*sigh* Right, let’s talk about loot boxes. By now, I am sure most of you know what they are and why they are courting controversy. However, for those of you who do not, here is some quick backstory.
A loot box, or similar, is an in-game item where to you pay via in-game currency to open a random box that contains modifiers for your game–cosmetic items, for example. Many loot boxes are gained via in-game play. However, a quicker and easier way to obtain them is to buy the in-game currency with real money. Essentially, buying boxes with real money, only with a few minor hurdles in between.
Overwatch is a game that extensively uses loot boxes. They contain a random selection of skins, emotes and sprays. All can be equipped to individual characters and vary in rarity from common to legendary or in other words, meh to oh-my-god!
Destiny too has hit the news by introducing microtransactions to shaders. To get shaders, you had to “win” them in a loot box. How do you get a loot box? You buy it with in-game currency–in this case, silver. How do you get enough Silver to get a loot box? You buy it with real-world cash.
Possibly the worst and most egregious example is Star Wars Battlefront 2, where the modifiers included in boxes stretch from cosmetic to gameplay changing; essentially turning the game into a pay-to-win to win model.
In recent days, more and more people have been discussing how bad loot boxes are and whether they should fall foul of gambling regulators. However, it has been pointed out that technically they are not gambling. Yet.
The video-game industry is already starting to fall foul of gambling regulators. Just last year, two popular YouTubers brought to light the issues surrounding CS:GO gambling sites. These websites allowed players to gamble for weapon skins that could be exchanged for actual cash. Now since that came to light, those sites are actually placing rudimentary age limits on the site to stop young, impressionable people from gambling away to their heart’s content. And for the most part, the controversy has now died down.
However, with the rise in public feeling, fed by, among others, YouTube and Reddit against loot boxes, there is a distinct possibility that regulators could step in.
So, rather than add my opinions to that particular debate, I had a look at loot boxes and thought of some ways they could be improved. If they do stay–and let’s not forget, some people do enjoy the thrill of the randomised loot they might receive from a loot box–they absolutely can be improved. The phrase polishing a turd comes to mind, but regardless, I am going to continue.
Think of this as my loot box manifesto if you will.
The first and most obvious thing a publisher should do if they are looking to use loot crates is to guarantee something “epic” in every box. A major complaint with loot boxes is that the odds of getting something worth having are really low. In fact, publishers are not even at liberty to disclose odds information–convenient. Even if you take individual taste out of the equation, the odds are still ridiculously small. If a game had a scale of common, rare, epic and legendary, then it should guarantee an epic in each box. With its seasonal events, Overwatch has an incomprehensible amount of loot, epic or otherwise, that can be gained from loot boxes, so making sure at least one epic is in every box does not seem an unreasonable request. Even in games where there is a tangible and obtainable amount of loot, at least give loyal players something back for buying the £50 game in the first place. An epic item every time you opened a chest would be a gesture to fans. Not a great one, sure, but still a gesture.
Obviously, when opening loot boxes, regardless if you are guaranteed an epic, is you will get duplicates or, more likely, something you don’t want. Games with loot boxes should allow you to trade in such items for in-game currency. Trading in duplicates should be an absolute no-brainer, but that should be improved by allowing players to trade in a skin for a character they don’t use or a weapon they don’t want for in-game currency. They will still buy another box to replace it, but at least here you are making it less obvious that you want players to use real-world cash to buy the boxes.
The use of in-game currency feeds into the idea of making it easier for players to acquire enough in-game currency to buy a loot box. If it takes roughly three hours of gameplay to earn enough points to get a loot box, then lower that by half. Publishers will still have players not willing to “grind” to get loot boxes, and they will purchase regardless of a three-hour or one-hour wait, but at least it somewhat placates the people who enjoy the game and allows them to continue playing with a loot box-shaped reward a real and achievable possibility. To give credit to Overwatch, you get a box every time you level up, but as you progress further, leveling up can take a long time, and if you want that legendary skin, you will have to buy loot boxes, because levelling up to get enough boxes to beat the odds is not a realistic prospect. Unfortunately, that highlights the predatory aspect of loot boxes.
Making loot boxes less predatory has to be of prime concern for publishers. Rather than be obviously predatory, publishers could, they won’t, but they could have a system where your odds of getting legendaries or epics is lower if you buy a box with real currency rather than in-game currency. If a game implements all of the above, then a publisher can point out that it is preferable to earn in-game currency–made more accessible by point three–than to buy the boxes.
This also flows into point four–the most apparent no-no with loot boxes–, never make them pay-to-win. Star Wars Battlefront 2 is copping flak because the beta is showing that the game is apparently pay-to-win. I won’t get into specifics, but the point is players do not want to buy a game for £50 only for them to have to spend another £50 to be competitive. That is ultimately duplicitous. Pay-to-win is a mobile phenomenon where the majority of games have no monetary barrier to entry, and it should stay a mobile phenomenon.
Finally, and this one will absolutely never happen, but I’ll try anyway, give players the opportunity to buy what they want in one single transaction. That transaction can be the same price of a loot box. That way players can have what they want, or, if they prefer the thrill of randomisation–and the chance to get more for their money–they can play the loot box roulette. Unfortunately, the point of loot boxes was to make it harder and more expensive for players to get what they wanted, so introducing traditional microtransactions defeats the point. As I said, never going to happen.
Unless legislation changes, loot boxes are here to stay if greedy publishers want to use them. There is a debate over whether loot boxes and other microtransactions are needed to keep game development afloat, but that is an argument for a different time. That doesn’t mean, however, that said publishers can’t skew the line with loot boxes so that it is a bit fairer for players.