Loot Box Bullshit and AAA Snake Oil

While I risk being the next redundant voice of how some of the gaming community despises loot boxes, I still believe it bears discussion as someone who revolves their life around video games. Going forward, I will try to not repeat anything that has already been done ad nauseam. If you would like further insights on this, check out Jim Sterling or TotalBiscuit’s recent commentary on the matter.

For the uninitiated, the current AAA gaming industry, companies like EA, 2K, or Warner Brothers Interactive, have started to cash in on the ever growing trend of microtransactions. Microtransactions being minor purchases you can make for any given video game. These can range anywhere from cosmetic items to in game items like weapons, perks, and characters, or simply another form of digital currency.

Microtransactions as a practice have been around for quite some time. One can recall Team Fortress 2’s loot crates. Randomly awarded crates that cannot be opened without purchasing keys through their store.  More recently, the Halo series can be seen cashing in with making purchasable requisition packs yielding in game weapons and vehicles. While Overwatch has their random loot box system for cosmetic items and then there’s the never ending deluge of mobile games that basically force you to pay to progress in game. The practice of microtransactions has been around for quite some time, and in some cases can actually be a completely acceptable practice.

However, mainstream “AAA” game publishers have started to take this practice and run with it to unsafe levels. And while seemingly banal on the surface, microtransactions can be violently unhealthy to a game’s community and downright predatory in some cases. And sadly, it seems like there’s nothing to stop the industry from heading this direction.


The Fishy Smell of Loot Boxes

Microtransactions are not inherently problematic in themselves. If implemented in appropriate ways, microtransactions can actually be something enjoyable. In these cases, the purchasing of said content does not affect the way a game is supposed to function. One example are League of Legends skins. LoL is a game that is entirely free but you have the option of buying cosmetic skins for a character that you tend to favor. In this case, you’re getting something that can increase your enjoyment while showing your faithfulness to a developer that respects its community’s coffers. You are never pressured to purchase these items. You know exactly what you’re getting. And in no way does it give you an advantage or change the game as a whole.

While some microtransactions might seem alright on the surface, the systems surrounding them can present problems when it comes to the implementations of microtransactions. A prime example of this is Blizzard’s Overwatch loot box system that has caused some controversy with the community. While loot boxes can be earned simply by leveling up, they can also be purchased. And why would anyone ever purchase one if they can simply play to earn them? The issue comes in that leveling up starts requiring more experience, and although it does plateau early on in it still can take quite a bit of dedicated playtime. Enter in game events that have a limited time frame to earn skins from completely random drawings. The fever that comes from people trying to gain these momentary cosmetic rewards can be a factor in feeling the “need” to purchase a chance at otherwise completely complementary items.

Or take the loot boxes in Warner Brothers Interactive’s  newest title Shadow of War a game that quite frankly has no place for loot boxes but does anyway. Its loot boxes contain followers for your army, weapon and armor upgrades, or one can purchase experience point boosts. These purchases essentially fast track one’s way to the end of the game by artificially powering up their character. Yes, the argument can be made that it’s the player’s choice that they can do what they want with their game. But consider this. The player is essentially paying more to play less of the game by making it easier for them in the long run. At a price tag of $60 USD, the idea of paying more to potentially shorten the game by giving one’s self items you can already acquire within the game is a ludicrous concept.


The AAA Predator

Games like Shadow of War and Overwatch can be played and enjoyed without ever spending a single penny past the initial purchase. Overwatch’s core experience is not changed by loot boxes. Shadow of War can be played entirely with the in game currency system supporting the player. Really it comes down to player choice by giving in and spending the money. But here’s the thing, there is nothing stopping people from putting their loose change into these games. Loose change that they have literally no need to spend. They are getting nothing tangible in terms of an enhanced gaming experience and are paying to roll the dice on vanity items or content they already have access too.

So what does this system really serve to do? It is a way to profiteer off of gamers. A dollar might not be a lot for one person to spend on a loot box, but combine hundreds of thousands of people doling out for chance after chance at something they desperately want and it all adds up. And this is not some sort of claim to conspiracy. It’s just effective business. The cost to income ratio means that publishers and developers have to do very little to earn quite a lot. And well, gaming is a business. Especially in the AAA sector.

But here’s where it can become a problem. These sorts of systems are designed to be addicting. Our brains are hardwired to feel good when we are rewarded, which is essentially what is happening when you open a loot box. Compound this with the idea that maybe, just maybe, if you were to open just one more box you’d get the skin or the emote you’ve been dying to get and you have a recipe for that “just one more” mentality. Take into consideration those with poor impulse control or addictions. For those kinds of people, this system is a perfect storm and what is supposed to be a completely optional way to give back to a developer becomes entrapping.

