Nothing this year has caused quite the discussion more than loot boxes. My opinion has swayed as the year has progressed, from one that was okay with them as long as they don’t affect the gameplay in a negative way, to one that thinks they do more harm than good.
One of the most outspoken critics of the loot box phenomenon would be Jim Sterling. Love or hate him, he doesn’t pull punches when it comes to critically lambasting the greedy nature of certain publishers. And it’s his videos that have made me realise the dark underbelly of this micro-transaction practice.
There are really only two loot box games that I’ve put significant time into this year: Injustice 2 and Pro Evolution Soccer 2018. Injustice 2 is an odd one though, because unlike a lot of others who are more than happy to take your money, Injustice doesn’t. Instead you can only get the boxes with in-game currency. However, there is another currency you can actually buy which is used for alternate costumes. But at least with that you know exactly what you’re getting instead of a randomised box where perhaps it’s all a load of rubbish you don’t actually need. Publisher Warner Bros probably didn’t see enough money come their way though and just look up what happened with Shadow of War to see what happens when corporate suits see dollar signs.
The other game I mentioned, PES, is more of your traditional loot box affair. You build up your club, earning currency so you can randomly acquire a player and hope his stats are good enough to make your team. And naturally you can spend real money for virtual currency. If I was writing this a few months ago I would be more forgiving of the loot box world we found ourselves in, considering it’s done right. So with PES it’s incredibly easy to earn enough coins to unlock a new player, but as time has passed and I’ve listened and read many reports on the issue, I’ve become far more conflicted with my feelings.
There’s a lot of talk about whether loot boxes can be considered gambling with the general consensus amongst the likes of the ESRB being that no, they are not. Unlike gambling there’s no potential for you to end up with nothing, with a lot of people comparing it to the likes of sticker packs which is a fair point. It’s definitely a grey area. But although it’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed the thrill of opening a sticker pack, the price involved is a lot higher when you’re talking about a video game.
While not the standard definition of gambling, there’s a sleazy underbelly that triggers the same mentality that gambling does. The “maybe this next one will have a better outcome” thought process. Personally I don’t have an addictive personality (or at least I don’t think I have) so I can walk away when, on the rare occasion I gamble, it’s all going a bit wrong. Now I imagine that might be different for someone who can’t do that. It seems like it’s preying on these type of people and don’t get me started on the recent news of a certain Activision patent that targets loot boxes at specific players during matchmaking.
What I do understand is that game development has become super expensive. With games often having to sell multiple millions of copies to just break even, it’s only natural publishers would want to maximise profits. But there has to be a better way than blind boxes that don’t always contain the items you want. If anything, all of this has made me look more fondly on the likes of season passes and publishers holding back content for DLC. Something I never thought would happen.
If I was to predict a possible future, then there will come a time when a publisher will overreach and painfully overestimate what it can get away with. And only then will the loot box era come tumbling down, and then companies will go searching for that next money making opportunity. At the end of the day, companies need money to survive and players don’t want to feel like they’re being taken advantage of. It’s a sad state of affairs with a middle ground seemingly nowhere in sight. I guess we’ll all just have to wait and see whether the loot box phenomenon gets reeled in or hits monstrous levels.