My fellow fanatics, we need to talk about the elephant in the room. It’s been here for a few years and for many it hasn’t really been seen as a problem. But then that elephant proceeded to make a mess of things and the damage has piled up.
We need to start addressing in-game economies and the danger of loot boxes in major AAA games.
I recently reviewed the greatest offender of this practice, EA’s own Star Wars Battlefront II, I wasn’t exactly kind to it, and dedicated more than a third of it looking at its predatory and stringent progression system; the way it was clearly built from the ground up to facilitate an addiction to its loot crate system. How the entire game was designed to get you to buy another box; to take another pull at the digital slot machine.
It’s a stance that flies in the face of how many players handle their games. Team Bondi might have been subjected to cruel working conditions and crunch, their production studio closing down after working for eight years nonstop on L A Noire, but the game itself was technologically influential and a near-perfect portrayal of 1940s film noir, and for many players that is all that mattered. No one cares about the business, but if it leads to more quality content, a lot of players are willing to make compromises.
Ever since Overwatch helped cement loot box economies as common place in mainstream AAA gaming, it is almost impossible to completely divorce a game’s design from how it is monetized. To ignore it is to misinform potential players about greatly concerning features, and to address it is to dive into dry, almost pedantic, detail about basic economic theory.
For someone that’s been criticizing games for longer than he can remember, it’s a notable shift from how things usually went. Some of the best video game reviewers around have to wear many hats when it comes to looking deeply into the quality of a game. How are the controls? Does the gameplay feel satisfying? How does everything look and sound? Those used to be the basics, but as games became more complex, both in tech and in storytelling, tools of analysis had to step up as well. Is the tone and atmosphere consistent? Are the characters interesting and the plot compelling? If the game is cutscene heavy, how is it edited and shot? If it is pushing high end visual technology, does it work out and will it replace more conventional rendering and compositing techniques?
We’ve gone from dissecting the basics of button responsiveness and moment-to-moment excitement to being part film buff, techhead, storytelling critic, and art snob. But due to the rising prominence of the free-to-play model popularized by smartphone games and how ubiquitous they have rapidly become in mainstream gaming experiences, another hat has slowly popped up: one of a low-key economist parsing out the small but impactful decisions made in a real-world money marketplace for a game’s virtual goods.
It’s a natural extension of insuring that every player knows exactly what they’re getting into when they insert a disc into their console. Game design as a whole isn’t just about the systems and numbers the players can utilize and exploit, there are also the more subtle guiding decisions under the surface to help condition player behavior. And when you mix paying real money into something as central to most long-term games as a progression system, that’s where several flags are raised in terms of unethical psychological practices and unhealthy financial pressure. A kind of pressure that many consumers didn’t expect and do not want from a game they bought to play.
In this year alone, trying to divorce business decisions from the actual experience itself is almost impossible. Middle-Earth Shadow of War started as a promising sequel to a 2014 critical darling, but then loot boxes and a premium marketplace were added to the single-player only experience. Monetizing and chopping the very unique selling point of the game, building an army of orcs to wage war against the Dark Lord Sauron, in an experience that was already being sold as a premium experience at full price with a season pass. Even worse, the true final ending of the game was locked behind an insane amount of tedious grind, pummeling the player into coughing up more money to get to the real end credits. A blatant instance of a business decision by Warner Bros. Interactive adversely affecting the very core of what Monolith established.
Then there is what happened with Star Wars Battlefront II. An entire multiplayer experience that could have easily stood head and shoulders as one of the most entertaining online experiences of the year audaciously kneecapped by a confusing leveling system built from the ground up on loot boxes full of highly desirable weapons, heroes, and vehicles.
The fallout of this has been immense. The loot box practice has mostly gone unregulated in games, both free-to-play and in premium experiences, mostly due to how they’ve been written off by the community and how major publishers have contextualized the benefits of buying said boxes. That they do not greatly affect gameplay, the contents are merely cosmetic add-ons like fancy hats. But Battlefront II crossed multiple lines. Not only did these random boxes now contain actual in-game benefits. Not only did the entire way to progress in the game hinge on buying or earning more of these boxes. Not only was it a high profile experience released during the holiday season. This was based on the Star Wars license, a franchise aimed towards children and young teenagers. In other words, EA could easily be accused of selling a gambling machine to minors, which would be an utterly devastating form of financial pain, litigation, and irreparable damage to PR.
