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Loot Box: From Player to Punter

Recent loot box controversies raise some difficult questions that can't be ignored.

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There is certainly a follow the leader mentality in video games. If there's a new successful game design formula or way to monetise you can be pretty sure it will be adopted wholesale. While loot boxes as a concept, the idea of spending a currency (in-game or otherwise) to purchase random bits of content, is something that's generally accepted in free-to-play games or in sectioned off modes (like FIFA's FUT), in traditional AAA experiences it is typically frowned upon. The general notion is that if you pay full price you don't want to have to buy anything more to enjoy the content.

Microtransactions are a red flag to many gamers. Recent examples like NBA 2K18, Forza Motorsport 7, Middle-earth: Shadow of War and the upcoming releases Assassin's Creed Origins and Star Wars Battlefront II illustrate that not only is this now a widespread phenomenon (when it comes to both publishers and genres) there are also various issues you can take with it.

The criticism can fall into different categories. In the case of NBA 2K18 you're not unlocking loot boxes per say, but you're upgrading your character and buying customisation items, and the benefit of buying that currency is massive and lets you skip hours and hours of grinding. Forza Motorsport 7 offers prize crates as a means to unlock its content. While you earn credits in both these games, clearly you'll unlock things faster if you just spend some real money. One of the key components of loot box design is to make it so that the player isn't in control of what they're unlocking next. In some cases it goes completely against objective-based game design. Player agency is sacrificed in order to promote an additional revenue stream.

Loot Box: From Player to Punter
For some people loot boxes serve as great motivation to play, to others it promotes gambling.

Let's be honest. Loot boxes as such isn't great game design. It's a raffle mechanic that is about as inventive as a slot machine. Start players out with some free coins and watch them pull the lever. It's not without reason that the games industry and the online casino industry has close ties, but is it really the route this industry wants to take? Offer free drinks as the punter steps in, and they sit down for a long time, pulling on that lever (apparently it's just button-pressing at casinos these days, but you get the point).

Whether it's FIFA Ultimate Team or physical trading cards it encourages a gambling mentality in young kids and potentially makes them spend more than they can actually afford. Afterall, if grown-up reasonable people like TotalBiscuit (the popular YouTuber's take on loot boxes and gambling can be seen here) can fall victim to these methods, clearly young children are at a much greater risk. Sure there are ways to safeguard against this for parents, but there is certainly a seed planted there in children, a seed to lets them know that if only they'd spend some more money they'd be more successful in the game.

Over in Asia, the "gatcha" design philosophy, which FUT certainly falls into, has become dominant and it has clearly stifled creativity. If you wonder what turned Konami away from big blockbuster AAA titles, it's this. This is something that as gamers we must stand against because this is a very real threat to the entertainment form we've come to love.

Loot Box: From Player to Punter
FUT is a game within a game, in many ways it can be seen as a free-to-play game with pay-to-win mechanics that you need to buy another game to gain access to.

It is pretty clear that the industry is going to be reluctant to self-regulate these practices. ESRB was recently approached about sign-posting loot boxes as gambling, but they felt it didn't fall under that definition. Companies are obliged to maximise revenue, it's the way publicly traded companies work, but in the longterm, this sort of practice could lead to serious issues.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War was just released and once more it feels like the game design has been informed by the desire to create a revenue stream and not the other way around. Loot boxes are shoe-horned into a game that's mainly a single-player adventure (there's online asynchronous online challenges, but it's not really a traditional multiplayer). At first, it's not an issue. You earn enough loot in-game to satisfy needs of both diversity and quality. The same goes for Orc captains. It's just that towards the latter part of the game, when it gets more grindy and where the desire for a high-level legendary to take down that one pesky overlord who's taken over your Fort, that's when those expensive loot boxes with guaranteed legendaries start to sound appealing. And when things like the items you boost your Orc captains with are exclusively found in loot boxes (starting from the cheap ones bought with the generous supply of in-game Mirian), you have to wonder if there wasn't a game designer in the house who thought that adding these specific traits (like a Fire weapon, or a gang of followers) would have been a great addition to add to Nemesis missions in the late game to mix things up and have you organically upgrade your longtime followers. That's the real threat here, that ideas that would actually enhance the experience are substituted for these gambling practices designed to make you spend money. It is going to be interesting to see how Shadow of War fares, as clearly there's been a vocal campaign against the inclusion of loot boxes. If it hurts the bottom line, maybe Warner will learn a lesson? Maybe others will also realise where this might be appropriate and not.

Loot Box: From Player to Punter
Shadow of War offers a confusing amount of currencies and loot boxes. Confusion that serves only one purpose, to make us more inclined to gamble.

