The Evolution Of Looter-Shooters

Looter-shooters have been around for some time now and there’s been some high profile launches and flops in recent years. They’ve provided me with some of the best gaming moments I can remember, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to look at the evolution of the looter shooter.

What is a looter-shooter?

Looter-shooters are a hybrid of shooter & MMO games with classes, levelling up, grinding and randomized loot. Now, if you’ve been hiding under a rock then that sentence may look a little odd and unrecognisable.

Shooters can be defined as first or 3rd person gun-based games. Some notable examples could include Golden Eye, Halo, Gears of War or Doom. MMO’s are massively multiplayer online games where you create a character (class), level them up, gather gear and weapons and work together to bring down huge bosses or explore the game as a team. Grinding describes the repetition of a single activity albeit with slight variation. Finally randomized loot is exactly as described – as you progress through the game you get loot which over time gets more and more powerful. It’s also good for hooking players into the gameplay loop and provides and incentive to come back for more.

All of this adds up to great loot and showing off this to your teammates and competitors in PVE (player vs environment) or PVP (player vs player). The more elaborate the weapons and armour, the harder you’ve grinded to get it (or maybe it was just random luck).

How did looter-shooters evolve?

Back in the 2000’s there were a number of great shooters including Halo, Call of Duty and Gears of War. The standard model for these games was a story mode with online PVP however as online elements became more available in games this opened up the genre to more player vs environment options. Teams and clans could team up in larger numbers and take on enemies together rather than against each other. Infrastructure, internet speeds and servers improved allowing for more complex battles in greater numbers.

World of Warcraft was a worldwide phenomenon at the time and had evolved gameplay including character classes, open world exploration, skill trees and loot. Game developers that were playing MMO’s as kids and teens started developing games themselves and started to combine elements of both shooters and MMO’s into the player experience. Together with games like Diablo 2 and Path of Exile which introduced random weapons, armour and chasing numbers all the elements were there to be put together.

Lets take a look at some of the notable games in the looter-shooter genre.

Tabula Rasa (2007)

Source: Rock, Paper, Shotgun

Tabula Rasa is an MMORPG developed by Destination Games. It was released on November 2nd 2007 and tells the story of humanity’s last stand against an alien race called the Bane. The story takes place in the near future on two planets Arieki and Foreas. The gameplay mixed some aspects from shooters and also RPG elements.

There were missions, story, character creation, a dynamic battlefield and PVP and the game was supposed to be a World of Warcraft killer. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for the game, but it did lay the foundations for things to come.

Hellgate London (2007)

Source: TechRaptor

Hellgate London is a dark fantasy action RPG developed by Flagship Studios originally released on October 31st 2007. It was developed by former Blizzard employees who had previously worked on Diablo.

The game is set in a post-apocalyptic London in 2038 and is a fast, hack and slash game. There’s random elements such as weapons and armour, loot drops and random enemy spawns. The game had single player and online multiplayer features, however over time the multiplayer features have been shut down in the US and Europe. The single player game features a five act story unlocking a new hard mode on completion.

The Developer T3 Entertainment and publisher HanbitSoft bought the game from Flagship Studios in 2010 and relaunched it in 2011. It relaunched again in 2014 with a Tokyo expansion. It launched Hellgate: Tokyo Back From The Dead version in November 2018.

Borderlands (2009)

Source: Game Rant

Borderlands is a Sci-Fi first person shooter with RPG elements created by Gearbox Software and originally released on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC and Mac. The game was revealed in 2007 and released in October 2009.

Borderlands features four-player ‘drop-in, drop-out’ co-op online multi-player as well as a single player story mode. The main gameplay revolves around the first person shooting elements and players have access to a wealth of weapons and enemies to fight. Players also have access to customisable vehicles to add to the action. Players play through a ton of missions with 127 in total – 47 main missions and 80 side quests. Each mission has it’s own rewards such as a weapon, item or revealing a new piece of the story.

Random elements were introduced to the game including a gun generator similar to Diablo’s random item system. This new system generates over 17,000,000 weapons. The system randomises the guns by changing all kinds of attributes including barrel, bullets, scopes, materials and elemental damage.

There’s four character classes each with skills, abilities and their own story. As the characters level up they gain experience points (XP) including health and accuracy. Each character also has three skill trees to work on. The classes include Berserker, Siren, Hunter and Soldier.

Borderlands 2 released in 2012 and Borderlands 3 is set for release in September 2019.

