What happens when the spoils of war start, well, spoiling war? That’s the biggest challenge facing the gaming industry as (nuclear?) winter looms. The scourge of loot boxes, the closest our industry has to opium for the masses, is attacking our troops from within.
Loot boxes rose to mainstream prominence last year with the release of Overwatch, but now they have permeated the frontlines of gaming and are present across a whole range of AAA titles. In Overwatch, the loot boxes are only ‘cosmetic’ and don’t affect gameplay, but that’s not the case in other titles like Need for Speed Payback, Shadow of Mordor and Star Wars Battlefront II.
A loot box, for those who didn’t receive the wire, is the equivalent of buying a packet of trading cards or a lucky dip bag, but in digital form. You pay real-world money for a chance to win items that might improve your game or change your character’s appearance. You don’t have any control over what is in your lucky dip, but there are ‘tiers’ of rewards available, ranging from common to rare. If you’re lucky, you’ll get something rare.
In a free-to-play game, a system like this is an understandable way for developers to earn income. However, in a full-priced €70 game, the (front) lines become very blurred indeed.
Such was the backlash against Star Wars Battlefront II, released on November 7, that EA this week took the unprecedented step of temporarily disabling in-game (real money) purchases. After the game’s release, players estimated that it would take a ridiculous 40 hours of multiplayer gameplay time to unlock Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker in Battlefront II, with each character costing 60,000 credits.
And while these characters were technically not available to purchase directly with real money, they could be won in loot boxes as a rare item. In turn, loot boxes themselves could be bought with real world money, meaning players willing to spend enough extra cash could ‘pay to win’ the game, ploughing money into digital lucky bags in the hope of winning a more powerful rare character.
EA took a few steps to address the matter. They first reduced the price of these characters by 75%. Then they announced that all in-game purchases were being temporarily disabled. In other words, the war generals at EA saw the tide turning against them.
On the stock market, for example, investors expressed concern that the negative press surrounding EA’s loot boxes and in-game purchases would hurt the game’s sales. EA’s stock took a dip as a result. On Reddit, a response from an EA employee about why Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader’s characters were so expensive (“to provide players with a sense of accomplishment and pride for unlocking different heroes”) became the most downvoted comment in Reddit history.
This battle was won through rebellion, but the enemy is growing in number — and the war is far from over. More and more big budget games are introducing ‘pay to win’ mechanics that upset the balance of gameplay and encourage gamers to spend far more than their initial outlay on the experience.
As with every war, however, there are two sides to the story. Developers are not introducing loot boxes and play-to-win mechanics for sheer greed alone, though that is certainly a factor. The cost of developing big budget games only continues to increase, meaning a 70 euro price tag, even when multiplied by millions of purchases, doesn’t always add up to success. If gamers want to keep playing big budget, triple-A releases, then something will eventually have to give. Games ‘as a service’ is inevitable — the question is how to make that system palatable.
Loot boxes are most certainly not the answer. They prey on addictive tendencies and are just one small step away from full-on gambling. In fact, this week Belgium announced that its gaming commission, which regulates gambling in the country, is investigating the practice. Belgium was quickly followed by the Netherlands. Should these countries rule that loot boxes are indeed gambling, the consequences will be vast.
EA responded by defending the use of loot boxes in Battlefront II, with one line standing out: “Once obtained, players are always guaranteed to receive content that can be used in game.” Unlike lottery tickets, loot boxes always guarantee a ‘win’. This is true — but there’s only one winner, and it’s not us.
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