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Loot caves are a lie: Why Destiny's item system isn't as broken as you think

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For the last week or so, many players have been operating under the belief that Destiny is a game about shooting into a cave.

Destiny is a multiplayer online shooter with persistent RPG-style gear.  As is the case in MMO games like World of Warcraft, obtaining better gear is the only way to progress a character once a player reaches the maximum level.

In Destiny, loot comes from "engrams" which are essentially goody bags of various quality that can be opened by an NPC in the game’s main town called the Cryptarch. The quality of the engrams dropped by enemies and the quality of the loot contained in them is a function of the level of the player’s character rather than the enemy dropping the loot, and nearly any enemy in the game can drop engrams.

So players figured out that the best way to get lots of engrams was to kill as many weak enemies as they could, as quickly as possible.

The "loot cave" is a spawn point for a group of low-level enemies in the game’s easiest zone.  If the area the enemies are supposed to occupy is clear, and no players are in the immediate vicinity, they respawn in the cave and run out in a single-file line.

If you kill them very quickly, from across the map with a rifle, they respawn every six seconds, and if you continually shoot into the cave without interruption, this results in the highest number of kills per hour of any activity in the game, and therefore, the highest number of engrams.

Many players have spent a lot of time shooting caves. Bungie responded by patching the most popular areas for farming, but players quickly found new caves that still have fast spawns.

The cave is a lie

Although this method of farming has become very popular, it’s actually a really bad way to gear up in Destiny. If all those players looking for "easy loot" shooting at the cave were getting lots of legendary gear, they’d have completed their sets before Bungie reduced the spawns. Instead, most of them are still stuck around level 24 or 25, and they’re still shooting caves.

Here’s why: While the cave may be an optimal method of engram farming, engrams are a crappy way to get gear. Roughly one in every 200 to 250 enemies will drop a blue or rare-quality engram, and it seems like maybe one in 1000 to 1500 enemies will drop a purple or legendary-quality engram. This translates to about five or six rare engrams per hour of cave farming, and maybe one legendary.

Decoding engrams gives you reputation points with the Cryptarch, and he will reward you for increasing your reputation by sending you a package containing between zero and two legendary engrams in the mail for every 10 engrams you decode. That means three hours of cave farming will generate about 4 legendary engrams.

I call it the disco cave, and I go there to dance

But legendary engrams don’t always yield legendary gear; most of them just give you rare-quality items or crafting materials. And if they do give you legendary gear, it may not be the right gear for your class, or it may not have the stats you’re trying to stack. Warlocks generally want to use equipment that gives them discipline and intellect to reduce the cooldowns for their grenades and supers, but the engrams might contain gear with strength instead.

And the more legendary gear you’ve already got, the more likely your legendary engrams will yield duplicate gear you don’t need, in the unlikely event they yield gear at all. If you work out the numbers, it’s very possible to spend 70 hours or more shooting at the cave and still be stuck with pieces of blue armor.

On top of that, there are many things you can’t control that may reduce your kills-per-hour and make the whole process take even longer.  Low-level players may be questing in the area, and their proximity to the cave can slow the spawns.  Players who don’t understand the mechanics of the cave may stand too close and interfere with the flow of enemies, or they may run in every couple of minutes to see what dropped. Doing so will also stop the spawns, which slows down the process for all the players.

Some players also enjoy trolling the cave farmers by hanging out in the cave, which stops the enemies from spawning altogether.

loot cave troll

And I’ll level with you: by "some players," I mean me. I call it the disco cave, and I go there to dance.  The messages I get are hilarious.

Forget loot caves, do this instead

What you should be doing instead of cave farming is focusing on your reputations for the Vanguard and the Crucible.  These factions have vendors in the Tower who will sell you excellent legendary gear for the marks you earn from completing strikes, public events and Crucible matches.

In order to buy armor, you need to earn rank 2, or a total of 3500 reputation points with the faction you want to buy from, and to buy weapons, you need to earn rank 3, which requires an additional 2500 faction reputation.

