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The Looter Shooter Problem


Ah, looter shooters. Famously bad at launch, often buggy messes, but loved like no other games on the market. It almost seems impossible, to be able to launch a game in such a shabby state and yet fast forward two years and the game is loved by millions. And yet this has happened time and time again in this genre. You’ll never find such a passionate subreddit as a looter shooter based one, and this is for a simple reason – every successful looter shooter gets a lot wrong, but gets one thing very, very right. 

anthem xbox one launch

For a game to demand such a huge time investment it must get at least one thing majorly right to retain its players. It needs to be fun to play a looter shooter, and most of all it needs to be rewarding. Notice that the looters you hear the most positive buzz about are games like Destiny and Outriders, and not Anthem and Marvel’s Avengers. What people fail to remember about these popular looters, however, are the crippling problems these games suffered from at launch. Not one looter shooter has launched successfully, and as we witness the genre becoming more and more popular, the bar gets lower and lower. It seems as one looter shooter is launched, another comes straight after, determined to make every mistake it made, and maybe a few more. Why is there no bottom where it comes to this genre? This is what I’ll be seeking to find out in this article, in no specifically chronological order.

To begin, we have the game that’s not credited enough for the beginning of the popularisation of the looter shooter genre – Destiny. There are two main opinions that seem to float around the internet about Destiny, either that it’s one of the best games around, or that it’s a total poorly managed micro-transaction filled disaster run by developers that don’t care about the players.  

I think that the second point is generally made by people that haven’t played the game since the launch of Destiny 2 or maybe who quit during the exodus of Beyond Light, and that the first point is actually much closer to the truth. See, Destiny 2 as it lives today offers up one of the most, if not the most, compelling gameplay loops that anyone can experience in modern gaming today. It’s the pinnacle of the genre, and pulls more and more people in as it goes, and recently released its best received campaign yet in The Witch Queen. Saying all this, people tend to forget that as Destiny 2 reaches its highest heights yet, it wasn’t always this way. 

destiny the witch queen

Destiny and its sequel were both notoriously terribly launched, for entirely different reasons. The original was almost totally devoid of any story content, or at least any meaningful story. It took until the Taken King expansion released for Destiny to really find its footing, and that was at the twilight of its life. The sequel however, squandered every step forward The Taken King had provided and subsequently ruined the tone of Destiny, along with the gameplay players had come to love for years. This ship was righted of course, but it took a long time for players to gain faith in Bungie. The previously mentioned gameplay was what really helped Destiny retain its player count, as it was and still is some of the tightest, most focused gunplay of any shooter out there. The next chapter of this particular saga was released in 2019- Anthem.

Anthem had all the makings of a great game in the same spirit as Destiny, perhaps more so. It was developed by one of our modern day gaming greats, Bioware, who in previous years had created some of gaming’s greatest moments in Mass Effect. This statement in itself is misleading. The last game that Bioware had produced was in fact a game nowhere near as beloved as its predecessors – Mass Effect Andromeda. Players seemingly forgot about that particular release and went straight into Anthem expecting an experience somewhat akin to Destiny, but in Iron Man suits. Sounds great right? Wrong. Anthem was like Destiny, but in none of the ways that mattered. It wasn’t similar to the Destiny that we all know and love, it was like launch Destiny, with no good story to speak of. It was missing the one feature that made Destiny so popular however- a satisfying gameplay loop. And this wasn’t the only thing Anthem lacked. 

Anthem’s loot system was gutted, sharpened down to the hilt to enable aggressive cosmetic microtransactions. This was a game determined to make every single mistake that Destiny made, but worse, and taking away the things that made Destiny so beloved among fans. At the time of writing, development of Anthem has ceased by Bioware as they move to the development of the next Dragon Age title. In 2019, Jason Schreier published an expose of the working conditions of Bioware, and investigated the reason for all its failures. It wasn’t as if there wasn’t a successful template for a looter shooter, as Destiny had provided that years earlier. The problem was that the staff at Bioware weren’t even allowed to talk about Destiny. Every mention of Destiny was shot down by senior leaders, and this led to a game that, in refusing to acknowledge its direct competitor existed, made every mistake that Destiny had learned from. There was an opposite scenario to this however, and this was Marvel’s Avengers.

marvels avengers

2020 marked the year of the release of Marvel’s Avengers. This was a game so split in its desires and ambitions that it created a half experience. It had a brilliant, imaginative campaign, but this had no reflection at all on the endgame. See, Marvel’s Avengers got right what Anthem didn’t but still missed out on the other thing that made Destiny so rewarding to play – its endgame. Avengers got the gameplay right but totally misjudged the value of an endgame with replayability. This was made infinitely worse by the way Avengers handled loot. 

