Gamers can be a finicky bunch, moving from title to title in search of novelty — what does it take to keep players motivated and hanging around? Loot, says an essay over at High Dynamic Range Lying — that's right, the collective 'we' are a bunch of donkeys chasing elusive, just-out-of-our-reach carrots around. I'll buy it as a generalization, since I've spent extra hours obsessively going after rare prizes in some of my beloved RPGs, which have the art of loot baiting down to a science:
The concept has been well-tread in RPGs for years, but it was not until recently that action games started to employ loot theory for their own benefit. Call of Duty 4 introduced a weapon and rank system. As players gain points in matches, their rank goes up, and they earn new weapons and accessories. Levels are frequent enough to keep many players going, and many staunch fans of the game have admitted that they themselves would have quit playing several months before if not for the weapon unlockables and ranking.
Bungie attempted a ranking system with Halo 3, but players did not stick to it the way they stuck to Call of Duty. The reasoning is simple. Even with the initial rank increase and bragging rights, a complete lack of swag meant the rank was largely meaningless, as it offered no real benefit. it was initially motivating, but it didn't last.
Is there any shame in baiting players to, well, play more? There's a fine line to walk in implementing 'loot theory,' but I can think of a number of games that strike that nice balance between giving you encouraging tidbits and not giving it all away. I'm a fan of loot, but it won't keep me playing unless the other parts of the design equation fall into place.
Loot Theory: The Tale of the Donkey and the Carrot [High Dynamic Range Lying via GameSetWatch]