types of weapons but the loot is only a tiny part of what makes the game so compelling. I remember the big outcry that loot dropped too rarely in Destiny 1 but I never agreed. In Destiny 2 you cannot go literally one minute without something having to be picked up and then deleted in a menu. I maintain that less loot of better quality is preferable (though less addictive) to a diarrhea geyser of loot I’ll need to sell or deconstruct or drop on the fucking ground so I can sprint again. BL2 buries you in loot. It drowns you in shit. You end up literally needing to pick up loot as you fight. It’s too much loot is what I’m saying. And yet.... If I find the torrent of loot to be too much of the game what could possibly have kept me playing so long?
I really struggled trying to figure it out for awhile. Because make no mistake I had a blast replaying BL2. A good 40 percent of the time I play games I’m either cursing or sighing and I almost never did that here. So, again, what was the secret sauce. Was it the gun play? No, the gun play is fine but its not spectacular or even above average. I definitely enjoyed the combat more than The Division but probably less than Destiny or Warframe or Doom. Was it the enemy design? There is a great amount of enemy variety and most of the combat sections are challenging enough to be fun but that’s not it either. For every excellent battle scenario that mixes 8 different enemies that all require different approaches there are five more gauntlets of killing 35 dogs that repeatedly spawn out of holes in the ground. Maybe it was the level design? Now this does matter. Borderlands 2 does a fantastic job with it’s semi open world maps. The world is big and diverse with regions feeling distinct and featuring enemies that fit the locations. The maps are big enough to feel like you’re exploring and things are cleverly hidden to reward exploration but it’s avoids being a massive chore. It’s not an endless expanse of rusted cars and ghouls or 3000 miles of ancient Greece that all looks exactly the same but it’s more good than great. You don’t marvel at the levels greatness so much as never get annoyed. Now a game that doesn’t annoy me with it’s shitty open world map is rare so credit where it’s due but...no it’s not the main reason either.
It was only near the end when I completed a certain questline that it hit me. Borderlands 2 is excellent because all of your actions are contextualized and this contextualization means the game never becomes an addictive cycle of compulsion.
I need to give a shoutout to Anthem here because it was Anthem that made me realize what’s so compelling about Borderlands 2.
I am absolutely fascinated by how amazingly terrible Anthem is. And because I remain shocked and amazed at the level of failure in every system of the game I have been logging in every so often just to kind of catch up with it’s stunning levels of tedium. I recently played 5 legendary contracts in Anthem and a couple of legendary missions to check out my new I7-8700k cpu while I was in the middle of BL2 and found the game remains shockingly fucking boring. Truly, titanically boring. Anthem is the Ambien of video games and yet there are still, I assume, at least thousands of players logging in daily to a game that has players running a single mission on repeat as the only efficient way to farm it’s underwhelming and poorly designed loot. The only reason those people are logging in is because the base mechanics of the game are smooth enough to be addicting and the reward system managed to give a certain amount of people a hit of Legendary gear at exactly the moment they were most susceptible to getting hooked.
As I was flying from one hot and cold mini game to the next I started wondering if anyone could find this engaging and fun. There’s simply not enough there to prevent a player from getting bored. It was this couple of hours while in the middle of playing Borderlands 2 that really drove home what was wrong with the game. And it’s the same thing that’s wrong in another, much much better game.
Why does the Division 2 blur into an enjoyable but incredibly forgettable series of combat encounters? Why does Anthem put me to sleep? Because the range of reasons for the shooting and looting is insanely low. You’re rarely given much of a reason at all. And when you are it’s almost always something incredibly shallow and forgettable. Or so silly it makes you shake your head and sigh. Or so dumb it makes you angry. Or at least, it makes me angry. Sometimes you’re given literally no reason at all. The game will just be like “Yo. Kill bandits.”
I can only remember a tiny few of the reasons I did any mission in The Division. I liberated control points because...they were red and I wanted them to be green. I was sent to save certain dudes because....they were dudes who needed saving. I shut down propaganda broadcasts because they were saying bad things apparently. Oh, I retrieved the declaration of independence. I shot guys in a series of hallways and that somehow saved the president. I remember that because it made me laugh when the president peace’d out by hopping on a ladder and getting pulled into the sky by a helicopter. I tried shooting him but nothing happened.
In Far Cry 5 the only missions I recall are the linear story missions. I saved hostages without names, I took over control points because I needed to fill up a meter. I blew up trucks because I like blowing up trucks sometimes.
Anthem literally wont shut up while you’re doing it’s missions but I can recall only one single example of why I was doing a mission. I remember having to get a gift to give to a lady so I could go to that lady’s party. That’s it. The other 40 hours I killed dudes, picked things up and brought those things to other things for no reason at all as far as I recall.
