In an ever increasing suite of tools that developers and publishers use to monetize their games why is it that lootboxes stand out head and shoulders among them as the most odious? Lets look at a quick and dirty list of monetization schemes currently present in the game industry before we get started, in no particular order:
- Season Passes
- Premium Currencies
- Pre-Order Bonuses
- Platform Specific Content
- Publisher Specific Content
- Retailer Specific Content (Gamestop)
- Early Access
- Alpha/Beta “Testing” with Purchase
- Forced Multiplayer/MMO Lite Mechanics
- F2P Games (Cost More in Aggregate Than a Full Price $60 Game for the Experience)
- Full Price $60 Games That Still Include Microtransactions
I’m sure there are more but that list is just what comes up off the top of my head. A lot of these you might say could be combined into a single category or are now defunct practices which is a fair criticism. A lot of these things are tied very closely to one another in their implementation but I’ve broken them out like that because it makes it easier to visualize all the different avenues used to siphon more of your entertainment dollars. A practice that I actually have no problem with in theory as long as what you are getting in return is commensurate with the price tag placed on it which is largely not the case in most of the above examples. Today though I’d like to specifically address Lootboxes and why even the “fairest” implementations of them still sour what may be an overall excellent game experience. Lootboxes are a sort of gambling mechanic introduced into games to serve as an alternate form of progression that sidesteps the investment of time and skill for real world dollars. The argument for why this sort of system is okay is predicated on the idea that it is primarily for players who have more money than time. It’s not an argument without merit however it requires such a delicate balance in order to maintain fairness for people who don’t want to pay vs those who overwhelmingly pay to advance. This results in a system referred to as “Pay to Win” when a game has a multiplayer component whose real money transactions confer a competitive advantage on those who use them. It undercuts the importance of skill and emphasizes instead the size of your entertainment budget and the overall luck of what randomized items you get from Lootboxes. Few people want to play a game where on release day players who purchase $1,000 in microtransactions can artificially reign supreme while players who grind their way will have a much harder time doing so. There have also been rumors and rumblings around the industry that companies have gone so far as to use multiplayer matchmaking as a sort of advertisement for items gained through microtransactions. The algorithms used to keep matchmaking roughly even based on skill instead will match newer players with ones who are significantly better equipped in order to encourage the less equipped players to buy lootboxes to be competitive. YouTube creator SidAlpha had a fascinating and chilling video out back in January about the future of microtransactions in games that I highly encourage you to watch for how these mechanics are viewed from the business side.
As these predatory practices have gotten a foothold in mainstream gaming it’s been a rough road for adoption as gamers have fought each step of the way to keep them from becoming the new normal. Unfortunately while it slowed their implementation it has done little if anything to stop it, companies were simply making too much money from them due to the large majority of industry customers not speaking out or still purchasing titles with microtransactions while “Not planning to use them.”. While the sentiment is nice the purchase of the game itself is still profit for the company and as we know not an effective protest of these policies. Thankfully the rise of Indie titles in the last handful of years has given people other outlets and has made it easier to avoid entirely Triple A titles laden with microtransactions and lootboxes. Nintendo has also, as far as I know, steered clear of microtransactions in their games and only this year will for the first time charge for their consoles online service with the Switch. Throughout the last few years language has begun to creep into game development like “Games as a service” which implies that design was now more focused around ongoing experiences that don’t end after a single playthrough but instead keep players returning indefinitely. Linear single player games are tough to monetize like that so multiplayer became a necessity for any title attempting to do so. Adding co-operative or competitive multiplayer to games is not inherently a bad thing however it can still cause problems. If the game development did not originally include a multiplayer then time and resources must be diverted away from the main focus of the game in order to create it which could end up leaving the whole product worse off at release. Games released in that state can feel markedly worse with the inclusion of microtransactions especially if you already feel like you overpaid with the initial $60 price tag.
Over the years many different styles of microtransactions have been tried with varying degrees of success and there are some important distinctions within that:
DLC Packs – Games like the infamous Train Simulator which boast a whopping 437 pieces of downloadable content for sale at a staggering price of $4,132.24 and thats when its on sale for anywhere from 40-90% off. A more popular example would be Just Cause 3 with 12 additional pieces of DLC adding more than the cost of another full Triple A game at $63.39. The Sniper Elite games are also notorious for the slew of small DLC packs post release. Sniper Elite v3 offers an additional $67.87 worth of post release content. Dead or Alive may be one of the most head-scratching examples of this list with the most recent iteration sporting 71 additional DLCs at the low price of only $1,289.79
Cosmetic Only – Games like Overwatch which are critically acclaimed across the industry offer lootboxes however the contents contain only cosmetic items that have no effect on the gameplay, removing balance issues like we’ll get to below. Counter-Strike has a similar system of cosmetics that live completely outside of the mechanics of the game. Most MMOs who implement these microtransactions make them largely cosmetic however when they don’t they are generally very careful about keeping their balance carefully in line with non-premium items. The new Far Cry 5 also includes these types of microtransactions.