Warframe (2013)

Source: Nintendo

Warframe is a free-to-play third-person shooter RPG developed by Digital Extremes. It was originally released March 2013 on PC and later ported to Playstation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.

Players take on members of the Tenno, a race of ancient warriors who’ve awoken from centuries of cryosleep to find themselves at war with different factions. The Tenno wear Warframes like exo-suits and combined weapons and abilities to take on their enemies.

Many of the games levels are procedurally generated however recent updates have included an open world area to explore and take on opponents. Some story missions are self contained that don’t use procedural generation.

Missions can be played alone or with up to 4 players in a player vs environment co-op way. Each mission is given a ranking indicating how hard the mission is. As players complete missions experience is gained and you can level up your Warframe through better weapons and mods. Mods can be slotted into your Warframe to change the attributes through bonuses and abilities.

The stand out feature of Warframe is that it’s free to play. It’s also managed to avoid many of the pay to win elements seen in other games as everything can be acquired through gameplay. You can choose to buy these items if you want them immediately, however, loot isn’t behind a paywall and is obtainable if you want to grind for it.

Initial reviews were mixed or average, however over the years the community has grown and Digital Extremes have added great content. Now is a great time to jump into the game that has great depth and fantastic gameplay loops.

Destiny (2014)

Source: Bungie

Destiny is a first person “shared world shooter” from the Bungie – the same studio that brought us the Halo series. Having perfected and then sold the IP to Microsoft Bungie went on a journey to create their new big thing.

Destiny is the story of Guardians, the protectors of Earth wielding a great power called The Light. The game is set in our solar system and it’s full of alien races such as The Vex, Fallen, Cabal and Hive. Guardians can be one of three classes – Titan, Hunter and Warlock. Titan’s are the tank of the group, Hunter’s are sleek and fast whereas Warlocks are the space wizards. Destiny has a number of open shared world areas where players can team up and take on different enemy races on different planets. Earth, Mars, Venus, Mercury and the moon are all playable spaces.

Gameplay in the game is split between PVP and PVE game modes. Traditional PVP owes much to Halo and it’s quick action style of play. PVE comes in a number of forms from Strikes where teams of 3 can team up to take on a mission, public events that take place at random in the shared world and then raids are for up to six players. Raids are seen as the pinnacle of the challenge in Destiny content often taking teams hours to complete for the first time.

Destiny has had a number of DLC expansions including The Dark Below (December 2014), The Taken King (September 2015) and Rise of Iron (September 2016). The Taken King was seen as a huge shake up and one of the most successful expansion passes in Destiny’s history. This introduced The Taken – a new enemy race and a fantastic new raid featuring Oryx, the Taken King himself and father of Crota.

Destiny 2 released in September 2017 initially to much fanfare and then was critically panned for being shallow and many of the elements that “made Destiny great” stripped out catering to the casual player. This led to a backlash from the hardcore community, leading to many of the original elements being put back into the game in September 2018 for the Forsaken update.

Destiny features the great gun play that Bungie is known for however it also features some of the richest lore in video games leading to many YouTubers and streamers dedicating their working lives chronicaling the journey of Destiny the game. If you want to get up to speed on Destiny, check out MyNameIsByf’s YouTube Channel.

Destiny is my personal favourite looter-shooter and I’ve sunk around 800 hours into the game to date. If you want to find out how much time you’ve spent on Destiny, you can here.

The Division (2016)

Source: Steam

The Division is an action role playing game from Massive Entertainment originally released in 2016 by Ubisoft. It takes place in the near future in New York City after a virus has been released on the public. The player takes control of a Division Agent tasked with helping take back and rebuild Manhatten.

The Division is a third-person cover shooter in contrast to other games in the looter-shooter genre. Initially, the reviews for the game were generally positive however it faced issues in the endgame with a lack of content.

Players can play through story missions as well as the PVP focused Dark Zones where players can team up to take on roaming packs of opponents. Much like other entries in this series players level up their character collection weapons and armour to upgrade their Agent. The developers continued to work with and listen to the community and released a huge 1.8 update to the game which was widely seen to ‘fix’ the game.

The Division 2 was released on March 9th 2019 to great reviews with many seeing this entry as the new bar other have to aim for in the looter-shooter genre.

Anthem (2019)


Anthem is BioWare’s effort and latest new IP in the looter-shooter story. BioWare have a legendary status among players with games like Starwars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect and Dragon Age.

Anthem is a third person shooter with RPG elements. You take control of your Freelancer in a fully customisable exosuit called a Javelin. Each suit can be personalised to have unique weapons and super human abilities.

