I never got into World of Warcraft because the moment-to-moment gameplay never appealed to me. It’s a shame, because it’s one of those games that I’ve always been interested in, based solely on the fact that I love building characters and, you know, role-playing. It’s something that, despite their best efforts, looter shooters have yet to fully realize.
There’s a reason that WoW has stuck around for so long, and it has nothing to do with the gameplay. Players like to earn better gear, form guilds, and go on raids together. It’s true that all of these elements are present in current looter shooters. Destiny 2’s big draw for a lot of players is its endgame raids and leveling up your character so that you can partake in them. But completing a high-level raid in WoW isn’t just a means to an end to another means to another end, like it is in Destiny 2 and other looter shooters.
Players in WoW aren’t leveling up just to complete raids, then completing raids just so they can earn gear that will help them level up more, so that they can go back and do more raids. They’re leveling up because they feel a connection to their characters and what to get them very specific gear that will help them better their characters’ experience and ability to perform their roles.
Despite the fact that the player characters in WoW don’t really talk or have their own individual storylines the way that, say, Geralt of Rivia does, they do have a ton of personality. This is partly due to the rich lore of the game world itself. The endless conflict between the Horde and the Alliance already gives heightened stakes to the side you choose. Then there are long list of the classes and races available to players from the get go. The person who chooses to play as a blood elf is very different from the person who chooses to play as a dwarf. Classes and specializations provide even further personality to the way you build your character. Playing as a druid is a vastly different experience from playing as a rogue, and choosing to be a guardian druid over a restoration druid gives players an even more specific role to play.
Looter shooters don’t have that level of depth and specificity. Destiny 2 lets you choose one of three classes, but they barely play any differently and their differences only matter in really high-level combat situations. Anthem’s Javelin classes are more specific and will drastically affect the way players deal with enemies, but the game encourages to switch between them whenever you want and don’t create the kind of connection that WoW’s races and classes do. And The Division 2 promises to add a little more specificity to the roles that players choose, but those characters have even less personality than the “human being” mascot from Community.
The irony is that the entire point of looter shooters is to keep people playing them. This is the live service world we know live in, where every multiplayer game needs to keep adding content to keep players engaged and motivated to continue spending money. This is even seeping into single-player experiences, with series like Assassin’s Creed and Hitman constantly adding new content to make players feel like they’re getting more value from their investment. WoW’s expansion model of adding new content every year or so just wouldn’t fly with looter shooters, but Blizzard kept people involved between expansions simply by letting them build characters with which they can form a connection.
Looter shooters have taken a lot from RPGs, but there’s more to creating interesting, engaging role-playing moments than finding better gear and leveling up. Offering players ways to build more specific characters and deeper class roles would go a long way to creating that connection, and that’s good news for developers and publishers who are deeply invested in the genre. There’s still a ton of room to grow. But until looter shooters let me play as a combat medic on one side of a global conflict with other players on the other side, I’ll play them until I beat the main story and then put them back on the shelf.