What Makes Good Loot Go Bad

Loot, in all forms, is fantastic. In video games, in real life, whatever. Loot is both a reward and a sign of progress and tangible when reaped, something that can’t be said otherwise when harvesting happiness. It’s key, though, that it fit within the definition of “loot” and “looting.” For instance, having gold may be the end game, but the journey of acquiring the gold is where the moment-to-moment satisfaction is found.

But it goes deeper than that. There is the aspect of the unknown, the chance, the randomness. Say you want an ice cream sundae. Of course you could buy one from your local ice cream parlor and that would be that. You know what you’re getting and you get a commensurate amount of satisfaction. There’s nothing wrong with this approach because you want ice cream, they have ice cream, and you have money that they also want. Basically, consumerism!

What if, though, you got your sundae from somewhere else? What if you got it from a source that didn’t even know what went into the sundae? Found on some stoop, taken from a child, or stolen from a secure locked case in the Baskin-Robbins headquarters. I mean, there could literally be anything inside that sundae. You could get extra nuts, a second or third kind of hot fudge, or maybe a colored whip cream spire. Hell, maybe even another sundae!

You could, obviously, also get screwed and end up with a single scoop of month-old, unflavored frozen milk, but that’s part of the fun. It’s the gamble in not knowing what you’re getting with a looted ice cream sundae, but unlike most instances of gambling such as with cards or dice or slots, you are at least guaranteed to get something.

And that’s the difference. In looting, you may be getting a real piece of crap, but at least it’s something. When you throw those dice down the table in Las Vegas, you may end up losing money. In fact, in all likelihood, you will be losing money. Looting, in contrast, is a purely gainful prospect, but the chance is still there. That thrill.

And sometimes it’s good to get a big ol’ lemon out of the deal. Getting zero cherries will make you really appreciate it when you loot a sundae with four cherries. It’s that whole “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” thing, and it’s true. You won’t know what it is to be happy or sad until you get a really shitty ice cream sundae.

But it’s also good to get something way out of your league, like something with eight or nine scoops. You may not be ready for that yet, but when you are, wowee wow are you going to enjoy it. You’re going to soak in all the glory of being able to handle such an impressive frozen treat. Those in your presence will cower at your might.

All of that. All of the good and the bad and the dice-rolling and the illicit-ish acquisitions are all vital to making good loot. It’s a potent combination that is entirely a greater sum than its parts. It’s like baking a cake; any one ingredient by itself isn’t going to be very tasty, but combined, it makes for step one to a great birthday party.

That may be why I soured on Diablo III so quickly. It wasn’t because of the lack of an extended end game like most people (even Blizzard) faulted it for but rather the incredibly banal loot. It felt so…systematic in what I was getting and when and where I got it. As soon as I outgrew my current set of weapons and armor, I was given via loot drops a new set that would perfectly suit me for the next few levels. I rarely got a total piece of crap and I never got something that would stupefy me that anything could be so powerful. Diablo III never sent me to either end of the spectrum so I could appreciate the extremes. All I got was the medium.

In essence, it was as if Diablo III was almost too finely polished. It was a stone too finely hewn; I ended up with a pebble instead of a sculpture. The loot of Diablo II was what kept me playing that game for years on end. Everything was so unknown and it fed perfectly into that “just one more” mentality. Diablo III, however, fed into the “I know what’s coming” mindset, a line of thought easily terminated with “I’ll go play something else.” I want the poorly tuned loot tables corroborating things way below my level as well as way above. I want to feel the cold so I know what it means to be warm.

Perhaps that is why I find both Borderlands and Borderlands 2 to be so successful in the loot department. Borderlands, by most counts, was a broken game, but broken is just the right ways. I recall I once got a shotgun that pretty much had zero accuracy but something like 3000 damage. It was amazing. I could one-shot almost anything so long as I was literally touching the enemy with the tip of the gun. What a blast!

And that was contrasted with the number of times I would get a level 20 gun that would inexplicably have something like 60 damage and no elemental effects. It was worse than vendor trash. I felt bad putting such crap into those vending machines. The next vault hunter there would not be happy with me.

The best part of Borderlands 2 is when I get a gun that’s something like three or four levels above me. It’s a vindication that I had just accomplished something remarkable, sure, but it is also a carrot on stick to push me to keep playing. Unless I’m rocking all purples, it’s likely that even a green or possibly white loot just three levels ahead of me will be better than what I have now, and it makes me salivate. It makes me yearn to have that 20-point bump in damage and half-second reload speed. I can’t wait to get my hands on that 60% chance to ignite and 900 blast radius. I need to get those levels.

And when it turns out that they are absolute crap compared to other guns when I reach that level, I feel even better. It’s a confirmation in my beliefs that there is always something better out there and that I need to find it. It makes me want to open every chest just to prove to myself that I can do better.

Which brings me to a similarly key but mostly superficial point: the chests. Battling enemies and seeing them explode in loot is neat and I wouldn’t give it up for the world, but seeing a big ol’ chest in Borderlands is just magnificent. You see all these little safes and mailboxes stuffed with handfuls of cash and ammo, but you know what you see a honey hole of a treasure chest. It is large. It is ornate. And it pauses.

Yes, that hitch that occurs when you open a weapons chest/outhouse is profound. It’s that moment’s worth of hesitation that makes you fantasize and slobber over the thought of what riches await you. When you press the button to open the chest, it’s very much reactionary. You’ve been trained to press that button whenever you see something lit up in green in the world of Pandora. It’s a call-and-response combination that will always yield you pleasure. But when it hesitates, you are reminded that something momentous is happening. That split second of abject nothingness soaks your brain in the endless possibilities that are hidden beneath that lid. That withholding is both cruel but necessary in the same way you have to unwrap a gift before you know what it is.

And that isn’t really found in Diablo III. The combat is as ancillary-yet-rewarding as you want to make it, but you don’t get the same jollies of opening the big mama chests as in Borderlands. It’s very dry and matter-of-factly in its presentation. Take it or leave it. You don’t get explosions of loot and you don’t get that sprawling, take-it-all-in animation as with those Pandoran treasures. They are propped up, whirring and spinning on mechanical mysteries, and splayed out in a way only Vanna White could handle. Diablo III just poops it out on a floor and leaves it for you to pick it up.

They’re small differences and largely impossible to pin down without coming across as nitpicky and obstinate, but these are crucial differences. When 90% of a game is fantastic, it gets down to those little details that close in on perfection. That last 10% is the small touches that make you feel wrapped up in the game. Diablo III is a good game, but it lacks any surprise or serendipity. Borderlands 2, however, is rife with both. Diablo III is a perfectly tuned drive on the highway from beginning to end while Borderlands 2 is a ski run through untamed woods. And I don’t mind hitting a tree every once in a while if that means I get to dodge a couple along the way.

So I like ice cream sundaes. What are you going to do about it? Probably have one now, too, I guess. I mean it is lunchtime. Kick back and gorge yourself on dessert while you ponder what makes good loot and what makes bad loot. Is that chance of getting crap just as important as getting winners? Or am I wrong on all counts? Tell me!

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