For Better or Worse: Loot Boxes, and Their Effect on The Game Industry

Hey folks,

Paul here. Chop’s a little busy this week, so I’m filling in with something I want to make a thing on the blog, and the cast: For Better or Worse. In this edition, we’re going to look at “Loot Boxes” and how they’re affecting the industry.

Several years back, microtransactions cropped up, and eventually choked the cellular phone market for games. Then they leaked over into the console market either via DLC (more on this in a few) or straight up microtransactions for items in the Free to Play MMO market.

This gave way to the Pay to Win model for cellular and FTPMMO games, which was pretty heavily frowned upon by the general game buying public. Pay to Win gave the ability for those with large wallets (or not so large, tragically) to, quite literally, drop as much money as they wanted in order to get rewards to make the games easier. Either through equipment, or resources, or extra in-game currency. It made for an unfair advantage for those who were willing to spend money on the game beyond the initial purchase, or download.

DLC is another animal altogether, and I don’t know that it’s really fair to include it in the microtransactions that I listed above, but I do want to discuss it as they are (somewhat) similar. 

Let’s get the most infamous piece of DLC out of the way, and the most egregious offender: Horse Armor. In “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion”, Bethesda released a piece of cosmetic DLC for your in-game horse that gave it barding, and made it pretty.

That was it. That was the only function.

It cost you $2.

DLC has been around in one form or another, be it in-game items (Fallout 3, and New Vegas had a lot of these), mission packs, or even a full storyline for the game (hello again Fallout). It’s generally been well received, unless said DLC was locked on the disc at release date (Hello, CAPCOM).

Now to the heart of the matter: Are Loot Boxes better or worse for the industry?

Loot boxes, if you’re not familiar, are a way of dispensing new cosmetic designs, equipment, and in-game currency to the player. Overwatch’s loot box design, for example, is the primary way for a player to receive new skins, new in-game sprays, and player icons. Player’s can purchase skins with in-game currency, and can also purchase loot boxes with real money.

This seems like the norm nowadays, with companies adding loot box systems into one-time purchase games (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds), or free to play games (League of Legends, Dota 2). It’s not uncommon, and in the beginning, didn’t seem very harmful. You were 100% free to play however you wanted, and the in-game currency, or leveling up, won your loot boxes. You could kick a few dollars to the developer, and purchase the loot boxes, accessing cosmetics at a faster rate, but not unbalancing the game in any way.

Now we have loot boxes that offer up items that unbalance the game. New armor, weapons, or boosts, are available in loot boxes. Battlefront 2 has taken a LOT of heat for their loot box system that they tested in open beta. Star Cards offer up upgraded versions of basic stats and abilities for the multiplayer mode. They’re only available in random loot drops, which, on the surface, seems fine. The boxes are purchasable, which is the big issue that people have been giving EA heat over.

They’re theorizing that the boxes will be purchasable with real money, too, which would be a HUGE game balance issue. 

It may be that people are prematurely freaking out, but given EA’s track record, it’s entirely possible that they’re not.

EA and DICE have given assurances that they are definitely listening to the feedback and are looking into making the game as balanced as possible.

This is all for multiplayer, but what happens if single player games start implementing loot boxes?

Hello, Middle Earth: Shadow of War. Let’s chat about you for a few minutes. You’re a $60 game with a loot box model that allows players to drop money on top of the $60 they’ve already spent on you in order to unlock more powerful Uruks to command in a SINGLE. PLAYER. GAME.

Let that sink in for a minute.

There’s a pretty complex system of loot crates and upgrading in the game. There’s three different currencies, and four different categories (and some with subcategories) of loot crates. You can complete daily challenges to earn in-game currency for the crates (why does this feel like a freaking MMO in a single-player game?), or purchase bundles that package up a handful of the loot crates for you to open to receive better gear, or better Uruks.

There’s a huge write-up on Kotaku by Patricia Hernandez that goes very in-depth on the subject. Better than I can do so, but suffice to say I’m pretty negative on the topic, even if Patricia never felt that purchasing loot crates was necessary to progress in the game.

Like them or not, loot boxes have given the industry almost triple the value, and they’re likely here to stay. 

Total Biscuit also gave a pretty lengthy diatribe on the topic, check it out here.

I don’t support them in a single player game. I don’t support them in a balance-breaking fashion of giving people who pay a huge boost as opposed to people who do not. 

However, I support loot boxes that change the cosmetics, or giving the players the option to purchase those cosmetics with IN GAME currency. That’s the thing, if you give the player the option to not pay at all, I’m fine with it. Let people who want to pay, pay for the cosmetic changes. Just don’t break the game balance. 

For Better or Worse, they’re here to stay. Especially when they’re making the industry so much damn money.