You’ll often hear a similar complaint about mission design in games and it’s something that specifically appeared in almost every single review of Anthem, including mine. This complaint goes like this. “Every mission is the same. Go here and kill these guys. Or go here and get this thing. Go here and kill these guys and get this thing then bring that thing back to the other thing”. These complaints are totally valid but in the back of my mind I’ve always thought, “But wait now...” Every single game ever boils down to a sequence of repetitive tasks. Dark Souls: Every level is just about killing things and opening shortcuts. Doom: All you do is walk down hallways and pull the trigger.
Borderlands 2 has the exact same mission structure as every other game. Every single mission (and there is an unbelievable amount of missions) is go to this area and kill things. Some of the missions ask you to go somewhere and kill things until those enemies drop an item for you to pick up. Others just want you to kill things until they are dead. So why does go here kill that and pick up an item get insanely repetitive in the Division 2 and Anthem but stay impossibly fresh in Borderlands 2?
Because the context applied to those actions matters an insane amount. More than it actually should. More than we even realize.
Borderlands 2 has an unprecedented amount of context added to these actions. Literally every single quest has a story attached to it. Every cookie cutter fetch quest gives the player a compelling reason to fetch the quest. And the story’s attached to these quests is usually more than “These outlaws are also bad and must also die”.
Even when Borderlands does use that exact same framing device it does it in a unique way by using humor and characterization to not only it’s friendly NPC’s but also it’s enemies. You’re told about specific outlaws, what they did and why they need to be shot in the face. The items you’re told to pick up are interesting or funny. Your told why you should pick them up and why you’re bringing them where you’re bringing them. Anthem has you constantly picking up relics to shut down portals. That’s like eighty percent of the mission design. And, holy crap, will you get tired of finding and picking up relic fragments in Anthem. Borderlands also has you picking things up all the time for quests but even as the act of picking up the item is mechanically identical every time I don’t think Borderlands has you pick up the same item twice. And if it does it’s never for the same reason twice.
There’s a famous and beloved character in the game Tiny Tina and, like all the other friendly NPC’s, she has a quest line for you to complete. The questline is “You Are Cordially Invited” and it boils down to killing flying helicopters and picking up stuff they drop. Going to an area and killing bugs to get a thing. Going to another area and killing bandits to get a thing. Kiting one specific bandit a few hundred feet and doing a wave defense section. This is the basic formula used in Anthem. Go here and kill these things until they drop stuff. Go over here and pick up a thing and maybe fight some enemies while you do. Stand here and do a wave defense section. In fact that is almost every single quest in anthem with almost no variation at all. So why did I have such a good time doing Tiny Tina’s side quest and remembered it almost entirely from 7 years ago when I have only a hazy recollection of any of Anthem’s main story missions that feature the exact same mechanical gameplay system?
Because the framing around the action is unique and interesting. The game is engaging you with more than it’s loot and basic mechanics by appealing to multiple desires at once. It’s getting you interested and not addicted by making sure what you’re picking up is fun and why you’re picking them up is exciting. You’re getting a hand grenade that’s dressed up as a stuffed animal and a small deadly insect inside a jar because those are Tina’s only friends. Then you’re kidnapping an enemy and fighting a wave defense while Tina has a tea party with the bug, the bandit and the stuffed grenade animal while she tortures the person who killed her parents. The character and the story of the quest are both unique and interesting and they lend novelty to the players actions. You want to find the items because you are curious what they are. You want to pick up the items and bring them back because you’re interested in seeing what happens next. The context drives you through the actions and makes them meaningful. And, of course,at the same time the base mechanics of the game are fun enough that you feel compelled to keep engaging with them. Story and context are the rewards for your actions as well as the impetus. And, of course, you’ll also get a gun or some shit after you’re done. Getting shiny shit feels good.
There’s a late game quest where you go to various camps, kill bandits and pick up items to bring back to an NPC. The entire quest line, mechanically, is driving to a location, killing bandits, picking up five items and returning to an NPC. Driving to another camp, picking up five items from garbage cans while fighting off bandits and returning to the NPC and finally fighting a tougher boss enemy. This is the exact same mechanical mission you will do repeatedly in Anthem or The Division 2. It’s probably the 200th time you’ve done this in Borderlands 2, but it’s still totally fresh because the NPC is a robot who wants to be human and the items you’re fetching are clothes and human limbs for the robot to wear. At which point he realizes he doesn’t feel human yet and should kill you because humans are violent. The NPC dialogue is both hilarious and insightful. You want to see what he’ll say next. You’re curious what the robot thinks will make him human. You’re engaged with the mechanics, the world, the story and the character. And so you happily fetch the quest.
There’s a quest where you kill a monster that ate an NPC’s arm and leg for revenge. There’s one where you try and win over a woman Scooter likes only to find she joined the bandits to escape his unwanted advances. You set captive animals free, find out why a mining operation disappeared etc. There are just dozens and dozens of unique characters and an unbelievable amount of imagination went into the creation of these scenarios. It’s almost unprecedented in it’s commitment to making sure you never do the same thing for the same reason twice.