The thing that made Destiny so enjoyable to play past the main story was that the endgame had a solid gameplay loop and the loot was impactful and totally changed the way you played. What Anthem and Marvel’s Avengers failed to work out is that loot needs to be more than just an addition to a stat sheet. When your gameplay loop relies on loot, there needs to be more to the loot than simple stat boosts and buffs. Sure, Avengers felt great to play, but there was no reward for playing it, killing any ambition players may have had to progress. And now we get to the real killer of looter shooters – monetisation. 

When a game based on loot swaps out the loot’s cosmetic appeal in favour of monetised cosmetics, it really helps to cancel out any sense of reward when collecting said loot. Look at Outriders, as we’ll discuss later, its loot may not have made the hugest difference power wise, but it looked great, so it really drove the player to seek it out. And this isn’t even accounting for the huge number of bugs and poor performance the game enjoyed at launch. Overall, the launch of Marvel’s Avengers was a disaster, and whether it will ever recover is doubtful. 

But this wasn’t the worst we’ve seen from the genre. That award goes to Godfall. 

godfall keyart

Godfall was supposed to be great. A launch game for the PS5, a graphical showcase for the next generation of consoles, and an example of what was to come for the PS5. Instead, it launched to mediocre reviews, a poor player reception, and wasn’t mentioned until recently, where it was announced Godfall was coming to Xbox. This is actually rather amusing, as the developers had previously insisted that the reason Godfall was next-gen exclusive was because the game was simply too powerful to exist anywhere else. The game has since been brought to PS4 and now to the Xbox family. 

The main problems Godfall had were in the very structure of the game. See, looter games before this actually had a pretty decent game structure- complete a story campaign and then grind for loot and manifest more and more power. The problem with Godfall is that its missions simply weren’t fun to play. While they were graphically advanced (and I use that term purposefully, more on that later), the levels were basic in structure- rooms of enemies to kill with sub par combat and little reward. The gear in Godfall was vastly improved from Marvel’s Avengers, but still little more than a statsheet for players to see and not feel. 

The other problem with Godfall was that it was so painfully average. For the extortionate prices the developers were charging for it, the game launched with no existing matchmaking, while being always online, it had no compelling gameplay loop, an unrewarding endgame and a story that made vanilla Destiny look like The Witcher 3. Players had simply been burned too many times, and left the game in droves. 

Looter shooters needed a game that provided instant value, not one that promised it would deliver months later. This was Outriders’ time to shine, and while it shone, it wasn’t quite as lustrous as some wanted due to crippling technical issues. Despite all this however, Outriders was spectacular, a true product of learning from looter shooters of the past, while being held back by the problems of AAA games of the present. 


Outriders was marketed perfectly. Advertised as the anti-live service game, and launching day one on Game Pass, there was no better way for the developers to grab an audience of frustrated looter fans than this. The thing that differentiated Outriders from the rest was that it delivered on launch. The gameplay was fun, balanced by abilities that were upgraded meaningfully the more you played. The loot was stellar, with big cosmetic appeal and huge upgrades that would create opportunities not simply defined by damage output. 

It wasn’t all smooth sailing however. Outriders was crippled with bugs at launch, with an especially unpleasant one that deleted your entire inventory, which was the single worst bug a player of a looter could experience. Players were also left unable to play the game for hours when the game first came out, and Twitch was filled with streamers staring at the loading screens. Obviously this wasn’t the greatest start, but Outriders is an example of a game that wasn’t defined by its launch issues. With meaningful, fun gameplay, a story that didn’t disappoint, and an endgame that provided a rewarding loot game, this was the success that looter shooters needed. Outriders’ success proves some important things about the looter genre, and lays the groundwork for what a lot of AAA games need to do in future in order to succeed.

The main lesson learned by Outriders that it learned off Destiny, the lesson that all the looter games prior to it should have learned, is that looter games need to deliver on launch. A live service model works for a lot of games, but this cannot be an excuse for looters to lack an endgame or a story. 

The three most important parts of any looter games are loot, endgame and story. Without any one of these three things, a looter game will struggle at launch. This is the lesson I feel Outriders learned from Destiny, and what all looters should strive for. Hopefully developers can learn this, and stop pushing out half finished, half baked products like Anthem and Godfall and start taking the time to create polished, unique games like Destiny or Outriders. Technical issues are forgivable if they aren’t deal breakers, but the three main pillars the game stands on? These are things looters cannot skip over. 

If any lesson is learned from the previous years, this needs to be the main one. In the world of looter shooters, good story and loot backed gameplay is king.

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