When it comes to video games, people love to have something to complain about and I’m no different. From the beginning of DLC and map packs becoming a commonality, many were worried that this would be the start of a down-hill slope into some dystopian system where developers would force players into paying to unlock the full game. The prominence of loot boxes in 2017 has only added to this epidemic. That may not be the case right now (at least for most games), but on this current trajectory, it’s certainly not looking good.
First off it’s important to note that a lot of games have implemented microtransactions and loot boxes for many years. Some have used these features in an effective and, for the most part, non-invasive way. Games like Dota, League of Legends, which are free-to-play and Overwatch offer cosmetic customisation options for people who enjoy the game and want to get a new outfit or weapon skin. It’s completely optional and you can happily play these games without spending a penny if you so choose. Many games which implement pay-to-win elements are free-to-play and their use is now pretty standard. They make their money through people buying items for small amounts of money several times. But more and more, full priced games are pushing these free-to-play systems almost insisting that you buy loot boxes and tokens. The progression systems are built to make it an unbearably long grind otherwise. Games are becoming services that need to have a constant flow of income to make them viable products.
When EA first showed Star Wars: Battlefront 2 at E3 this year they were quick to address concerns from the last game and explained how much bigger this game is than the last and most importantly, that all the DLC maps would be free. Considering the major criticism of the first was the dearth of content in the base game, I was pretty excited about this move. Similarly, Titanfall 2 went this way, giving players new maps and modes for free while offering cosmetic items to buy. But what concerns me and many others from the recent open beta is the trade-off for a ‘pay to win’ mentality that Battlefront seems to push right out the gate.
To progress you need cards, to get cards you need loot boxes, to get loot boxes you need credits, to get credits you need to play. Seems straightforward enough, but the problem lies within how you get those credits; where it seems that you are given a lump-sum at the end of a match rather than it being performance-based, with only a small bonus for winning. Getting weapons is another issue altogether. Each class has an extra weapon available to buy which cost crafting parts. The crafting parts are found in loot crates in minuscule amounts, making your collection of them very slow. Each class is also leveled up according to how many cards you have for the specific class. Meaning you can literally pay to level up a specific class.
In the beta, you are given a few boxes as you play, but it takes a good few matches to get enough credits to buy a box. Each box gives you three items including perks, abilities and crafting parts used to buy weapons. In a recent video explaining his dissatisfaction with the beta, Angry Joe did a rough estimation that you’d have to open 720 boxes to get 12 weapons, assuming that there are at least four for each class at around 3,600 hours of gameplay. Which is ridiculous. These are also randomised, meaning you aren’t always going to get something you want and the items you get in the boxes themselves aren’t really that interesting. Angry Joe also points out that each card is upgradable, which also cost crafting parts. Some cards offer a clear advantage when fully upgraded compared to the lower tiers.
Cosmetic items are one thing but when the only way to progress your character is through randomised loot boxes, which if you don’t buy you will more than likely be at a disadvantage, and your performance in a match doesn’t affect your progression. EA has responded to the criticism of the beta claiming that the “most powerful items in the game [will] only earnable via in-game achievements”. This addresses one of the major concerns, but it remains to be seen just how the system will work in the full game but it’s doubtful that many substantial changes will be made.
Forza 7 is another notable case of microtransaction dependant progression where the cars available for purchase are separated into tiers forcing you to buy a certain number of cars in each tier before you can progress to the next tier and so on. Which makes getting to the best cars an unrelenting slog. Unless of course, you buy in. You can buy tokens which straight up give you cars and if buy one of many special editions of the game you are given limited use XP boosts to make this progression quicker.
Perhaps the strangest game to implement a loot box system this year is Middle Earth: Shadow of War. A single-player game with online elements. These boxes, for the most part, are completely optional and you can go most of the game without even looking at the marketplace as you find better loot almost constantly while taking out the game’s orc captains.
The problem revolves around the army building in the last act of the game. Where after taking a fortress you have to staff it with dominated orc captains, level those captains up and defend it from other orcs as well as players. The best orcs you can get are Legendary Orcs, which are very hard to get without paying for gold coins or grinding for inordinate amounts of time. You can buy crates with in-game currency, but these are unlikely to give you legendary orcs. The gold crates are tied to the gold coins which are bought in tiered bulk packs with real money. This is the only way to ensure you get the best loot, making it much harder to ignore altogether when finishing the game may depend on it.
