The Psychology of Destiny’s Loot Systems

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.

My hunter and his hard earned gear.

My hunter and his hard earned gear.

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: 1

habit loop

Really, this stuff is old hat and probably familiar to any student of psychology and/or game developer. 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:

diablo loop

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.” 2

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.3

The fabled "loot cave" (see footnote) is a direct result of the missing step in Destiny's loot loop.

Destiny’s fabled “loot cave” (see footnote) is a direct result of the missing step in Destiny’s loot loop.

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.4 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.

An engram in Destiny. Image courtesy of

An engram in Destiny. Image courtesy of

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.5

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.


1. For more on habit loops, see Duhigg, Charles (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.
2. There’s also the whole random element of whether you get a reward and how good it is, but I’m not going to address that here.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.

13 thoughts on “The Psychology of Destiny’s Loot Systems

  1. Pingback: “the ones who didn’t know which prize they were going to get” | brinwhyldrbest

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  4. I believe you are familiar with Nir Eyal’s book called Hooked? He does a fine job explaining the importance of variability (it’s much more impredictability) when it comes to rewards for digital habit products – which is precisely what an MMO is all about.

    Diablo 3’s auction house destroyed the craving for the reward. Any player sooner or later would find some loot, but ultimately knew he could find infinitely better and cheaper loot at the auction house. And thus D2 was just more enjoyable than D3.

  5. Yep, Eyal’s book is a good one too. I totally agree about the AH in Diablo 3. It undermined the entire loot mechanic of the game. Playing the auction house was not as much fun as playing the game, but everyone did it because it was more efficient.

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  8. Why do you ground these posts on popular psychology books, as opposed to the literature? It bemuses me that you could get through this post without a mention of operant conditioning. While it’s clear that a ‘habbit loop’ is in function of operant conditioning, that isn’t very well explained here.

  9. This is interesting. The habit loop is true. I think time should be considered. The more times the reward does not match the time spent completing the behavior, the less impact the cue will have. Take a traditional habit loop with “tall grass” as the cue, “mowing the lawn” as the behavior, and “payment” as the reward. If the payment is sufficient enough to justify the reward, the cue is remains enticing and motivates one to perform the behavior. The more times the reward doesn’t justify the behavior, the less likely the player will be motivated by the cue. This is multiplied when the behavior is made to consume more time. Now time has become a factor within the behavior to justify the reward. Destiny, in my opinion, failed the cycle there. The time and difficulty of the behavior no longer justifies the high risk of being consistently rewarded below par and with a seemingly non-existing cue. Players are unhappy and feeling like the time performing the behavior was wasted.

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