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The Controversy of Looter Shooters, and is Witchfire One?

A short talk on what's good and what's bad about the looters shooters, and addressing the elephant in the room.

A short talk on what's good and what's bad about the looters shooters, and addressing the elephant in the room.

I asked a few people how they define a looter shooter and each gave me a different answer. “A game about amassing loot”, “A power-up/levelling grind”, “a shooter with RPG elements”.

They’re all right. You can find such a definition on Wikipedia:

Loot shooters are shooter games where the player’s overarching goal is the accumulation of loot; weapons, equipment, armor, accessories and resources. To achieve this players complete tasks framed as quests, missions or campaigns and are rewarded with better weapons, gear and accessories as a result, with the qualities, attributes and perks of such gear generated randomly following certain rarity scales (also known as loot tables). The better gear allows players to take on more difficult missions with potentially more powerful rewards, forming the game’s compulsion loop.

This is also pretty good:

So, on the surface there’s nothing wrong with the genre. Yet somehow we got these comments under our latest video:

Some of that is the inevitable and unfortunate byproduct of showing work-in-progress stuff – we got (justified) comments on the game being too bright and colorful, the HUD taking too much space, etc. – but the looter shooter comments got us a bit puzzled.

I researched the subject and found out that…

(Some) people dislike looter shooters for two major reasons.

The first reason is HUD and UI, with their damage numbers and health bars and such. They “ruin the mood”. I will write a separate post on the subject but meanwhile, a gentle reminder that this game also features the aforementioned but the mood was untouched:

(Please excuse the quality, I wanted to catch multiple health bars visible and high motion is killing YouTube. Note the numbers are damage dealt, not health remaining.)

For now, let’s move to a vastly more important reason for the dislike of looter shooters. In general, as one Redditor put it very nicely:

It’s not the genre, it’s the business model.

That business model is your time and money.

Companies want you to keep playing their game and they want you to pay more for it than just the “initial” price. Whether the latter is justified or not – there are arguments for both – is not important. It is what it is.

But in result, this is what we were force-fed with in the last few years:

  • The RNG and stats and loot systems were brutally pushed into games that were perfectly fine without them.
  • Predatory psychological manipulations, previously known only in the world of mobile games, now infect PC/console video games. Loot boxes is one example.
  • Playtime gets artificially extended through the idea of god rolls (only certain perks on the gear make it shine, the rest is garbage to be dismantled)

I’m sure that’s not all, but I guess you get the idea.

Hard not to agree the above is a disgrace unless you’re a suit that doesn’t give a fuck about games but likes his new yacht and calf implants.

However, again, it’s not the genre, it’s the business model.

So is there anything good about the looter shooters?

There’s a couple of smaller things that work nicely in a looter shooter – like opening up the possibility space with a single piece of gear able to have many faces – but I want to focus only on what I consider two most important things.


Looter shooters offer a virtually endless wave of pretexts to re-play or keep playing the game you like.

When I finished Doom 2 for the first time, I wasn’t done with it. I liked it too much to just move on to the next game. So I figured, okay, this time I’ll get through it finding all the secrets. And I did. Still not done. Let’s bump up the difficulty. Done. Let’s go Nightmare. Boom, done.

But then, short of speedruns or finishing the game with just a banana, I kind of ran out of things to do. I still finished the game a few more times just for fun, but then that was it.

Looter shooters give more pretexts to keep playing them than simply higher difficulty or secrets to find. The loot chase is a good excuse to have one more round of fun. When you think of a game more like it’s a hobby or leisure time activity rather than a checkbox to tick off, pretexts make sense.

Now, someone might ask: but why would I want to play the same game over and over again instead of moving from one unique experience to another?

Well, Sturgeon’s law says that “90% of everything is crap”. It’s not that easy to find a game you truly like. Love, even. They’re rare. So if it happens that you find one, having pretexts to spend more time with it is nice.

The thrill of getting the desired roll (not to be confused with the god roll), the option to attack an activity from a different angle with a new piece of gear/roll, the unexpected fun builds – all of these are good excuses for playability and replayability. What’s not to like about a game that can play out differently each time? Isn’t that why PVP games are so popular?

PENS model

That previous paragraph on replayability has a deeper layer.

