If you’d been paying attention to the various mini-scandals and fan outrages over the last few months, you might be convinced that loot boxes and microtransactions are the root of all evil. They’re everything wrong about video games these days and the way that huge corporations look to exploit people for all that sweet, sweet cash.
And in some ways you’d be right for thinking that. Microtransactions and loot boxes can be incredibly insidious, seeping in to unbalance a game, and they mark a dramatic shift in how companies try to finance their titles. Like so many things, they’re not inherently evil and can often be a net benefit for games that are now expected to continue to be supported for years after release. However, there is something about the combination that seems to be all too easy to misjudge for developers and publishers, especially when attached to a full priced game that’ll cost you £55 or $60 at RRP.
It’s frustrating because the initial reasoning for microtransactions in a game is such a positive one, potentially allowing developers to continue to create content and release it for free thanks to the revenues from selling skins and other tat to those that want a spangly gun or a fancy cloak for their character.
It means that DLC season passes and expansions that divide a game’s online community can be left by the wayside, keeping the community together. It’s a genuine problem that developers have struggled with over the past decade, once DLC became commonplace, as they’d put in all of this extra work, sell it to however many people want to buy it directly, and then see that these maps and game modes slide away from relevance because the vast majority of people are just playing the stock game.
This discussion cannot exist in a vacuum, so let’s look at a game that seems to get this balance just right: Overwatch. Blizzard’s hugely popular and successful multiplayer shooter has sold in excess of 30 million copies and it features both microtransactions and loot boxes, but nobody complains about this, and it’s partly because Blizzard were so up front about their inclusion and that it would help them to keep supporting the game, keep developing it and keep adding new characters, maps, modes and more for free for years to come. Players get new content, developers get to be paid, shareholders see steady revenue streams, everyone wins.
However, even Overwatch’s loot boxes were criticised for the paucity of the items you receive that led to them rebalance the winnings, and they still lean on the same kinds of psychological trickery as gambling. Of course, loot boxes are not gambling in the eyes of the law, as stated by the ESRB in the US, and a recent petition to the UK government won’t change that. Outside of one or two notable exceptions, when you open a loot box, you won’t receive anything of actual monetary value, just digital tat or intangible in-game boosts. Additionally, there’s no way to “lose”, as you always receive something in return.
That’s part of why they can be even more insidious. When you place your first bet at the bookies or the blackjack table, there’s a chance you will lose your £5 and leave with nothing – legitimately my entire experience from my one and only three minute visit to a casino. Yet there’s always a way to get loot boxes from playing and levelling up, performing certain tasks or using in-game currency. You always “win” from this, no matter how inconsequential it might seem at first, but there comes a point where you’re not getting what you want from them, whether it’s a skin, a particular gun, a rare sportsperson, or whatever, and that instills the feeling of winning and losing that amplifies both ends of the spectrum. There’s a little surge of joy when you get something ostensibly rare and “valuable” in the game.
When loot boxes are free it’s a way to keep you playing a game time and again, but when there’s the ability to buy them with cash, it’s a cousin to gambling. It’s one of the reasons I don’t really get on well with FIFA Ultimate Team, because there’s such a direct connection to gambling in the rewards that you get. Of course that team with Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar and half a dozen other footballing superstars that I don’t know the names of has been bought and paid for in buying Ultimate Team packs. Similarly, those players in NBA 2K18 who hit rank 85 on the first day were there thanks to buying Virtual Currency with real money.
The latest game in the firestorm of public opinion, Star Wars Battlefront II, has your entire character progression based around loot boxes, and you can earn Star Cards that boost stats that give you a direct advantage over another player. On the whole, loot boxes that affect gameplay are a red line in the community, and publishers and developers should be hearing you loud and clear on this matter.
And yet through all of this, microtransactions have the ability to be a net positive for video games and gamers. Put simply, video games are really bloody expensive to make these days. The first Gears of War cost $12 million with roughly 50 people on the team, but by 2014 there were teams such as the 500 people that worked on Destiny. We don’t have the exact figures, but with games taking two, three or more years to develop, that’s a simply astronomical gamble to be taking, and these companies will generally want to keep the talent that they have on board as much as possible.
The traditional cycle of development from twenty years ago is dead and buried. Yes, games go through pre-production, into full development, alpha, beta testing, and so on, but within that there is always time where certain parts of the team aren’t as heavily involved. When you can now have hundreds of idle hands, you need to turn them to work and you need that work to generate money. Over the last decade this has been with DLC packs, and now it’s turning towards free content being subsidised by microtransactions and games that increasingly try to capture your undivided gaming attention for months at a time.
For people that want to stay nestled in the warm embrace of a particularly engaging game, that’s great, but the difficulty is finding the right balance. Microtransactions need to have a certain appeal and feel like they’re adding something to your experience in order to get people to spend their money, which is exactly why so many developers now lean on pseudo gambling to draw people. It goes too far when it feels like paying more money is the only way to match your rivals online, or suffer through a punitive grind to reach the same point, and it’s why there’s such a reaction right now to loot boxes that can potentially affect the game’s balance.
It works, as well. FIFA Ultimate Team is a huge source of additional revenue for EA, and you can see that as a stepping stone on the path to Star Wars Battlefront II’s own loot boxes. Even the reviled inclusion of microtransactions in a single player game like Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor – though actually easy to ignore – hasn’t stopped it shooting to first place on Steam’s Top Sellers list and becoming the fourth most played game behind PUBG, DOTA 2 and CS:GO.
That doesn’t mean that publishers aren’t paying attention to the negativity that has surrounded these games of late. They’ll appear bullish for the time being or outright refuse to address the issue, but they’re looking to see where the happy middle ground is and what will be acceptable in the eyes of gamers. Where horse armour became mainstream, adverts popping up during loading screens were quietly laid to rest, but when so many people are willing to spend money for a chance to dress a cowboy up as a vampire hunter, it would seem that microtransactions are here to stay.
Just remember that’s not necessarily a bad thing.