Loot Boxes Grow in Prevalence and Insidiousness

loot boxes

What ya buyin’?

I’m sure most everyone is sick of reading about loot boxes. Trust me, I’m tired of having to bitch about them. Trust me, we’re all going to hate the prevalence of these little gambling boxes way more soon.

I recently lambasted Microsoft and Turn 10 for introducing loot boxes into Forza Motorsport 7. Back in August, I did the same to Monolith’s Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. It was – and still is – my belief that the loot box phenomenon was hitting critical mass. Game developers and publishers were going to implement these loot boxes more and more as a way to entice players to pay more than the $60 asking price of the game. I honestly thought these two games – particularly Shadow of War – had stooped as low as they could.

Monolith and Warner Bros. Interactive are proving me wrong. Their loot box system apparently puts actual content of the game behind a virtual paywall. Only the most dedicated of players will be able to bypass the paywall to play that content. The rest will have to rely on loot boxes. In addition, Ubisoft seems to be throwing its hat into the ring. Their upcoming game, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, seems to be joining the club.

A Quick Primer

For the uninitiated, allow me to first congratulate you for escaping from under that rock. Loot boxes are virtual boxes that contained randomized items. They saw their beginning in mobile games and have since popped up in many retail video games. The idea is that players can open these boxes and have the chance of obtaining virtual items that can be used in-game. These virtual boxes are usually purchased with some form of virtual currency. Almost invariably, that virtual currency can either be acquired in-game at a very slow rate or purchased outright with real-world cash.

Many, including myself, think of loot boxes as a gambling mechanism. Although the gambling in loot boxes never results in willing actual money (Counter-Strike: Global Offensive was guilty of that, after a fashion), players are gambling for an opportunity to “win” virtual items they want. Needless to say, many people are bothered to see these loot boxes put into games.

Shadow of Greed

Of the two aforementioned games, I was most bothered by Shadow of War’s implementation of loot boxes. I thoroughly enjoyed playing the original game despite my tardiness in playing it, and I was looking to play the sequel. The loot box crap tempered my anticipation. The in-game loot boxes grant purchasers the chance to receive XP boosts as well as abilities and orcs of varying degrees of rarity. All of these items can give players tangible advantages during the game.

My fear is probably the same as everyone else’s: the loot boxes will unbalance the game.  If a player can buy himself or herself a virtual army of powerful purchased orcs, which would be especially useful in Shadow of War’s new multiplayer mode. In that mode, players pit their orc armies against other player-amassed orc armies. Any orcs lost in this mode will be gone forever. Replacing them by grinding through the game would be tedious and long. Purchasing loot boxes, however, can replace your orc ranks much quicker. That introduces a “pay-to-win” mechanic where players who throw a large amount of money at loot boxes gain more virtual power.

Later assurances from Monolith that this was not the case did not assuage my or anyone else’s fear. They insisted that they played the game with the loot boxes disabled to make sure the game can be played normally without an unusually lengthy grind. Their insistence that Shadow of War can be played from beginning to end without resorting to extra purchases.

Pay-to-Play?

Well, they are not telling the whole truth. Reviews have stated that an entire act of Shadow of War, Shadow Wars, will only be accessible by players who either endure a grueling grind or purchase loot boxes. The act is not mandatory; the end of the game’s third act ties things up nicely. But players must complete the Shadow Wars arc in order to see the game’s true ending.

In order to do so, players who do not wish to resort to purchasing loot boxes must spend dozens of hours grinding for powerful orcs. The orcs are needed for fortress defense missions. Grinding for the most powerful orcs means canvassing the entire land looking for orcs to potentially turn to your side. There are no story missions, side quests, or any other typical open-busywork. This is some of the most tedious busywork any player can go through. The player can also earn Mithril, the in-game currency that can be used to buy loot boxes. But Mithril is agonizingly painful to grind for.

Then again, there is an easier route. Players can purchase those loot boxes. That’ll open up Shadow Wars right away.