As of this writing, there was a serious discussion by The Washington Post regarding the ethics of such a system, serious steps are being taken to investigate the practices of implementing loot boxes into video games by the Belgian Gaming Commission, the country of Australia, France, and the state of Hawaii, all to determine whether or not to classify them as a form of gambling. And there is serious speculation by many pundits that the shear backlash to Battlefront II might be enough cause for the Walt Disney Corporation to cancel their Star Wars license contract with Electronic Arts for damaging the brand. There is no hard evidence of this but it’s entirely in the realm of possibility.
The absolute worst thing for the gaming community to do at this point is to ignore this. Not just those who play these games and actively ignore this part of the design, but reviewers and critics as well. Just because you can walk around, doesn’t mean there isn’t an elephant in the room. And just because you have the mental fortitude to completely ignore a major element of design, doesn’t mean it’s not affecting other people.
Which brings me back to why we as a gaming community need to start taking this practice seriously. The reason why Battlefront II made such a big deal was the pull of the Star Wars license, everyone and their mom can name at least one character from this franchise, and when the very selling point of the game was broken down and turned into a loot box system, the backlash was palpable. But it was not the only game this year to take the very reason why their player base pays hard-earned money to play them and put them behind paywalls. Another EA published game, Need for Speed: Payback launched quietly in November, and in addition to it trying to ape the highly lucrative Fast and the Furious film franchise, took the key reason to play a racing game, car customization, and turned it into a collectible card game tied to loot boxes paid with real world money. It was lifted wholesale from the model used in Battlefront II; car engines and tires replacing blasters and grenades. It says something when Venture Beat compares the damage control EA is doing for this game to the equally inflammatory Battlefront II debacle.
It doesn’t stop here either. There was a beta held recently for UFC 3, the latest installment in the realistic octagon arena simulator, and fans have been absolutely outraged by another pay-to-win card-based loot box system. A game where it’s entirely possible to blow a couple dollars and have something as simple as a punch be faster and stronger than a normal punch. In a game all about punches, kicks, grapples, combos, precision, and quick reflexes, this is the kind of system that clearly benefits those who pay rather than those who play.
Getting away from EA, this loot box system has also surfaced in a popular free-to-play game as well: Hi-Rez Studios’ own Paladins: Champions of the Realm’s recent Cards Unbound update. What started as a free-to-play hero shooter with a simple currency system has now been completely overhauled into a system full of loot boxes with stat-boosting cards. Now normally in a free-to-play experience, getting players to pay make sense, it’s part of the model, but even Hi-Rez recognizes that putting such unbalancing stuff behind random generation can lead to issues for the game’s more hardcore crowd, and their measures to actively downplay the pay-to-win element in their game with this drastic change has been met with… overwhelming negativity.
This will not go away if it is ignored; it will just continue to grow.
So I have to ask of my fellow players, my fellow lovers of all things gaming: where exactly does it end? Way back when loot boxes were introduced, they were merely for appearances and we ignored them. There was more actively predatory pay-to-win stuff going as far back as sports titles like FIFA and Madden but sports titles are mostly ignored by us. Loot boxes crept into a single-player game and actively held its own unique selling point to ransom and most players were able to ignore it and tolerate the grind. Now we have games that aren’t even truly complete any more, the retail price is for a mere shell with the only way to play the game with any sense of empowerment is either play online with people with more money than patience and endure matches where skill matters less and less, or pay even more money to stay ahead. There’s even a bona fide free-to-play game that can’t hide how bad this has gotten.
The answer is simple: Do not stand for this and do not buy. EA lost a considerable amount of money from the backlash of Battlefront II, their stock dropping ten points – that’s a projected loss of about 3.1 billion dollars by the way – and sales were sixty percent below the sales of the original Battlefront in 2015. After Black Friday. That sends a clear and definitive answer: you crossed a line.
If the publishers of the AAA game industry want to put loot boxes into their games to make some extra cash, they will have to deal with the controversy, social stigma, and criticism that comes with it. And that starts with us no longer ignoring how much it affects the games we love.