Recently, EA shut down Visceral who were working on an untitled single-player game in the Star Wars universe. Initially, it was going to be directed by Amy Hennig, known for her great work on the Uncharted series. But EA announced in a blog post that “In its current form, it was shaping up to be a story-based, linear adventure game” and in order “to deliver an experience that players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come, we needed to pivot the design”. This goes back to the idea of games as a service, rather n product. In a linear, single-player game someone would likely buy the game, finish it once and never touch it again. But developers have more of an incentive to create a product which periodically releases new material and to have microtransactions to give the games more longevity. And while this is a positive for certain games, there seems to diminishing importance for single-player games in the market. This year has seen great AAA-titles like Horizon: Zero Dawn, but these games are beginning to be few and far between. It may have to fall onto Indie developers to bring a story-driven experience in the same way. This year’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a great example of this; it was a short, linear experience and was all the better for it. When big titles begin to add in unnecessary content just to add longevity to a game that perhaps doesn’t need it, then players may begin to look elsewhere for succinct, cohesive stories within games.
The other side of this argument is that games are increasingly becoming more expensive to develop and prices of standard games have not risen to accommodate this. A lot of people, myself included would understandably be upset if this did happen and it may reflect poorly on their sales. But the videogame industry is now bigger than it has ever been, and while you most certainly get more bang for your buck than the comparatively tiny games of decades past, many gamers simply want to experience a story in a game and not interact with any online elements or microtransactions. But when progression is tied to these systems, it becomes impossible to avoid.
The ways in which the extra content is marketed at players is also a contentious issue. Advertisements for DLC or button prompts to buy in-game currency plague many menus, cropping up at any opportune moment. But perhaps more sinister is a patent by Activision outlining a system to push microtransactions in online games by matching players who have purchased in-game items, with people who have not in order to incentivise more players to make more purchases.
“The microtransaction engine may analyze various items used by marquee players and, if the items are being promoted for sale, match the marquee player with another player (e.g., a junior player) that does not use or own the items. Similarly, the microtransaction engine may identify items to be promoted, identify marquee players that use those items, and match the marquee players with other players who do not use those items. In this manner, the microtransaction engine may leverage the matchmaking abilities described herein to influence purchase decisions for game-related purchases.”
What’s most troubling about this is the potential effect on gameplay. If the matchmaking purposefully places you with players who have paid money for items, which give them the advantage, then you may find yourself losing more often, leveling up slower. The only way out for some may be to cave and buy a few loot boxes.
Another problem which seems to be overlooked is the gambling aspect of loot boxes and their similarity to slot machines. You put the coins, pull a lever and see what you get, hoping it’s something worthwhile. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ruled that the monetization of in-game items within loot boxes does not qualify as gambling, as the player is always guaranteed to receive something in-game, even if it isn’t what they wanted. They explained how it is a “similar principle to collectible card games”. But despite this vital difference, loot boxes elicit the same responses in the brain as gambling. Dopamine cells are released at a higher level when there is uncertainty involved. This is called the “variable rate reinforcement,” where your “brain kicks into high gear when you’re opening a loot box… because the outcome is uncertain. This is exciting and, for many people, addictive.” And games manufacturers know this, they use these methods knowing that not everyone will buy in, but the small section of people who may be susceptible to the addictive reward system will make up the bulk of microtransaction purchases.
Earlier this year, China’s Ministry of Culture made it illegal to sell loot boxes without plainly stating the actual odds of getting items. This is undeniably better for the consumer as they are aware of what they are likely to receive from their purchase and therefore make a more educated decision whether to buy them or not. Daniel Ahmad, an analyst for Niko Partners stated that this regulation may not have a major impact because “those who do spend are usually dedicated enough to buy until they draw the result they want. So even a low drop rate/probability rate wouldn’t deter them from playing.” This again plays into the addictive nature of loot boxes, where even knowing the probability may even encourage as getting something good maybe even more rewarding.
These decisions mark a decidedly worrying trend where developers not only want you to shell out for the base game at full price and a season pass for almost the same amount but also currency to buy randomised loot boxes where you might just get something to give you the edge. While this is far from being something new, it hasn’t been this prominent in major releases, especially single player games. But the fact of the matter is that games developers will continue to push the extra content as long as people are buying it. And while a lot of people are outraged by this trend, others don’t pay much attention to it. And those with more money than time are likely to buy something to give them a little boost. Whereas the average gamer who perhaps can only afford a game every now and then is likely going to be left feeling they aren’t getting the full experience unless they’re willing to pay extra for a product they already invested in.