I often talk about the PENS (The Player Experience of Need Satisfaction) model I love to use in game design. The super short and simple version is that a good game needs to satisfy four following area:

  • Competence: you know the game and its mechanics
  • Mastery: you can actually play the game well
  • Autonomy: you can play the game on your own terms
  • Relatedness: you emotionally connect to the game and its players

Take Dark Souls for example. In order to beat the game, you have to become Competent at it and understand how to dodge, how to recover your remains, how to level up, etc. But knowing things is only the half of it, because even though you know that a good dodge can save your life, you still need Mastery in order to be able to execute that dodge at the right moment. But which weapons to use, which build to craft, which areas to explore now or later…

…that’s up to you, and that’s Autonomy.

On the other side of the spectrum, a game like Uncharted offers a very narrow range of Competence and Mastery, as it’s simple enough to understand and play. Autonomy is almost non-existent, the linearity is real…

…and you have nothing to say during, say, the jumping segments.

Uncharteds are fine, they compensate for their shortcomings with out of this world tech and visuals, and a fairly engaging story – but they’re certainly not on the same level as Souls. I can safely assume that most of your Souls memories are the atmosphere, the exploration, stat screen and that certain boss fight, while Uncharted memories are mostly the story, the visuals and that one almost QTE-like section.

It’s not Uncharteds’ fault. It’s the nature of the beast. In linear story-driven games re-visiting an area is usually considered cheap, so there’s always something new ahead of you. It’s nice but the downside it you can never master an area/map like you do in PVP games (most Battle Royale games offer only one or two maps you replay over and over again, and let’s not forget the classics…)

….or loot/persistence-layer games like Souls or Destiny.

And here I circle back to Mastery, Competence, Autonomy. If we agree that these things are nice play with in a video game then looter shooters can potentially do them very well. Even if it’s a simple gear farm, you are able to show off your Competence (you know the most efficient speedrun), Mastery (you can actually execute on the speedrun), and Autonomy (usually speedruns include exploits, tricks and bypassing the designer’s plan).

While the PENS model is applicable to many genres, looter shooters have the potential to deliver on all of its fronts.

I guess it’s time now to answer the post’s main question now. How does it all apply to Witchfire? Is it a looter shooter?

Well, yes, but actually no.

Here’s the thing. While we don’t have any of the “business model” bullshit, we do have loot. We have bits of RNG. We have role-playing aspects. We have playability/replayability pretexts, a lot of them.

Technically, then, I guess one can call the game a looter shooter.

However, in our case the emphasis, the core and heart of our work is the challenge itself. The loot is a tool, not the goal. You still need to master the game to be able to finish it, a good RNG won’t do the job for you. Actually, RNG mostly exists to fine tune your weapons, not to redefine them.

In other words, it’s on you to master your weapons and abilities, to come up with a plan and builds that support it, to execute that plan, to adapt and overcome. The witch won’t go down just because you hit a jackpot drop.

When someone says “looter shooter”, for some reason I always focus on the loot part, treating the shooting as just the wrapper. As if the loot is supposed to be the exciting part, and the shooting is just something to help me get it.

We feel it’s the other way around with Witchfire. The shooting – by that I mean “what you do”, so in reality it’s firing guns, casting spells, making builds, etc. – is the focus, and the loot is only there to support it.

But at the end of the day, we’re not going to protest every time someone calls Witchfire a looter shooter. I mean, there will be loot, and there will be shooting. If the label sticks for some reason, we’ll just do our best to bring it back to its former glory.

Question of the Week

Before we get to that, let me quickly address the latest video again. We had a warm reception on most socials but the YouTube commenters were mostly not impressed. Here’s our comment that some might have missed:

I will be addressing the visuals, the damage numbers, and some other stuff soon — like today was about the looter shooter issue. The comments are a good excuse to show the inner workings of the development process.

Now, let’s take a look at this:

Playing a game and watching a game is like reading a book and watching someone read a book. Two completely different experiences.

If your movement is life-like, it might add to immersion (remember the famous camerman-run in Gears?). However, in a first person shooter in which your accuracy and positioning often need to be perfect, such a solution gets in the way.

In other words, the static, lifeless movement might look bad when you watch the gameplay, but you will appreciate it when you have to juggle your moves, guns, and abilities in order to survive the onslaught of the undead.

We do break the rule for a split second in select cases (e.g. the camera moves during melee) but other than this, the unintrusive camera is a necessity. We studied hundreds of shooters from that angle, and the conclusion was obvious.

The good news is – and that is the paradox here – that when the camera is not the hero, you get immersed in the experience more than if it kept impressing you with life-like first person animations.

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