Non-Cosmetic Items/Buffs – In this category is where we find games like Battlefront II whose lootboxes were heavily criticised for being “Pay to Win” as you could boost your power and access to items significantly just by paying. AC: Origins although only a single player game has microtransactions that offer more than just cosmetic items including the ability to buy crafting materials and skill points with real money. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War contains an almost needlessly complicated microtransaction/lootbox system that I’m putting under this heading for several reasons. Here is a story over at Kotaku that has a decent breakdown if you’re curious. While I would not classify Team Fortress 2 as a classic Pay2Win game items you can acquire through microtransactions are not strictly cosmetic so it belongs here.
Of these three main types the DLC and Cosmetic only systems are the least offensive for the majority of gamers because they ostensibly exist outside of the full priced product that you buy which should contain the entire experience. Both of these methods were also not popular at the times they were introduced as people rightly felt that studios were holding back content from their initial releases just so it could be sold later and they were not entirely wrong. Day one DLC was a stumbling block as it has been proven several times that DLC content was already loaded onto discs that were sold on release day. Purchasing the “downloadable” content simply grabbed a key which unlocked the content that already existed on the disc seemingly proving that studios were holding back content that should have released as part of the $60 purchase. This was not the case for every game that had DLC but even one unaddressed instance of this opened the door for it happening more and more often. The furor over day one content seemed to hit a peak with Mass Effect 3 when it released with a piece of DLC that contained what many felt was a vital piece of story content that had been teased in the lore since the series started. To put it lightly the move was seen as underhanded and greedy when the people they were fleecing had been loyal fans for nearly a decade. When you see me talk about the developers and publishers responsibility to treat their customers with respect that is a perfect example of a failure to do so. The incredible loyalty and love that Mass Effect fans had for the series waned heavily in the wake of several missteps made with the third entry all of which were entirely avoidable. The other issue with DLC comes in the form of Season Passes which have a questionable value return since the early days of their implementation. Like DLC in general it has certainly been done well but the number of times it’s been done poorly far outweighs them. Essentially a Season Pass is a way for companies to add another layer of Pre-Order onto just the physical game. Ranging anywhere from $24.99 to $39.99 on average the combined cost prior to a game release can run you up to $100 and the Season Pass content that you pay for is entirely blind. Occasionally companies will offer some vague descriptions about what you will be getting but it’s not enough to make an informed choice in my opinion. Season Passes can usually now be purchased after a games release and will sometimes even be discounted during sales which sort of invalidates the entire point of them. There have even been some bizarre instances on Steam where either the Season Pass or the individual DLCs will be significantly cheaper than their counterparts due to big sales. I’m not sure what causes the oversight but at the end of the day I suppose a sale is a sale, right?
Overall for the things that can and do go wrong with the use of DLC I do think that there are enough companies out there selling worthwhile expansions to their games that this is something we can continue to live with. We have enough resources and reviewers at our fingertips that we should be making informed decisions about post release content that is worth our money and time. I would caution against purchasing Season Passes prior to the release of the base game, the passes will be available after launch so there is no reason to make what is most likely a non-refundable purchase of digital content. There is no rush, if you like the game then it’s nice to know that there is still more to do once you finish the core content.
This brings us to cosmetic only microtransactions and over the years I’ve gone back and forth over whether or not these are something I feel belongs in gaming. Overall I think I’ve landed on being mostly neutral about them since they are entirely optional to my overall enjoyment of a given game. Overwatch and Counter-Strike I think are two good examples of how to handle cosmetic only microtransactions however they fail in one significant way that makes me largely ignore them. Blizzard’s title Heroes of the Storm has cosmetics on sale for real money but the important thing about their system is that you can purchase the exact item you want with no mystery or disappointment. There are also a selection of skins on offer that can be bought with in game gold which gives players who don’t want to pony up the dough a method to still customize their characters. This, to me, is the absolute ideal for cosmetic microtransactions as it utterly removes the distasteful and predatory gambling aspect of lootboxes. Lootboxes may be more profitable simply due to their unpredictable nature but being able to purchase what you want and only what you want will yield happier customers who are content with the money they have spent in your game. Warframe developer Digital Extremes takes this approach to their totally free to play game and has seen incredible success with it as players can spend their money on items that will specifically enhance their individual experience. Virtually eliminating disappointment and regret, two things you never want to feel with your entertainments monetization scheme. Overwatch and Counter-Strike are a close second however even though the randomization of their lootboxes can yield consistent and expensive disappointment for people who spend their money. Overwatch has the advantage of selling their lootboxes for roughly $1 per box with better bulk deals as you buy more, far and away the cheapest cosmetic boxes I’ve run into. They also completely avoid the irritation of a premium currency you must buy in order to then spend on the boxes. Counter-Strike similarly mitigates the annoyance of random chance by allowing people to sell skins they acquire through the marketplace which gives players the opportunity to avoid the reward chests and just buy what they want. The downside to that system is that since they are collectible and some of them can be quite rare it can make the occasional skin sell for hundreds even thousands of dollars on the market. Overall I would still say their system is better than most at giving people options on where and how to spend their money.
