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Psychology and Destiny's Loot System

Destiny's loot system leaves out one very important component that could make playing the game more compulsive and habit forming. But it adds in another that might be prolonging player enjoyment after getting a sweet loot drop.

[Jamie Madigan writes about the overlap between psychology and video games. Check out more at or follow him on Twitter.]

I've been playing a lot of Destiny lately, and while it's a shooter at heart, it also has a loot system front and center. You kill stuff and do missions to get loot, which makes your numbers go up, which means you can kill tougher stuff and do harder missions to get better loot, and so on. Destiny even has the standard loot color codes: white, green, blue, purple, and yellow in order of ascending quality.

I've been thinking about the psychology of Destiny's loot system and how it compares to other games. I think they've done one thing well and one thing not as well. Let's look at something I think Bungie's designers flubbed on first.

One of the reasons we love loot drops can be traced back to what's known as a feedback loop or sometimes a habit loop. Psychologists who who have studied how animals and people learn long ago observed that if you pair a reward with a behavior, that behavior gets repeated more often. And if you preceed the pairing with some kind of cue, subjects will learn to engage in the behavior at the sight (or sound, or whatever) of the cue. The reward at the end of the process reinforces the idea that the cue is worth looking for again in the future, creating the feedback loop:

The part of your brain that tries to predict things --good things-- learns to associate the cue with the "behavior -> reward" part of the loop. So you search for and get excited by the cue as if you had gotten the reward. In Diablo III, players quickly learn that elite monsters --for example, color coded foes with unique names-- have a much higher chance of dropping loot. Thus players get excited when they see one and do their best to smash it open like a gory pinata. It turns playing the game into a habit. Let's call that a loot loop:

(Giving out the loot rewards on a random schedule so you're never quite sure what you're going to get makes this loop even more habit-forming. But that's a slightly different topic so let's set it aside.)

The thing about Destiny, though, is that items of any quality can drop randomly from any enemy. Destiny has elite enemies in the form of "Majors" and "Ultras" and bosses, but they are no more likely than trash mobs to drop loot. You can get purple loot from a lowly Vex Goblin and nothing from downing "Xyor the Unwed," a unique (and far more powerful) Fallen Wizard. This means that the "see an elite" cue in the feedback loop is essentially missing from Destiny. It's just "kill stuff" and "maybe reward but probably not."

That's not much of a loop, and the result of how Destiny handles loot drops from defeating enemies means that it's not fully using the power of the habit loop. There's no cue to search for and get excited about beyond seeing an enemy --any enemy. But killing a single enemy yields rewards so rarely that no feedback loop emerges.This is why, by the way, the "loot cave" farming practice evolved. This is when players would continually fire on enemy spawn points for hours on end just so they could brute force the random number generator and get some good rewards through volume of drops alone. It's a direct byproduct of what I describe above.

But all is not bad on the Destiny loot scene. The game does one interesting thing that I think may actually make players happier with their loot drops. Even if it's a bit counter-intuitive.

In 2007 Jaime Kurtz, Timothy Wilson, and Daniel Gilbert did a study on how uncertainty about rewards affects how happy people are with them. They had individual subjects come in to do a task, but before they got started the researchers said that subjects would win a small prize (e.g., a box of chocolates or a coffee mug) if a spin on a roulette wheel favored them. In reality, because all psychologists are compulsive liars, the wheel was rigged so that everyone was a winner.

The trick was that half of the subjects were told immediately which of the prizes they would get at the end of the experimental session. "You'll get that box of chocolates you wanted when we're all done today!" Other subjects, however, were told that they would get one of the prizes, but they wouldn't find out exactly which one until the end of the experimental session. So it's like one group got to identify their loot immediately, while another had to wait until they could go back to town and have Deckard Cain identify it.

Which group do you think was happier for longer according to self reports of mood via questionnaire? Turns out it was the ones who didn't know which prize they were going to get. One reason is simply that the reward is stretched out over time. Another is that we tend to adapt to positive (or negative) emotional experiences fairly quickly so that they level out, which is harder to do when we don't know the specifics of a windfall. 

As I hinted at above, this experiment maps on to video game loot drops. In Destiny, players often receive engrams as loot drops. Engrams are basically unidentified items with the same green/blue/purple color coding scheme. You have to take them back to town to a NPC to have them identified. So like the subject who wins an unknown prize in the study above, getting a purple engram drop is exciting but players don't know exactly what it is until some time later. The anticipation is sweet, and like the subjects in the study, it should increase overall hapiness. For a while, anyway. (Note that this is only true since the latest patch, where Bungie fixed the system so that purple engrams always produce at least purple loot. When the game first launched, that was actually a rarity; you were much more likely to get a worthless green or blue from a purple engram. It was awful, but thankfully Bungie fixed it.)

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go complete the daily strike mission so I can upgrade my exotic chest armor. See you online.

[Jamie Madigan writes about the overlap between psychology and video games. Check out more at or follow him on Twitter.]


Duhigg, Charles (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.

Kurtz, Jaime, Wilson, Timothy, and Gilbert, Daniel (2007). Quantity versus uncertainty: When winning one prize is better than winning two. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(6), 979-985.

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