CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was an incredibly influential game, of that gamers can be certain. Many games, from Cyberpunk 2077 to the most recent Assassin’s Creed entries have taken cues from The Witcher 3‘s design, however not always for the better. Particularly, how loot was distributed in these games. The loot system results in a situation where rewards for a quest pale in comparison to common gear. Not to mention how the pacing is hampered. I’ve taken to calling this phenomenon Witcher Syndrome, WS for short.
What is Witcher Syndrome?
Rewards are deeply important to role-playing games. They’re most of the reason you do quests, after all. I remember a particular mission in Assassin’s Creed Origins, for instance. In order to get a legendary weapon, the player must swim through a sunken temple. This involves finding the temple, fighting any animals nearby, and not drowning before reaching the end. In short, it took no small amount of effort. So, you can imagine my disappointment when it did 30 points less damage than my common sword. There it was, an ornate staff with intricate lore, and it was worse than a bronze short sword I looted off a bandit. Witcher Syndrome strikes again.
Then, there’s pacing. Cyberpunk is, for all intents and purposes, a first-person shooter with RPG elements. This gives it a generally faster pace than its medieval predecessor. However, due to Witcher Syndrome, that pace is harpooned. After a fight, players are forced to check every body for guns or more ammo. While this would normally depend on the player, Cyberpunk offers a very good reason to do so. Most guns looted will be better than yours. It engineers a scenario where you have a high-octane gun battle for five minutes, then spend 10 minutes doing the tidying up.
These are the two main issues of Witcher Syndrome, a lack of actual reward and hamstrung pacing. However, while this is easily traced back to The Witcher 3, the problem itself could simply be due to the general direction of the Gaming Industry. Damage in most role-playing games is represented in numbers. Rewarding players with weapons that have bigger numbers is just logical. As an added bonus, it also makes things easier to quantify and put in loot boxes. However, I’m not talking about microtransactions today. I’m talking about Witcher Syndrome, and how to fix it.
How To Fix It!
The most obvious solution is to WS is to focus on upgrades over loot. While both Cyberpunk and Assassin’s Creed Origins feature upgrades, there’s really no reason to invest in them. It’s much faster, and cheaper, to just pick up a new weapon. Remember, it isn’t player choice if one of the choices is obviously better. Yet, games like Monster Hunter World have shown that giving players upgradable weapons is a good strategy. Every mission reward in Monster Hunter World is a component used to upgrade a weapon or craft one of the same type.
This could be done in RPGs simply by giving players a weak version of every weapon. For instance, say Cyberpunk gave you the iconic weapons, one for each weapon-type, from the very start. This would allow you to see which weapon’s playstyle fits you the best. No more scouring the map for a sniper rifle that you actually want to use rather than the shotgun you found three missions ago. No more rooting through corpses for the same gun that deals 1.5% more damage. Rewards would be upgrades that change how those weapons work, meaning you could customize your playstyle further still, or try a new one with minimal effort.
Witcher Syndrome’s second solution is a bit stranger: simply lessening the amount of loot. It might seem strange to suggest removing gameplay, but consider this. Not every enemy needs to drop a weapon, and having it be a rare moment would give the rewards far more weight. Imagine the joy you’d feel after using the same sword for hours, then getting a super cool magical ax after a long quest. The first thing you would do is find some fleshy mortal to test it out on! Doesn’t that sound more fun than finding yet another iron sword on a guard that’s somehow better than your magic one?
A classic example of this is the original Assassin’s Creed game. You were rewarded with either a new weapon or a new skill associated with that weapon after every assassination. It was a system that helped you feel like you were growing as an assassin, and each mission had a tangible reward. Having quests and side-quests that reward you with skills over new gear will illicit that classic RPG feeling of developing your character. Now, while this would make the weapon pool drastically smaller, that isn’t the problem it sounds like. Having fewer inherent options forces players to think more creatively. Witcher Syndrome has a tendency to bog players down with choices, most of which they will ignore for the most efficient option.
Finally, the strangest of all the solutions to WS. Have stats and skills determine damage, rather than the weapons themselves. This would be odd for a number of reasons. It would make no sense for a pistol to deal more raw damage than a shotgun, your playstyle wouldn’t change very much as you progressed and every weapon that you aren’t proficient in suddenly becomes trash in your inventory. However, this system is already at work in many other games, including Amazon Game Studios’ New World.
New World gives players the ability to refund and re-spend stat and skill points for free until level 20 but costing in-game money at higher levels. This is coupled with a system where the more you use and upgrade a weapon, the stronger it becomes. A sort of hybrid system of Skyrim’s skills and Dark Souls‘ stats and weapon refining. The free refund encourages players to find their style early on by testing the weapons but rewards them for sticking with their builds in the later game.
While Witcher Syndrome has a tendency to bog players down with weapon after weapon, the majority of the loot in New World is either consumable or a crafting component. This gives a streamlined feel to equipment management, but also the option to craft a try a different weapon.
Of course, these solutions have their own problems. Players might not be as willing to get into combat if there isn’t the promise of reward. Plus, weapons essentially doing the same amount of damage means the faster weapons will be picked every time. The best solution here is to experiment. Try different systems in combination with each other. An upgrade-focused system with an emphasis on exploration, where rewards are interesting weapon effects rather than new guns, might be the next big hit. So, if you see the symptoms of Witcher Syndrome in your favorite games, contact a game dev and let them know! They might even listen…