Video Games Have a Loot Problem

'God of War' is a great game with an unnecessary loot system.
Image: Sony

Public opinion on video game loot boxes—bundles of random rewards that cost real money—is so negative right now that developers are pulling them out of games and the Entertainment Software Rating Board is adding an "in-game purchases" label to the covers of games that include them.

Well, gamers, I see your outrage about paid loot boxes and raise you: Too many games have loot systems. Not loot that I have to pay for, but loot, period, the kind you can only earn by playing the game, most common in role-playing games.

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A perfect example of this is the upcoming PlayStation 4 exclusive God of War. As we said in our review, it's a great game: Surprising, exciting, and beautiful. There's almost nothing wrong with it. It also has a fairly deep loot system, and while it's not BAD, I don't see why God of War needs it, either. All it does is distract me from the rest of the game, which I actually want to play.

God of War is an epic game in the truest sense of the word. It follows a character named Kratos and his son Atreus as they tear their way through Norse mythology, fighting dragons, trolls, and other creatures. When Kratos defeats a troll, he puts his axe through his face, takes the troll's giant stone weapon from his hands, and—as the camera swoops dramatically—crushes him with it. It is extremely badass.

You know what is not badass? Spending 20 minutes in menus, comparing the strength stats of Kratos' current shirt against the vitality stats of the shirt I want to buy. Which is better? Should I buy the new shirt now, or should I save my money so I can buy something later? Is it better to have a shirt with higher stats, or is it better to have a shirt with lower stats if it has enough sockets for enchantments that can make it better? I guess that depends on what enchantments I have (or buy), which is complicated because there are about a million of them and they all do different things. Is it better to buy a level 4 green rarity enchantment, or a level 3 purple rarity enchantment? Should I sell the gear I'm no longer using now, or can I upgrade it to something better later?

What the fuck is this game even about, at this point? Because I thought it was about killing dragons and now I've been looking at numbers for so long that I feel like I'm doing my taxes.

Loot systems aren't inherently bad. Blizzard's role-playing game Diablo brought them into the mainstream in 1996, and dozens of game wouldn't have copied it if Diablo didn't do something right. I've literally spent years of my life chasing legendary gear in World of Warcraft, and when Bungie brought the same loot system to a first-person shooter in Destiny, I was into it. Those games are built around the loot treadmill, and I'm a sucker for them, like millions of other players.

But just because loot systems work in those cases doesn't mean that every game needs a loot system. God of War is an roller coaster that comes to a screeching halt every time I have to go into a menu. The loot system in it is well-balanced, it doesn't break the game, I can't ignore it because not having the right gear sometimes means not being able to defeat difficult enemies.

In many games, loot is just filler—a reason to play the same levels over and over again. Players aren't doing anything new, but they pull the lever on the slot machine again and see if they get any goodies. Some games need that casino draw, but God of War is packed with hours of carefully crafted challenges, gorgeous environments, and interesting characters. It already has my attention. I am playing it because it's good and I want to see what's next. I don't always need some artificial, color-coded reward.