Nothing New about Loot Boxes

Middle Earth: Shadow of War is far from the first to offer loot boxes in their game.  Blizzard popularized the loot box in Overwatch, although the rewards there were entirely cosmetic. Even though Overwatch loot boxes don’t introduce pay-to-win mechanics, they do incentivize gambling to acquire rare virtual items. I don’t like them, but lots of people do.

Games like Star Wars: Battlefront II take the pay-to-win mechanics of loot boxes to new levels. Their loot boxes contain Star Cards which include stat upgrades for in-game characters, weapons, and abilities. In practice, a player can spend a large amount of real-world money in order to gain an advantage against other players. The other players must then spend loads of money to do the same. It creates an arms race that ultimately benefits two entities, EA and DICE.

EA has been at the forefront of loot box economies for years. Earlier this year, EA CFO Blake Jorgensen mentioned at an investor conference that their Ultimate Team loot box feature makes the video game publisher about $650 million in annual revenue. Ultimate Team is featured in their annualized sports titles. FIFA generates the lion’s share of revenue, although its implementation in Madden and NHL are still substantial.

That number right there explains the real reason why these loot boxes are popping up a lot: they work. Players are enticed by the psychological thrill that loot boxes provide. Tons of studies have researched the addictive properties in games of chance like loot boxes. I’m not qualified to go deeper into the psychology of loot boxes; this article from PC Gamer explains it better than I can. Bottom line: loot boxes exploit base human tendencies, resulting in crippling dependence for players and near-limitless revenue for game developers and publishers.

The French Connection

French developer Ubisoft, never one to shy away from an exploitative money grab, are joining the party. An eagle-eyed NeoGAF user pointed that preview videos of Assassin’s Creed Origins show that loot boxes are present. Previous Assassin’s Creed games used virtual currency to buy upgrades; Assassin’s Creed Unity famously made combat much easier with them. Now the currency will buy loot boxes that can contain powerful upgrades. And, of course, players can buy extra virtual currency by using real-world money.

The spate of loot boxes in games have become more brazen over time. Forza Motorsport 7 hides racing conditions that were toggled freely in previous games behind loot boxes. Shadow of War tweaks the game’s mechanics so that an entire story arc can be unobtainable for many gamers unless they pony up for loot boxes. Star Wars Battlefront II is nakedly selling power in their loot boxes. All these examples stretch the limits of what can be done with loot boxes.

It’ll Get Worse

What’s next? Ace Combat 6 and Metro 2033 both locked difficulties behind microtransactions. Are they capable of locking those difficulties, along with other game-changing modes, inside loot boxes? Street Fighter V already has a Fight Money currency for purchasing costumes and new fighters directly. Could their upcoming Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition take it one step further and require Fight Money to unlock loot boxes that make the fighters and costumes potential rewards? Might Level-5 and/or Bandai Namco think it’s a good idea to lock pets in Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom in loot boxes of their own? Seriously, how far will this go?

I pray that none of those things happen. But if that last one happens, I may just go over the edge. Loot boxes in a JRPG will be the last straw for me.

Despite my feelings about loot boxes, they seem to be here to stay. They seem to be the potential replacement for DLC and Season Passes. They’ve cost me my interest in games that I was anticipating. If enough games resort to this shit – and we all know it will – they will cost me my interest in modern gaming. I’ll sell my Xbox One and PlayStation 4 for about tree fiddy each and stay in the seventh generation. I mean, what’s the point in owning a current console if paying $60 for a new game isn’t enough to enjoy it?

And no, Cousin Jose, you can NOT have my PS4 or Xbone games!

He has been playing video games for longer than he would like to admit, and is passionate about all retro games and systems. He also goes to bars with an NES controller hoping that entering the Konami code will give him thirty chances with the drunk chick at the bar. His interests include vodka, old-school games, women, vodka, and women gamers who drink vodka.

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