Where it Gets Worse

During the recent beta for Star Wars: Battlefront II the implementation of a loot box system raised quite a few concerns. Loot boxes can contain emotes, cosmetics, and more concerning are Star Cards(essentially perks), weapons, and attachments. Before continuing, it is worth noting that DICE has taken note of criticisms about their system and have stated that they are going to continue to work on balancing said system. What that looks like remains to be seen, and if it’s anything like it initially set out to be it represents a serious problem in game balance and accessibility.

Initially, getting Star Cards gives the player a set of swappable perks. If you get a Star Card you already have it gets broken down into upgrade material to create a better perk. Combine this with a player stockpiling weapons and attachments. What this presents is a model in which players willing to spend more money on the game have a higher range of options to choose from. It is important to note that certain abilities are not usable til a certain level and the best weapon are to be locked behind milestone achievements. However, this still does not address the fact that people who spend money will be able to progress faster because of the advantage they gain from simply having more, and potentially, better resources. They will be able to equip abilities and items the very second they get to a level as opposed to having to earn it. Meaning they were prepared from the get go.

While I certainly hope this model is altered, it still bears mentioning its effects on a game’s culture. This creates a problem with the atmosphere of the game. Those who are willing to pay will have an advantage over those who do not. Which in turn raises the potential skill floor for people to hop into a game and progress themselves. Under a system like this, the idea of more ardent gamers spending more money on a game so they can have a competitive edge is a factor . Addiction or not, there will be people who will buy whatever loot boxes it takes to get the item they need for a particular play style to work. This makes it harder for people to hop into a game and enjoy it for themselves which is not only bad for the gamers in questions but the game and ultimately the developer and publisher as well. It’s hard to make money off of a game people do not enjoy.


Why it’s really bullshit

With the prevalence of loot boxes coming forth, this has of course prompted a response from the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the group that governs age ratings on video games. The ESRB has now stated that loot boxes are not gambling as it equates them to buying something like a pack of trading cards. The idea that no matter what, the buyer is getting something is the platform they’re sitting on.

Allow me to regale you with Merriam Webster’s primary definition of gambling:

intransitive verb

a :to play a game for money or property

b :to bet on an uncertain outcome

By the very definition of gambling, loot boxes are gambling. A person is giving money over to roll virtual dice in hopes of maybe getting something that they value. It does not matter that they’re guaranteed to get something. It is the notion of not knowing what you are going to get when you give up that dollar that’s key.

However, the debate of whether or not loot boxes are gambling is a matter of semantics. But here’s the real issue. Games that feature real gambling are subject to an Adults Only rating which is a death sentence for retail stores and sites from caring a game. In this situation, what is the ESRB to do when it’s staring down the smoking barrel of the AAA industry that has been implementing these factors all along? How can they, within reason, kneecap the Triple A industry with a decision to the contrary? What kind of backlash would this cause, to state that loot boxes are worthy of an A-o rating? How would it affect the industry? How would it affect the ESRB? This can only be speculated upon as the decision has already been made.

With this sudden influx of loot boxes and other shady and superfluous microtransactions, it’s hard to not to worry about the state of AAA gaming. There are more than enough people who are either uneducated to this reality or completely susceptible to the allure of loot boxes to keep these sorts of practices going.


Big Publishers, Small Promises

All the while, independent developers with a fraction of the staff and relying completely on the goodwill of crowdfunding or dedicated fans to spread their content have been creating success story after success story. Look at games like Shovel Knight, Stardew Valley, and most recently Cuphead that were all created by a minuscule but dedicated staff that simply wanted to create a good game. And while they might not have had the commercial success of a game backed by a multi-million dollar marketing company, they still sold more than can be imagined by such a small company.  They put their passion into making games that played well, so they reviewed well, therefore they sold well. All because they put time and effort into their products rather than money making schemes.

The notion that loot boxes, a subset of microtransactions, are anything but a way to make money is a fallacy, purely blind ignorance to the reality of something that is nothing short of a digital slot machine dispensing vanity and opportunity to those with deep pockets. They are predatory in nature and can mean a damning experience for some gamers. Whether it be the developers’ fault or the publishers’ fault is a case by case basis. Yet, the attention shifts more towards the pressure of publishers hoping to create profit. Either way, loot boxes do not serve the gaming community. However, making a good game does.

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