We were all Nolan Bushnell's "Neon Lovechild" in the 70s. It was different back then.
I know by now you’ve probably seen your fair share of loot box articles and videos. For the past month or so, the industry at large has been abuzz with discussion and arguments over those frustrating little boxes, and the debate only seems to be getting more intense. There’s not a lot about the negative repercussions of these systems that hasn’t already been said just as well by others (Heather Alexandra has recently gone in depth at Kotaku), but I fully believe that it needs reinforcement. Loot boxes are a unique form of gambling; one meticulously designed to be as predatory as possible.
This year has seen a ridiculous amount of AAA titles featuring loot boxes, a height that could very well be beaten by this time next year. From multiplayer games like Destiny 2, to single player games like Shadow of War, you’d be lucky to find a game that didn’t feature some form of microtransactions. While microtransactions have been burned into our collective expectations at this point, it’s both frustrating and alarming to see them joined by their more insidious cousin, the loot box. While some might say they’ve become more commonplace to help account for the rocketing budgets of these titles, this argument doesn’t hold much water.
For the premier example of loot boxes in action, we look at one specific game: Overwatch. Though loot boxes were utilized in titles such as Mass Effect, and have been common on the mobile market for years, Overwatch has popularized the modern loot box trend in AAA releases. The game also provides us with an incredible look at just how devious the practice can get. There are a lot of systems in Overwatch that drew criticism against Blizzard in the past, with the now-defunct duplicate system and undisclosed drop rates to name a few. The most egregious offender in Overwatch’s arsenal, however, is its handling of seasonal events.
When most games have seasonal events, they tend to cause excitement or celebration. World of Warcraft and other MMOs are the most common place you’ll find these sorts of events, where you’re generally able to pick up the rewards for that year with relative ease or, at the bare minimum, through a playable effort. When these games offer a paid alternative, it’s rarely for that year’s event, often serving as a means to catch up on previous events, if you wanted. These purchases also tend to be a one time only deal, meaning you get to pick exactly what you want, for a set price. It’s a system that could be better, but it accomplishes comfortable access for those who are wanting, while giving corporations exactly what they’re looking for: tons of money.
When Overwatch has a seasonal event, it becomes a stressful and potentially expensive endeavor that just gets worse and worse. This isn’t because the content of the events is necessarily that bad: game modes like Junkenstein’s Revenge and The Omnic Crisis have gained reasonable acclaim, for example. The reason these events are so maligned lies in Overwatch’s core reward system. While most are willing to put up with Overwatch’s standard reward loop of leveling up for a loot box, few are willing to rely on just that to get those rare and elaborate seasonal skins. I can look at my Battle.net friends list and have trouble pointing out more than just one friend who’ve never dabbled in paying for loot boxes.
The trouble isn’t just that people are spending money on a game they’ve already purchased, or even that they’re not getting to pay for the specific content they want, though these are issues in themselves. When Overwatch offers these seasonal skins, Blizzard goes out of its way to make them as tough to get as they can, going as far in recent events as to mark every skin as a legendary, the highest tier of rarity. By doing so, they leave their players either to the whims of their standard in-game progression and randomly generated luck or, more likely, to their impulse and wallets. You’ll either get extremely lucky and get that one rare skin out of dozens that you actually want, or you’ll end up with lower funds and a heap of regret.
This sort of tantalizing marking is all too common in other loot box driven games as well. Destiny 2 locks most of its cosmetics behind “Bright Engrams,” loot boxes that you earn once per level, or through premium currency that must be bought in bundles of $5 each. The insidious part is that you have to go to the shop where you buy Bright Engrams in order to open your free one every single time you level up. Countless other games do this, too: Valve games in particular are infamous for awarding boxes that require a paid key to open. However, most of these games are free to play, rather than full price, and the exception, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, goes at a “budget” base price.
While not necessarily loot boxes, 2K’s long running sports franchises have all descended into what functions essentially as a free-to-play business model for their full price games. While most of the games’ features tend not to change too drastically between releases, the ways you access them have continued to transform at a depressing rate. Most recently, NBA 2K18 has gone all out with their virtual currency, named….Virtual Currency. Though NBA 2K18 lets you pick and choose what you spend it on, the results are often sneakily hidden behind the actual purchase wall. You can’t preview haircuts, and there’s very little information to show what your paid stat upgrades will actually affect until you fork over the dough.
The most alarming evolution of NBA 2K18 is that most of these features were either completely free before, or supplemented by in-game options in previous releases. Haircuts used to be free, unlocked as you progressed through the game, rather than with an extra outlay. Playing single player on higher difficulties used to reward more credits than playing on lower ones, but now it’s a universal reward. Most frustratingly, in order to access a lot of basic features, like adding tattoos to your players, you have to reach higher player ranks, which, as discussed on the NBA 2K subreddit, can take hundreds of games. With its new model, being able to do the bare minimum in customizing your players could take dozens of hours, and it’s impossible to see this as anything but deliberate and heavy-handed attempts at squeezing more out of customers.
