GameCentral warns of the dangers of loot boxes, and how unless gamers take a stand against them gaming itself will never be the same.
The days of spending £40 or £50 on a new video game, and that being the only time you ever pay for it, are all but over. Over the last several years pre-orders, season passes, and DLC have all slowly added to the price of a game – or at least the price of seeing all that it offers – but now there is a new and even more controversial way for publishers to increase the cost of games without changing the initial price tag. Loot boxes are not a new concept, but the way they’ve evolved in the last few months could spell the end for traditional video games as we know them.
Inspired by smartphone free-to-play titles, the concept of loot boxes in traditional video games dates back to at least 2010, with Valve’s Team Fortress 2 on PC. The idea is very simple, in that for a small fee (typically less than £1) you pay for a random collection of three or four minor in-game items. Although specific types of box may indicate the rarity of the items inside you never know exactly what they’ll be until you open them, much like buying a pack of trading cards or stickers.
Until this year loot boxes have caused relatively little concern, with last year’s Overwatch being roundly praised for its implementation of the idea. Loot boxes in Overwatch only ever contain cosmetic extras such as new character skins or animations. Lots of people still pay for them, even though they give no in-game advantage, and so Blizzard is able to fund free DLC for everyone in the form of a steady stream of new maps and characters.
While that sounds like a win-win situation the obvious problem is that the random nature of each box’s content means buying one is essentially gambling. Once you’ve paid your money you have no guarantee of what you’re going to get, which creates serious issues for the easily addicted. And particularly for younger players who know they want a particular item but aren’t lucky enough to get it.
Putting the gambling issue to one side though, if all loot boxes worked the same way as Overwatch they’d be far less controversial than they currently are. But the obvious temptation for games publishers is to include items that are not merely cosmetic but provide a specific gameplay advantage.
It’s not just that non-cosmetic extras give an advantage to those that are prepared to pay for it (the so-called ‘pay to win’ complaint) but they have an even more insidious influence on the design of a game. Suddenly it becomes advantageous for companies to design their games so that they’re harder, or at least more frustrating and time-consuming, to play unless you pay extra money.
The creators don’t admit this of course, but especially in a single-player game it’s impossible to trust that a game with non-cosmetic loot boxes hasn’t been engineered to make life more difficult for someone that doesn’t pay more.
buying one is essentially gambling
This threatens to destroy the whole concept of balanced gameplay, where it’s being designed, not for maximum entertainment but for maximum monetisation. There’s been a number of high profile games this autumn that are especially worrying. Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War, for example, has a peculiar end game scenario where, even though the story has reached a natural conclusion, the difficultly level suddenly spikes and you need to start recruiting much more powerful orcs. Which seems suspiciously as if it’s been added purely to encourage the use of loot boxes.
And while Destiny 2’s microtransactions are less problematic than they first seemed (the extras are mostly cosmetic and the ones that aren’t don’t make much difference) Forza Motorsport 7’s similar system completely changes the customisation system for in-game ‘mods’ so that they have only limited-time uses and are difficult to acquire again unless you pay for them.
Star Wars: Battlefront II creates a different conundrum in that EA has been very upfront about the fact that the game features loot boxes with non-cosmetic extras. To compensate for that intrusion though, they’ve promised that all future DLC, in terms of maps and extra characters, will be free. On paper that sounds like a fair exchange, but after the recent beta it’s become clear that it comes at a considerable price in terms of the balance of the gameplay.
A rich player will be able to throw money at Battlefront II and within minutes gain advantages that ordinary players cannot match in weeks of playing the game normally. And some of the advantages are extremely significant too, including things like drastically increasing the effectiveness of weapons and decreasing the amount of damage you take.
Not only that but Battlefront II’s entire customisation system is based purely around loot boxes. You can’t gain new weapons or abilities through anything other than what randomly comes out of a loot box, whether you pay for it with real money or not. So if you’re both unlucky and not particularly rich then you have a significant disadvantage, despite having paid the same to buy the game.
Even if the loot boxes were bought entirely using earned in-game currency you’re still upgrading your character through luck, not judgement. Which flies in the face of almost every established norm of modern game design.
And this is just the start. It’s not hard to imagine how this system can be made more unfair and more addictive. And considering how quickly publishers have latched onto the concept this year it’s almost frightening to think what form it will have morphed into by next Christmas.
But there’s no point trying to pin the blame for any of this on publishers. The people in charge of these companies aren’t gamers, they’re business executives whose only concern is to make profits for their shareholders. They don’t care how those profits are made and they don’t care what people say about their games, especially because what people complain about online often bears little relationship to how they spend their money.
If people didn’t buy loot boxes the idea would’ve been dropped years ago. But the opposite has happened. Not only are loot boxes the foundation of many popular smartphone games but a recent report revealed that since ‘games as a service’ have become popular the value of the games industry as a whole has tripled.
Games as a service is still a fairly vague term, but it refers to a game that is supported with new content for years after its original release. Previously that would’ve been paid for via MMO style subscriptions, but nowadays it’s primarily via microtransactions and loot boxes.
As the report by analyst firm Digital River shows, although gamers are now more resistant than ever to paying full price for a game, on average they actually end up spending more on each game thanks to the slow drip feed of microtransactions. For any competent business person the implications are clear.
Even if some do so in only minor ways, this new wave of loot box-filled games commits the cardinal sin of affecting gameplay and the nature of how you play. Pay to win isn’t even the worst of it, but the fact that video games are no longer being engineered solely to entertain, but to encourage you to gamble with real world money.
Some will call this an exaggeration, and it’s true we are currently only at the thin end of the wedge. But now – over the course of the current Christmas gift-buying season – may be the only opportunity to reverse the trend. And that’s easier done than you might imagine. Just consider how quickly Microsoft changed their original plans for the Xbox One, once they realised that people weren’t pre-ordering it. If publishers think people are being put off from buying their games because of microtransactions they’ll get rid of them just as quickly.
That puts the power to change the games industry squarely in your hands, as a gamer and a consumer. If you don’t like loot boxes and the influence they’re having on games – and the people that play them – then don’t buy them. That’s the only thing that will stop publishers. And yet at the moment they’re only getting the opposite message.
video games are no longer being engineered solely to entertain, but to encourage you to gamble with real world money
The success of non-cosmetic loot boxes tells them that people don’t really care about the games they play as long as they have the illusion of being cheap, and a few milliseconds of endorphin rush from opening a virtual blind bag. But if you don’t agree with that then you have the power to stop it. By not paying for loot boxes, by avoiding games that are irrevocably ruined by them, and by telling publishers exactly why you’re not spending your money with them.
Signing petitions and complaining amongst your friends will do nothing. And it certainly doesn’t matter what we say. We can write articles like this, or complain to developers (even though they’re never the ones making these decisions) but publishers don’t care what we think. We’re not paying their wages… you are.
So think carefully before you make your next purchase, whether it’s a new full price game or some in-game currency to buy a loot box with. Because the way you spend your money over the next three months will shape the future of the video games industry for years to come.