Are Publishers Taking Loot Boxes Too Far?
Loot Boxes Are Becoming More Popular With Publishers, Does It Matter?
Like microtransactions before them, loot boxes have found their way from the free-to-play market into the triple-A gaming space. The randomized loot crates have become increasingly popular with big publishers as a way to earn more money from their games but is their implementation problematic for the consumer? Recent high-profile examples of loot boxes have come in games like Overwatch and Destiny 2, games that focus on the multiplayer experience but in the last few weeks several high-profile single-player experiences have also incorporated loot boxes causing some distress and discussion in the gaming community.
Loot boxes are typically an optional way to earn items taking the idea of randomized loot from games of yesteryear and packaging them into something neat for players to purchase. Each game implements loot boxes differently making it difficult to paint the subject with a broad brush; some only allow the purchase of cosmetic items, handy time-savers or XP boosts while others may offer weapons and armour directly affecting gameplay. It’s worth noting that some games contain loot boxes that don’t require a single penny to purchase and there is no way of doing so such as Horizon Zero Dawn for example.
As mentioned previously, the gaming community has had much to discuss recently when it comes to microtransactions in their traditionally single-player games. Games like Middle Earth: Shadow of War and Forza Motorsport 7 have utilised randomized loot chests. In Shadow of War loot chests contain gear and orcs of varying rarity and can be purchased for in-game currency called Mirian or the rarer currency Gold which is awarded in small amounts for completing daily challenges but can also be purchased with real cash. Gold gives access to rarer chests with better loot. Reports from gamers and reviewers is that the system is overly complicated and a little intrusive but the game can be played fine without spending any extra money. However, Warner Bros. muddied the waters by including an optional mode in this game in which you can invade your friends’ fortresses which will be guarded by the orcs you earn throughout your time in Mordor either in-game or via chests.
Meanwhile, Forza Motorsport 7‘s loot boxes offer cosmetic items such as costumes for your driver or banners for your driver profile and mods. Mods change the way races behave by adding additional challenges such as driving at night or without assists, this allowed players in previous games to earn more credits by taking on the additional challenge. Those mods are now only found in loot boxes, gating off a feature previously included as part of the game. There are various other examples of loot boxes in different genres of game and it’s clear from a publisher’s standpoint that they are a useful way to make money and provide the player with something too. Opening such crates or boxes gives the player a feeling of accomplishment and offers the chance for a rare item that they may have had to spend more time playing to earn otherwise.
However, much of the reaction to these examples online has been outrage. Many feel loot boxes are downright exploitative and manipulative especially when found in a single-player experience. For some they are at worst an annoying distraction but for others they are simply gambling in products that are often played by children and young people. Some have called into question whether loot boxes are truly gambling and should therefore fall under greater scrutiny and regulation. Kotaku recently contacted the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) for clarification on the matter and they responded that they do not consider loot boxes gambling, primarily because you are always guaranteed something even if the item is something you already earned. In the UK, a petition was responded to by Parliament in pretty evasive terms and promised to keep the matter “under review”.
Over the years some games have become more expensive to manufacture and content previously included in the box has been gated behind DLC, microtransactions and season passes to provide additional revenue. As a result of the increasing cost, big publishers like Activision and EA are pushing towards games-as-services like Destiny which will hopefully give the end-user a reason to keep playing and spending money long after a game launches. There’s an undercurrent of mistrust when it comes to microtransactions more generally and this is epitomised by Activision’s recent patent on multiplayer matchmaking. The patent detailed suggests a system in which lower skilled players are matched with higher skilled players with better weapons to encourage more spending on said weapons from the less skilled player. Of course, patents aren’t particularly binding and Activision points out this has not been utilised in Destiny or any other games by the publisher but the move worries those gamers who don’t want their gameplay experience meddled with.
When considering the current marketplace, it seems loot boxes are here to stay and publishers like Warner Bros and Activision are seemingly testing how far they can push the boundaries on loot boxes and other microtransactions. It remains to be seen if other publishers become more wary when implementing such systems or avoid them entirely in the future.