Every day there are six bounties available in the tower for each of these factions, and each bounty is worth between 50 and 100 reputation, depending on the challenge. You also get reputation from completing strike playlists and patrols and for finishing Crucible matches.

The cave seems like a shortcut in a grindy gear-progression system

Even if you skip a couple of the harder bounties, like the ones requiring Crucible killstreaks with specific weapons, you can easily get 350 reputation for each faction every day by playing a few Crucible matches and doing some PvE activities like missions, strikes or patrols. Turning in bounties can also trigger an opportunity to undertake a special exotic bounty; a lengthy, difficult quest that rewards an exotic-quality weapon.

Getting to rank 2 with both factions is pretty easy to achieve in two weeks just by doing the bounties, and if you earn 100 marks both weeks in Crucible and Vanguard, you will have enough to buy legendary armor for all four of your equipment slots. If you can get your Vanguard reputation, which is quicker to grind, to level 3 in the third week, they’ll send you a free legendary weapon in the mail, and if it’s not one you like, you can buy another one with your marks.

And, while you’re doing your patrols, strikes and Crucible matches, you’ll still be getting engrams. You won’t find as many as you’d get at the maximum kills-per-hour farming spot, but since the expected yield of engrams is quite low, these other activities will generally do more to advance your character per hour of time you spend playing than the cave does.

If you want to progress efficiently, you have to plan to get your gear from the reputation vendors. The treasure cave seems like a tantalizing shortcut in a lengthy, grindy gear-progression system, but the cave is a lie.

So why does everyone love the loot caves?

While the treasure caves have been very crowded, only about 10 percent of players on the PS4 have earned the trophy for getting the maximum number of Vanguard or Crucible marks in a week, and only 3 percent of players have reached Vanguard rank 3.

I think there are a couple of reasons why the mistaken idea of caves being an optimal solution has taken hold: First of all, people are irrationally discounting the value of a guaranteed future reward, while strongly preferring a very small chance of an immediate reward.

In other words, if you do your bounties every day this week, then you will reach Vanguard rank 2, and you’ll be able to buy your gloves and boots.  But the next monster to pop out of the cave might just drop an engram containing gloves or boots, and then you’ll have it right now!

Of course, you are more likely to shoot the cave for several hours and come away with nothing useful, but that doesn’t matter. People seem to prefer playing a slot machine to working on a project with some future payoff, even if the slot machine’s likely payout is very low, and the project’s reward is only a few days in the future.

Second, as the Bungie developers noted in a recent blog post, Destiny does a really poor job of "reward celebration." I beat the final boss of Vault of Glass, and I got his auto-rifle, Atheon’s Epilogue. The gun is awesome, but Destiny informed me I’d received it by providing a low-key text note and putting the gun into my inventory. A loot drop from a final raid boss is a big deal, but Destiny fails to communicate the importance of that event.

By contrast, when you kill The Warrior, the final boss of Borderlands 2, he sprays loot all over the place, and then you have to run around and pick everything up.  Most of that stuff will turn out to be useless, but it still seems like a much bigger deal than any loot drop in Destiny. The only thing in Destiny that looks like the Warrior’s vault after a successful kill is the floor of the treasure cave.

And getting gear from loot drops is more exciting than getting gear from vendors.  Not many people scream over voice-chat about buying stuff from vendors.  Not many people post YouTube videos of themselves shopping at vendors.  Bungie may be learning a hard lesson about the psychology of its players, and paying a high price for failing to manage the experience of getting loot in a loot-based game.

MMO games like World of Warcraft have had a lot of success training players to work on reputations and collect faction currencies in order to earn gear over a period of weeks or months, but the concept may be unfamiliar and unappealing to console gamers who are accustomed to more immediate payoffs.

Still, if you want to get geared to conquer the raid, or if you want to be ready for the Iron Banner event, you are going to have to overcome the Pavlovian urge to shoot caves for shinies, and pursue a more reliable and methodical strategy for improving your Guardian. It may not feel as good, but you’ll get there faster.