We've yet to see exactly what the loot boxes in Assassin's Creed Origins amount to, but on the face of things it seems it is merely a way for people who earn lots of in-game money to spend it by gambling on chests with random loot. Of course, then you can also buy that in-game currency and these items might let you skip past an unnecessarily grind-ridden experience, well, then we've got a problem on our hands. But the jury is still out. It does not sound like the most enticing mechanic to provide in-game moguls with to spend their excess wealth.

In the case of Star Wars Battlefront II we're faced with a dilemma that's been tormenting free-to-play since the dawn of time. Pay-to-win. Now, pay-to-win is something that's not easy to define, or at least it is defined differently in places. Some would say that the only way to avoid pay-to-win in multiplayer is to avoid selling any sort of items except for cosmetic ones. Some would say that as long as it's only about playstyle and not potency, you're okay. If reports are correct Battlefront II enters the grey zone between outright pay-to-win and something that doesn't affect gameplay at all. The option of buying powerful cards to take into battle will clearly not buy a player a win outright, but it could tip the scales between two equally matched players, a disturbance in the Force if you will. How much of a benefit you'd have isn't clear, perhaps it's not that big, perhaps the cards you'll get are plentiful enough that it doesn't really matter, but it's certainly in a space where players are rightfully concerned. Clearly, EA is making a commitment here with a full season of content planned post-launch free of charge. However, as Overwatch has shown, it is possible to finance content purely via cosmetics. In fact, we're pretty positive that alternative skins would be massively popular without bringing in gameplay boosting cards in the mix.

Why is it then that it's no longer enough that we pay full price for a game at launch and in some cases buy a season pass worth of content? Well, games like GTA Online and Overwatch have shown that successful games are not just that but also platforms in themselves. A game like GTAV (with GTA Online along for good measure) has sold so many copies that in many ways it makes more sense to monetise that platform than to make GTAVI (not that it's not coming, it's just that from a business perspective it makes a whole lot of sense to create an economy this way via microtransactions). EA has shown with FUT that it can be as lucrative as the main game itself in many ways. We all know that AAA game development is expensive, and unfortunately unit sales aren't increasing at the same rate as costs.

Loot Box: From Player to Punter
Costs to develop a game like Star Wars Battlefront II force publishers to look for extra revenue streams, but are loot boxes really the way to achieve this?

The average amount earned per sold game needs to rise and for that to happen we could either see higher prices (this has already happened via various limited editions, digital deluxe editions, and of course, DLC), but the lure of microtransaction and by extension loot boxes is that there's no cap on the potential revenue. Make it appealing enough to "whales" and you could see massive amounts come in this way. FUT is clearly an example of a business model that is great at catching these big spenders. It is clearly also pay-to-win (a team assembled by a player who does not spend real money versus one that uses lots of cash to buy packs is not going to be equal in strength). In the case of FUT and equivalents we've kind of been okay with it as there's so much else in FIFA games to enjoy, you're not locked out of enjoying the core game in any way. Perhaps we're also okay with it because it grew out of a design that didn't offer microtransactions originally (a decade ago EA Sports introduced a card collecting mode in their Champions League spin-off).

In the case of Overwatch and Star Wars Battlefront II the idea is that we should accept microtransactions because the game is being updated at no additional cost. Most players draw the line at transactions that affect game balance (pay-to-win), but adding this element of gambling and status is also a tricky proposition. We're still dealing with what is essentially a mechanic designed to get potential gambling addicts hooked. We had those issues as far back as with Team Fortress 2 and its hats. Most of us don't have a problem not having a particular hat and enjoy the game as it is, but for some not having those items becomes a big problem... one they may resort to throwing money at. While few games dare create an outside market for these items (like CS:GO), isn't it bad enough that we're constantly being reminded to gamble? That we're being treated as potential cash cows rather than valued players?

A few years back there was an example of a game that used a loot box mechanic, but it didn't actually have microtransactions at first (they were introduced later on) where it actually felt like a great fit. That game was Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare. Clearly, the concept of the sticker album came before the idea to monetise it. It was a brilliant fit with the universe. And we think that's where a lot of developers are doing it wrong; game design needs to come first. Maybe that was one of the problems with the design of its sequel, that it prioritised the business model over rewarding game design. There's a tremendous danger in having game designers become monetisation experts because in a choice between creating great art and paying your bills it's easy to see which one wins out.

Loot Box: From Player to Punter

Microtransactions are not going away. Neither are loot boxes, at least not anytime soon. But game developers and publishers need to wisen up fast or there will be more protests and rightly so. As players, we're used to being treated with a certain amount of respect, and we don't expect to have a game remind us of a potential fast track to glory every few minutes. We don't play games simply to finish them, we play them to achieve something, to be rewarded for our efforts, and to have our time respected. Great game design always remembers and honours that, and it's when that gets forgotten that we've got a problem on our hands.

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