Flying is one of the unique selling points of Anthem. You take to the skies flying through ravines, waterfalls and underwater. Weapons in Anthem range from pistols, scout rifles, automatic weapons, shotguns and snipers. Combined with the weapons each Javelin has a number of abilities including rockets, grenades, shields and elemental attacks. Javelin’s have Ultimate abilities also allowing them to attack and destroy groups of enemies and deal major damage to bosses. The central hub for players in the game is Fort Tarsis. This is where you meet other NPCs, customise your javelin through the Forge and pick up quests. There’s daily, weekly and monthly contracts to pick up as a freelancer.

Anthem received a huge marketing push in the build up to release but has since fallen foul from many of the trappings of the genre. The game was seen to be shallow at launch with not much content in the endgame, the story ends abruptly and critically it hasn’t gone down too well. BioWare have promised to continue working on the game but it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to turn this one around.

The good

Looter-shooters have provided me with some of the best gaming moments I can remember. The first time I went through the Vault of Glass with a random team, Taking down Oryx and when Ice Breaker of Gjallahorn & Vex Mythoclast dropped. Through these games I’ve met friends, been introduced to new communities and even discovered Twitch through streamers like KingGothalion, ProfessorBroman and Teawrex. Luke Smith of Bungie jokingly said the true end game was the friend game – although this was said in defence of a shallow Destiny 2, it’s actually true. Many confess to meeting some of their best friends online through looter-shooters.

The story-telling and rich lore behind games like Destiny and Warframe are legendary with 100’s of lore vidoes created on YouTube with millions of subscribers on Twitter, Twitch and other soical platforms – shout out to MyNameIsByf and Wylan Games.

The games of often always online meaning an ever changing landscape, others players popping in and out of games leading to random moments and new possibilities. Games used to be on a linear path – you’d do X, Y and Z to complete the object and then move onto a boss. These more open, less linear games provide the foundation for great stories and for the player to forge their own path.

Games-as-a-service is going to go in the good category here as the idea of dropping an initial release and then the game being constanty upated and improved over time with more story, more loot, more environments is aking to the idea of product development in the software space where you release a MVP and then iterate over time with richer features. There are however drawbacks to this approach which we’ll discuss in a moment.

The not so good

These games are plagued with development problems. Notable games in this category include Destiny and the more recent Anthem with turbulent development cycles. The development of Destiny has been documented by Jason Schreier and is featured in his book Blood, Sweat and Pixels. Recently a similar story has been told of Anthem (again by Jason) which tells the tale of a game coming together in the last 16 months of development together with a whole bunch of stress and anguish at BioWare. The Division 2 was released with much hype and fails to live up to expectation and Warframe started slow too – although this was free-to-play.

It seems many companies set out on a mission to create a grand vision, then somewhere along the way that vision is diluted and diluted some more eventually releasing a much more basic version that originally intended. Often months of patches, bug fixing and content drops follow these rocky launches with some games succeeding and some fading away into the distance.

Together with these tough launches often follows a content drought. The game launches and feels empty and shallow to the audience. New content is eaten up by the audience at an exponential rate often being completed within days leading to long ‘content droughts’ for the hungry audience. These content droughts have led players to leave the game for sometimes short spells but this can lead to falling off the game completely.

Finally, there are in-game monetisation and loot boxes. Many of these games feature gambling-like features such as loot boxes where you buy a box that contains a random item with a chance to get what you want. A good example of this was a seasonal event in the original Destiny called Festival of the Lost (nicknamed festival of the ‘cost’) where you’d purchase loot boxes for a chance to get a unique ghost. Destiny since listened to their community and really trimmed back the monetisation features in Destiny. However, these systems are still in place in many games and do hook people into spending potentially a lot of money in their eco-system. You could argue that the business model for these live-service games has to have these features as they’re not releasing a major game each year and the developer is a business and need to make money to fund their next expansion or a new game.

In summary…

There are pros and cons to these games however my overriding feeling towards these games is definitely positive rather than negative. The friendships I’ve made, the gaming experiences we’ve had together and… of course, the loot that’s dropped.

If you haven’t tried looter-shooters the genre is maturing and there are some great games out there to go and play including The Division 2, Destiny 2 and Warframe. There’s so much more that could be said about looter-shooters. These games are big, have great depth and many are live-service games. They are being constantly updated and are living, breathing worlds with deep lore and fascinating characters. I can’t recommend them enough.