The problem with Loot
How often does this happen to you? After a lengthy firefight against bandits you stroll over to their bodies, hoping to find some bullets for your guns. As you search all of their pockets you discover that all they have is somewhere between zero to a single clip of ammo. “Wait a moment.”, you might think to yourself, “Didn’t this guy just fire off over three clips worth of bullets? I killed his buddies much earlier on, and they do not have anything either!”. You see, Video Games do not like spoiling us, even if it is counter to logic and common sense. In some games a downed foe will only have a supply of ammo equal to the weapons full clip size. When you gaze down at all that nice looking armor the enemy still has on his corpse you might not have the opportunity to collect it. This does create certain abstract situations, such as in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., where you cannot grab an Exo-Skeleton off another guy and repair it. Instead, you have to spend plenty of cash on a brand new (?) suit. In Metro 2033 when you play on higher difficulty ratings you will notice that despite emptying out ten freshly killed foes you might not even have a full clip’s worth of ammo, because each gun and ammo pack will offer only one or two bullets at a time. Fantasy games are not saved from this “Logic” either. In some games you can collect armor and weapons just fine, but the “Gold” logic is absent. You enter a bandit lair, pick the lock to the “Big Loot Chest” and find 50 gold coins. Unless those coins are the size of my palm, why would they be kept in a locked chest? Perhaps a better question is, why do bandits have so little coin if, according to the quest giver, they were a band harassing them for months?
This problem comes from one very silly concept in gaming, which has to be kept to maintain a challenge, balance. My question, is there no other way to keep “balance” while maintaining logic?
The problem with Loot
Why don’t we allow the player to get all the ammo the enemy soldier might have had on himself? Well, there would be just too much ammo for the player then! If he looted more than a single soldier he would have enough ammo to go through the entire game! True, but if you play an FPS or RPG, shouldn’t the challenge be in using your resources properly and effectively, and not forcing the player to artificially run out of ammo? The earlier mentioned S.T.A.L.K.E.R. experience might be giving you a single ammo clip at a time, but later on you had weapons which allowed you to kill foes in a few accurate shots. I ended up with heck loads of ammo. So much that I had to store it in my personal chests. Was I invincible? Hardly. Ammo only allowed me to last longer in a firefight. If the foe was intelligent no amount of ammo would give me the upper hand. In turn, when I fought mutants, their speed often forced me into becoming quicker than they are, rather than spraying bullets like Rambo.
In more and more RPGs ammo is starting to weight. Carrying an armory in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was impossible, and in other games such as Oblivion or Neverwinter Nights how much you carried was dependent on your character build. Most of the time, you would have only what you felt most confident with, storing the rest somewhere safe. If we allowed players to pick up everything, would they become “invincible”? The short answer, No. If an RPG has a limited inventory size, combined with weight, nobody will be able to carry about ten machineguns, a few tons of shells and a few suits of armor.
Let us address another problem. What if a player decided to make multiple hauls, there an back, to bring back all the loot he found? The simple answer in this case is, item state. If you just blew up somebody with a grenade, even if he had some priceless suit of armor, it is unlikely there is anything left of it. You might try repairing it for yourself, but selling it would not be cost-efficient (you spend more on repairs than the sale would bring).
What of the Fantasy loot problem? One idea is following logic and allowing the player to have as much gold as he wants. After all, he will spend it on better gear, which he will need to face tougher foes. These new, far more dangerous foes, could force the player to plan ahead. For example, fighting a dragon could call for something more than a sword and shield. Some sort of incredibly expensive fire resistance amulet? Ballista? Who knows. Of course, we have magic, but magic costs as well. You need spell components, something a lot of games do not actually include. If you needed a Demon’s horn to actually cast some Hellish Fireball it would be far more satisfying (if done properly) than simply using up 15 mana.
There is another side of the coin to all this, the way how games are often structured. At the start of the game you will gather mediocre or low tier loot. As you gain in levels or progress through the story you will get access to far better gear. The problem? It costs way more than any loot you might had gathered so far. Fanatyk sums it up nicely in his inflation article. The sad fact often is that the “Top Level” gear is only marginally better than what you had moments ago, but you have to decide on how you spend all the hard earned cash. You can keep on upgrading your weapons a step at a time, or wait patiently until something even better pops-up (or you find something).
Survival Horror games that actually want to be Survival Horror games, will have to address this clearly. After all, artificially creating incredibly tough situations, by making something drop a pathetically small amount of supplies is not “realistic”. Balance can be achieved in other ways than telling the player “It’s just the way things are!”. In Project Zomboid, for example, you can loot dead survivors, and they will usually have a decent amount of gear on them. Like a true Survival Horror game, PZ will give you a choice on how to use these new resources. Store them for later, or use them. There is no complicated philosophy here. Give the player a full palette of choices, and allow him to decide. Do not decide for him!
Of course, the problem comes with designing such an open and free world. You cannot always offer a player limitless freedom, but you should not shy away from trying. After all, the challenge does not come only from obtaining plenty of loot, but also from using it properly.
Alex “WriterX” Bielski