Cosmetics allow a nice balance of choice for people who want nothing to do with competitively necessary microtransactions but still want the customization options or to just support a developer they like. Another plus to cosmetics is that many games allow even free players to earn the occasional lootbox just through regular play when they hit certain milestones meaning that even if you aren’t actively purchasing you still earn rewards. Most likely I’m sure their data has shown that giving out occasional free lootboxes increases engagement by non-money players. The motivation aside it bears mentioning. Given the alternatives I find this to be a perfectly acceptable way for companies to monetize their games while being fair to their customers.
The ugliness of this entire subject falls in our final category of Non-Cosmetic Items/Buffs which happens when developers lock game altering items, buffs or even characters behind a paywall meaning that it causes a rift in the playerbase. Most multiplayer games and their appeal are predicated on tight balancing that means winning or losing is down to individual or overall team skill and co-operation. Any outside factors that tilt the scales one way or another are seen as unsporting, frustrating and ultimately game breaking. It’s one thing to work your way to the top and another to simply buy your way. I already spoke earlier about Pay2Win models so I’ll try to minimize my rehashing here by commenting on something that Battlefront II did to further exacerbate the already huge problem with being Pay2Win. The “free” avenues for progression in the game were made so arduous and time consuming that it would be nearly impossible to earn new heroes, equipment or star cards without dedicating most if not all of your free time to exclusively grinding that one game. Reality is that very few if any gamers limit themselves to playing one and only one game for a year let alone multiple years consecutively. Since I began gaming over twenty five years ago I cannot remember a single time that I was so obsessed with a game that I played it to the exclusion of all others for longer than perhaps a few months at most. EA seemed to be under the impression that players would be happy to make Battlefront II essentially a second job. If that wasn’t the case then they had the option to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on lootboxes to unlock content they technically already paid for. Lootboxes may far and away be the most profitable type of monetization but it is also the one that sports the most anti-consumer method of extracting those profits than anything that came before it. If that isn’t bad enough the entire game is geared to push you towards purchasing them as a necessity. It’s no longer an option for convenience so that busy or not any player can make progress but rather some games treat it as the only reasonable means of progression if you are a human being who occasionally has to do something other than play. The subject of these transactions when it comes to single player games allows it to side-step the issue of “fairness” but I can’t help have a sour taste in my mouth after seeing them. It makes me question whether or not the in-game “grind” was made intentionally worse to nudge you towards opening your wallet in order to grease the way. Am I paying to just lower the difficulty of my single player game now? It feels like it sometimes.
The reality is that microtransactions of all kinds are here to stay and there is little we can do to change that. What we can still affect though is the extent to which they affect our experiences. The fervor that met Battlefront II it seems we as a community have sent a clear message on where we draw the line. I could have lived with us drawing it a little sooner but given EA’s recent decision to completely remove microtransactions from Battlefront II I think we did okay. As always we’ll see what happens going forward, it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve backed off only to reintroduce it in a more insidious fashion down the road. So keep a close eye on it.
Finally I just want to say that as a gamer you should never feel like your time and money aren’t worth some consideration by the developers and publishers we buy our games from. I’ve said it a thousand times but we want to give these companies our money and we are constantly looking for excuses to. They have only to put out a product worthy of that money and they’ll see their profit, we don’t need to have sneaky mechanics trick us into doing it, we’re already willing. It’s tantamount to walking into a store and then having an associate jam a gun in your ribs and take your wallet. Why? I’m already here to spend money, just show me something worth buying.
Don’t be afraid to let a game go un-purchased if it deserves it, there are more than enough titles to keep you occupied in the meantime.
I’m sure I’ll do a follow up at some point on the other things I listed at the start of this but this article is long enough as it is. Until then, happy gaming! I’m off to play some more Ni No Kuni 2 while impatiently waiting for the arrival of my light kit so I can get to painting my Star Wars: Legion minis. And recording that journey for their embarrassing entertainment it will undoubtedly yield.
*I know I didn’t mention GTA:V in this post even though it’s online portion definitely deserves to be here given the microtransactions, I didn’t feel like it would necessarily add anything that the games already represented couldn’t do adequately. If you feel otherwise leave me a comment and tell me why!