2017 has possibly been the best year for gaming in a decade. In addition to the launch of the Nintendo Switch we’ve seen incredible releases like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, Super Mario Odyssey, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Cuphead, Nier: Automata, and Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. There are too many games to list. We’ve also seen the widespread proliferation of one of the worst trends in gaming, loot boxes.
In 2012 Mass Effect 3 incorporated loot boxes to help offset the cost of developing a multiplayer mode. Players would unlock weapons and armor for their character just by playing this mode, but instead of grinding for unlocks they could also purchase them, for real money, in the form randomized packs.
This model really flourished in markets like China, where disposable income is low and free-to-play games reign supreme. Loot boxes gave players a chance at acquiring the best gear in the game without the grind. Loot boxes have made their way into many AAA games since. Star Wars Battlefront 2 and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War were two of this year’s most egregious offenders.
The problem with Shadow of War’s and Battlefront 2’s loot box implementation is that it hurts the player experience. The iconic Star Wars characters that every fan wants to play as are locked behind loot boxes. The chances of getting the character you want out of a given loot box are extremely low, incentivizing players to spend money in order to circumvent the grind. Similarly, Shadow of War has a lengthy, repetitive endgame forcing players to either grind or take the shortcut and purchase packs containing powerful orcs to augment their army.
Loot boxes prey on the same weaknesses as gambling. In fact, many countries and regulating bodies are starting to declare that loot boxes and gambling are one in the same. This Kotaku article about a 19-year-old man who managed to spend more than $10,000 on microtransactions illustrates the addictive and insidious nature of loot boxes.
Blizzard’s popular digital trading card game, Hearthstone, is a free-to-play game that you can get a lot of enjoyment out of without spending any real money. However, you will very quickly run into other players with competitive decks featuring the strongest and most expensive cards in the game. You won’t be able to compete with these players with a budget deck and grinding for in –game currency will only get you so far. Historically, only two major Hearthstone expansions have been released per year. Starting this year, Blizzard has shifted to releasing four major expansions per year. That means if you want to collect all the cards you’re going to have spend almost $700 per year.
In games like Valve’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive loot boxes only reward players with cosmetic items. Dota 2, another Valve property is a free-to-play game that is truly free. Every character, mode, and gameplay relevant feature is available to all players at no cost. The only purchasable items are cosmetics and the seasonal, interactive tournament programs called Battle Passes. Proceeds that are raised from Battle Pass purchases help fund the prize pool for the tournament. These microtransactions fund the future development of the game and allow it to be continually updated.
Even still, random loot boxes are random loot boxes. Players with that compulsion to collect every single skin are prone to overspending.