The Loot Box Saga
When loot boxes made their way from mobile to other gaming markets, they were being implemented in free-to-play games and its there they should have stayed. Its when they started appearing in full retail titles that the trouble really started to brew. This pandora’s box was opened on a large scale by the massively popular hero shooter Overwatch and now loot boxes in premium games are a thing.
Some of you might remember the earlier days of this blog before I had rebranded the site as Evil Geek Cult. I reviewed video game Shadow of Mordor and soon after talked about the reveal of its sequel Shadow of War. I have not talked about it since and Shadow of War has even already released. I never mentioned it again as it was revealed that this single player focused game would be featuring loot boxes in which you could roll for “legendary” orc minions. Tolkien would be rolling in his grave to see his work bastardized in such a way. Worst still, gamers started to complain about the end game in which the “true ending” of Shadow of War was buried behind a giant grind in which loot boxes helped dramatically reduce.
Gamers were excited when EA first announced it would be reviving the much beloved Star Wars: Battlefront. I myself have fond memories of the series. EA’s new take on Battlefront came out swinging and made a butt load of money as anything with Star Wars in the title would. However, the first game came out to a middling reception from fans and critics alike. Star Wars: Battlefront II represented EA’s second chance at bat, but fans and industry professionals were shocked when they got their hands on the recent beta. Loot boxes were intimately tied to the progression system, so much so that it sent rallying cries through the gaming community against the pay to win system. EA has since acknowledged the criticism and stated they would be reworking the system, but one has to wonder how much a system that was so closely balanced around loot boxes can really be reworked so close to launch?
Last month, video game news outlets caught wind of an exploratory RND patent that was granted to the game publisher, Activision, for a multiplayer matchmaking system that would encourage its players to purchase microtransactions through various underhanded tactics. Activision went on record to state that the system was not implemented in any of their games… yet. The patent seems particularly nefarious to gamers who go into multiplayer games assuming that the matchmaking system is designed to match them with players of a similar skill level rather than to reinforce positive feelings about their microtransaction purchases or to sell them on specific in-game items. Here’s a quote from the patent:
“For example, microtransaction engine 128 may identify a junior player to match with a marquee player based on a player profile of the junior player. In a particular example, the junior player may wish to become an expert sniper in a game…Microtransaction engine 128 may match the junior player with a player that is a highly skilled sniper in the game. In this manner, the junior player may be encouraged to make game-related purchases such as a rifle or other item used by the highly skilled sniper.”
The story broke on Rolling Stone’s Glixel and they wrote a really awesome in-depth piece that you can find here for more details. This patent is bad news for gamers, especially since Activision is under no obligation to reveal what games it chooses to implement this matchmaking system in moving forward.
Call of Duty: WWII, which just recently released, takes loot boxes to the next level. Players open loot boxes in an in-game social area on the beaches of Normandy where loot boxes drop from the sky for all to see. Once the box opens, its contents are revealed to all the players within the immediate vicinity. As if that wasn’t enough, the game actively rewards players for watching other players open their loot boxes via a daily challenge system.
The loot box issue has caught the attention of UK lawmakers who were asked to look into the matter by their constituents. There was even an online petition with over 10,000 signatures that forced the UK government to look into the matter. Much like the ESRB, most governments do not recognize loot box systems as a form of gambling, but lawmakers in China have recently passed legislation that forces games to openly display the odds for rolling a particular box.
As much criticism as loot boxes have rightfully recently received from the media and gamers alike, I believe that the system has a place in the gaming space. Loot Boxes can be a really great way for free-to-play games to monetize and reward their player bases, but in that space is where they should have remained. I’ve been playing the MOBA, Smite, for close to 2 years now and think the way they’ve implemented their loot box system is a fair way to do so. With each box, you are clearly shown your odds and rewards are only cosmetic; they are not linked to gameplay in any way. Also, the better the odds for a box, the more in-game currency it costs, an in-game currency you can earn through logging in every day. I think if more games took this approach they’d save themselves a lot of heartaches and a lot of bad press because it builds positive clout with your community.
If you don’t like how a particular loot box system is implemented, don’t forget to vote with your wallet and avoid purchasing the shadier implementations in the future. Companies will continue to use them for as long as they are lucrative. It’s up to the community to reject them or risk watching more and more games use bull shit reward systems.
That’ll do it for this series, folks! On Thursday we’ll be going back to horror so make sure to check back in then. As for loot boxes, they aren’t going away anytime soon, but I’d love to hear what your experiences with these systems have been like (good or bad) in the comments below. See ya Thursday, Acolytes.