Cognition Dissemination: Loot Box Mania

There’s been a lot of news about loot boxes among the video game press and blogosphere in the last few months. In fact, news about them has been so dominant that you can’t go a day without seeing at least two articles about them on gaming sites. You might be sick of hearing about them, but the prevalence of articles about how they’ve graced multiple games releasing this fall justifies the existence of this post.

In case you’re unaware of what they are: Loot boxes are virtual boxes that contain randomized bonuses in games, including items, equipment, and stat upgrades. They’ve been around for a while, but primarily in online-driven titles as bonuses players can obtain for doing well in online matches and completing online quests. Overwatch is responsible for popularizing the concept, where the player will obtain a loot box with a randomized set of goods every time they level up. While some players had issues obtaining the equipment they wanted, the implementation of them was given a positive reception thanks to Blizzard limiting these bonuses to cosmetic outfits. It would have been a mess if they provided bonuses to give players an advantage online.

Overwatch handled this mostly fine, but other publishers haven’t been as careful. Executives within some companies realized loot boxes could be used as yet another viable form of downloadable content, which is why it’s popped up in single-player games in addition to multiplayer ones, and is part of multiple AAA games releasing this fall. The implementation of the feature is inconsistent across every game, so it counts to do research on these titles if you want to avoid those with anti-consumer pay-to-win schemes.

Yesterday’s release of Middle-earth: Shadow of War was the first big game this fall to feature them for the single-player quest, and you couldn’t blame anyone for expecting the worst when they were first announced. Publisher Warner Bros. likes to stuff their games to the brim with paid-DLC, and isn’t hesitant to charge for all if it. So, it was easy to imagine how they could potentially rake in cash from players with loot boxes that contain equipment and assisting orcs, and how they could goad them into spending real money. Fortunately, it’s not as bad as expected, as those who’ve played through most of the game discussed how they ventured through by only purchasing them with in-game currency. It’s noteworthy that the endgame is a grind, though this likely would have been the case regardless of DLC, as shown through Batman: Arkham Knight.

It was also confirmed that Assassin’s Creed Origins will have them, which will contain randomized equipment. It’s a good thing can only be purchased with in-game currency, though. It will have other microtransactions, like previous installments, which are bad enough.

This is somewhat relieving in the case of two above titles, but there’s still concern over its implementation in other games. Microsoft’s Forza Motorsport 7 is among them. The previous installments contained a difficulty-based reward system where players would receive more in-game credits if they turned off assistance features. Here, this was replaced with a system where players would receive five limited-use cards that reward the player depending on how well they did during the race. Players preferring the old style and not liking the change was one issue, but it was another when the announcer urged players to purchase more boxes, especially when the option to spend real money on them was coming through an update. Fortunately, Microsoft and developer Turn 10 heard the piles of criticism and is making modifications to the feature.

Loot boxes will also make their way into Star Wars Battlefront II, word of which came courtesy of those who experienced the beta. Impressions of the core game were positive, but there weren’t many fans of modified Star Card feature. These came as consumable pieces of equipment in the first Battlefront, like temporary-use weapons. The bonuses are much better this time, like cards that grant the ability for players to perform two to ten percent more damage with each weapon, which come from this game’s version of loot boxes called “Starfighter Crates.” But they’re randomly selected, so an opponent can go into a match with a serious advantage over another player through pure luck regardless of their level, and it’s receiving criticism for good reason.

What’s more frightening is how it’s been presumed that players will be able to obtain Starfighter Crates through spending real money in the final game, which will lead to players forking over more and more cash to get better equipment. Given the already-problematic advantages the cards provide, this could be a pay-to-win game — in other words, it’s everything skeptics were afraid would happen with loot boxes in AAA games. Granted, there’s still time for EA and developer DICE to tinker around with how they’ll work in the final game, and provide some damage control during the game’s final round of promotion before its release on November 17th. You’ll see a post here if that happens, given the name of this blog.

There have been several defenses of loot boxes, with some saying this could result in developers being paid a better salary for their hard work. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Execs could also simply pay them more without the need to charge the consumer more though microtransactions and other services in already-expensive $60 games. If they need to implement these to pay developers a worthwhile wage, then something’s wrong with the gaming industry as a whole.

Today’s world is unjust, so get ready for these to stick around if (or when) they do well, just like DLC and microtransactions. But no one should be afraid of voicing their dissenting opinions due to developers potentially getting shortchanged in terms of their salary if the consumers themselves are getting reamed.


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