Once I realized this I started to notice how incredibly impressive and rare it is in a shooter and even more so in a looter shooter. Then I started to become truly blown away at the sheer amount of effort that must have gone into creating, writing and scripting this many unique scenarios. It’s a titanic achievement and it’s what kept me plowing through hour after hour. Making rat jail is certainly easier than making rat park. One provides a shower of positive experiences by making certain you’re engaged by a variety of things, in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons while the other focuses on providing one addictive experience over and over. It’s less about surgically designing a game to fill a hole than spraying a garden hose of fun.
Borderlands 2 manages to be a loot game that doesn’t feel like it’s gotten it’s hooks into you. You’re using Borderlands 2 but not getting addicted to it. Because the reasons you’re given for shooting and looting are always either entertaining or thought provoking or ridiculous and funny the NPC’s who gave you these quests suddenly become people you’re attached to. That fetch quest for Tina was funny but it also explained Tina to me. I was rewarded with humor, characterization, dialogue and then after all that came the gun.
Do you remember any of the quest givers in Anthem or in the Division 2? Do you even remember any of the quests? And it’s important to realize that the Division 2 is a very well made game. It’s mechanically tight and thoughtfully designed. It’s feels good to play much like Far Cry 5 or Destiny 2 feel really good to play but these games also put you into a kind of semi conscious state of nebulous enjoyment. You get lulled into continuing on because the game feels good to play even if it’s ridiculously repetitive. Anthem is so repetitive even it’s interesting traversal system and lush graphical fidelity fail to save the experience. None of those games ever engage you beyond their base mechanics and systems. When those systems are sound like Destiny 2, Far Cry 5 or The Division they feel like well made products, when they aren’t sound like Anthem it feels like a mindless chore. But even in the former scenario they don’t ever go beyond feeling like pleasant time wasting. They don’t drive you to play more so much as not give you a good enough reason to stop playing before the next hit of loot.
And, again, the quest themselves in Borderlands 2, the actual mechanics, are exactly the same. Go here, kill these enemies and pick up this thing. But in Borderlands a skippable side quest has you starting a gang war, or avenging a killed pet bird or stealing refund checks from mail boxes because a shop keeper is an asshole. You’re checking on a bad guy’s grandmother, or helping a robot become human, or robbing a train, or helping a bandit burn themselves alive as a sacrifice to a cult. Or breaking up that cult because it’s crazy and worships one of the quest givers as a god. Or killing yourself because the main villain paid you to do it.
The sheer range of context given for player action is incredibly diverse. It’s a lesson that any game in any genre can learn from borderlands 2 and one that we’d all be healthier for looters in particular to learn.
Borderlands defining legacy has ended up being loot and lots of guns. It’s most referenced as the first loot shooter, an FPS Diablo. But that’s not what makes the games so incredibly unique and satisfying to play. It’s loot, abilities and skill tree have all been copied and in some cases surpassed. The one thing that hasn’t been copied is it’s absolutely insane commitment to giving the player a compelling reason for almost every single action he takes. Probably because it’s time consuming and therefore expensive or maybe because nobody even thinks about how damn important that ends up being to the player. Or maybe because smarter devs have realized it’s easier to addict a player for fifty hours than engage them for even one. Maybe it’s ultimately because making things that feel good can be a science while providing lush experiences that add up to being good is art.
Everyone loves Borderlands for it’s charm and humor but that charm and humor are devices that drive the player to complete actions. The 100th time you kill a bandit and pick up a thing should be boring. It should be annoying. I should be thinking about how this is just another example of the disturbing lengths game designers have gone towards using addiction as a model for player engagement. I should be writing that it pissed me off so much my wife yelled at me for cursing at the monitor. But with Borderlands it never is. She didn’t yell at me once the whole time I played and if you lived in my house you’d know that’s Borderlands greatest triumph.
Video games are repetitive by their very nature but they are also unique amongst games in that they are able to provide real narrative framing for all your actions. They can be hollow repetitive tasks that we repeat mindlessly because they feel good or they can be repetitive tasks that cumulatively provide a rich experience that engages us on multiple levels at once.
My greatest fear now is that Gearbox makes Borderlands more like The Division rather than the other way around. I hope Gearbox doesn’t realize they might be even more successful by just designing to our addictions rather than our aspirations. I really, really, really hope that Gearbox fully understands what makes their game so special isn’t a billion guns. The guns are just a way to keep the combat interesting as I plan another tea party or get a robot human limbs to wear so he can feel like a real boy.
If you’re reading this it means you must have found it interesting enough to get to the end. Or I addicted you with my cunning word play. Either way I think it’s fair to ask that you share the article now. Don’t do me dirty. I also am on twitter as Pliny The Welder. And YouTube as Pliny The Welder. You can find those things by googling the platform followed by Pliny The Welder. I’d be thrilled if you checked out my videos over there.