A common argument offered in favor of payment models like these is sustainability; the aforementioned opinion that they are necessary to support the ballooning budgets of AAA games. While budgets are definitely on the rise, most of the games that end up utilizing loot boxes are ones that would already earn above and beyond the scope of a decent or even good profit. Overwatch itself has garnered over 30 million users in the last year, which is the same amount as there have been Xbox Ones sold in four. Ignoring certification prices and retailer cuts on consoles, a large amount of those sales were through the Battle.net client, meaning an even steeper cut than usual to Activision and Blizzard themselves.
The odd thing about this rationalization is that it I’ve heard it all before. In fact, I’ve been hearing it for the past decade in support of conventional DLC, and later, microtransactions. The difference between the argument then and the argument now is that both DLC and cosmetic microtransactions tend to be a guaranteed purchase. You know what you’re buying, or what you’re going to buy with them. This form of support has consistently proven to be incredibly effective in enabling long-term post-release development for games that might otherwise have struggled to justify it. Tekken producer Katsuhiro Harada mentioned earlier this year that Tekken 7 is able to sustain a longer and more elaborate support system for the next year with the help of a season pass and other scheduled DLC. While not perfect, these forms of ancillary purchase for a game work well for everyone involved: consumers get new guaranteed content for the thing they like, and the developers get money. It’s a win-win.
If developers truly were getting more support from the addition of loot boxes, or things like Virtual Currency, I’d be more on board. The game industry has always been famous for its poor treatment and exploitation of its laborers, and if this sort of payment model was at least helping improve salaries or stop crunch, it’d be a lot harder to argue against all this. As is, we’re continuing to see that things are remaining more or less the same in the world of gaming. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds raised a stink a couple months ago with their addition of paid loot boxes, which were added primarily to help finance their esports endeavor. Even looking at the recently ended SAG-AFTRA strike, which didn’t end up reaching their original goal of receiving residuals of a game’s profit after launch, it’s easy to see how the working parts of a game are often ignored when the profit comes around.
Whenever I’ve seen arguments like this, they’re typically followed by at least one of three secondary arguments:
- The arguer has never felt the need to buy loot boxes.
- You can earn everything through the game, so there’s no reason to pay.
- Loot boxes are just there as a helpful option for people who don’t have the time.
The dispute with these arguments is that they each come from a place of ignorance, arrogance, or both. The idea that the arguer has never felt the need to buy loot boxes, and that therefore the practice itself and the processes inherent to it are completely acceptable, works off the assumption that everyone should function the same as the arguer. Worse, this argument can often have an “ivory tower” tone: those who do end up dipping into loot boxes are lesser than the staunch True Gamer. Being able to earn everything via the game feeds into this as well: because it’s theoretically possible, it’s then assumed to be reasonably possible, when this is very often not the case.
Padding has been an issue inherent to the games industry for as long as it’s been around. Even in the 90s, it was common practice to bloat a game with an unnecessary amount of grinding or repetitive content in order to give it a higher average playtime. The only difference between then and now is that this content is often enforced and encouraged by the promise of a higher profit for the game’s publisher or developer. While genres such as open world have always been prone to things like activity repetition or arbitrary collectables, they’ve swerved now into a choice: play through that grindy Shadow of War endgame, or rocket past it to the fun bits for a few more dollars.
That’s where the third counterpoint falls apart, when faced with the reality that a developer has a choice. If a game is so repetitive or unfun that a player with little time feels like they should have to pay to get past it, why is that content in the game? If the content is questionably tedious, then why isn’t there just a box to tick somewhere that automates it for them so they can choose to see the content they want? I can’t fathom how, when these games with loot boxes are so often full $60 dollar releases, people can argue that it’s only right to pay more to access the content they want. It’s odd to think about the death of the cheat code: something almost universal to games twenty years ago, that has now been relegated to a payment option.
I find it disappointing that I don’t even want to bother thinking about the newest Overwatch event, let alone play it. Too many events with high play and no reward have left me wondering why I’d even try, if I’m also ignoring just how scummy their loot box model has made me feel. In my eyes, loot boxes can be good: free-to-play games like League of Legends have used them interestingly (if not perfectly), and when I get loot in games like Final Fantasy XIV randomly through in-game means, it can feel amazing. These days, though, when I know that my only reasonable recourse aside from blind luck is to dish out the $$$s, I almost immediately check out.
Loot boxes exist in the state they do solely because the people who cover them and people who consume games have enabled them to. If there ever were truly a problem with the price of games not being high enough, or games not being able to break even, I’d perhaps believe this trend a necessary evil. As is, we’re seeing games without loot boxes proving incredibly successful on their own. We’re seeing breakout indie games make great profits, like Cuphead, which sold over one million units in its first two weeks. If games really are struggling to the point where developers claim they need loot boxes to survive, then maybe that problem should be taken up with their managers, and not the consumers.