Are Microtransactions And Loot Boxes Really The Root Of All Evil In Video Games?

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.

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I'm probably wearing toe shoes, and there's nothing you can do to stop me!


  1. I am okay with it as long as it’s in game currency instead of real life money!
    What I don’t get though about Fifa (greedy EA) is that every year there is a coin boost unlock that you can buy with the in game money (EXP) surely they should have the coin boost in there for life! (It’s limited to like 10 of them and its gone!) That would help those football fans out by actually playing a match and completing it to recieve the coin boost instead of opening up packs with Fifa points!!! And save the coins for the transfer market if they wanted a specific player in thier squad.
    My god I watched a streamer spent €500 on packs (Fifa Points) he has 3 icons, TotW Messi, Ronaldo, Bale, Neure etc…… and the sad thing is his rep was 40 wins 1 draw and 67 losses.
    Goes to show that even the best players cannot help you be the best fifa player. Skill against money it seems to be that way for me. They have got to either stamp it down and even slow it down. Fifa points should be active from say Xmas while the game is launched from 29th September we have to work hard to get to where we are and not throw €500 to get the players we gamers all wanted to get!
    I believe EA make highest players like Messi or an Icon limited to 250 in the UK packs because in the transfer market there is like 10 Messi up for sale. Compared to Snodgrass like 100 pages of it up for sale!

    • Oh and one more thing…..
      When you open a gold pack, you would expect all gold right? WRONG! Alays bound to have at least one maybe 2 slivers in there and this is a rip off!!!

      • You mean you actually bought one?

        ‘SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!’
        *rings bell*

      • Yep shame on me :'( and damn you EA for making me addicted to this shit again!

      • Fifa 13 had me hooked on buying packs. Never again.

  2. Yes, yes and yes.

    Although not necessarily the loot boxes themselves but how this leads to the inclusion of random weapon drops in every single game. I really hate having hundreds of almost identical weapons to sift through. Just give me one weapon (of each type) from the start and throw in a few upgrades.

    I’ve been playing Shadow of War this week and hate how much the game has been influenced by loot.

    Now generally, I don’t mind ‘more of the same’ games (especially when what came before was so good) but after five or so hours with Shadow of War, I already feel like I’ve exhausted everything it has to offer.

    There’s absolutely zero substance because of the emphasis on finding/upgrading/buying loot. And the simplicity of the first game is gone. There are so many different items to collect, I haven’t figured out exactly what I’m supposed to do with them all. And the various menus/item management feels over stuffed and unnecessarily complicated.

    I feel the same way about Shadow of War as I did when I played Destiny at launch – mostly bored and unimpressed. There’s a blandness about the whole thing that I can’t quite describe. It almost feels like I’m playing an MMO…offline, which doesn’t make a very good single player game. And without a decent story to hold it all together, it makes for a somewhat pointless affair overall.

    I always say a game’s narrative should grab you in it’s opening half-hour/hour but Shadow of War fails miserably, where I feel the first game succeeded.

    It seems the purpose of the game is to slay an endless supply of slightly different versions of the same bland enemies, collect loot and level up your character so you can move to the next area and repeat the whole process again with the exact same enemies (at a higher level). Zzz.

    Nearly every mission so far has involved following AI ‘team mates’ to various locations and killing large groups of Orcs, who take far too many hits to go down. I can’t believe you can’t chop off limbs in combat – what is this sword made of, wood? It feels like you are taking on the armies of Mordor with a foam stick – but maybe I haven’t found a powerful enough sword yet (or bought one…).

    There’s been a lot of negative feedback regarding the inclusion of (apparently unobtrusive) microtransactions and whilst I agree, you can play the game without them, it’s obvious that the game was designed with them in mind and overall, I feel the game suffers greatly because of it.

    I’ve heard that the true ending will take 10+ hours of grinding, which can be bypassed if you choose to purchase credits (how convenient). I’m sure I’ll have given up long before I reach that point but it’s annoying all the same.

    Overall, a very poor and disappointing follow up to the incredible first game. And I blame the loot. For some reason, game developers believe that upgrading weapons/gear is an acceptable substitution for a decent narrative and TRUE single-player experience. I don’t want to play offline-Destiny-lite-in-Middle-Earth, I want to play Shadow of Mordor 2.

    I pray that Assassins Creed Origins is better but there’s no guarantee these days. I feel that everything that used to make these AAA games unique has gradually been stripped away, to the point where they are all exactly the same thing.

    Did I mention I HATE loot in games?

    • I find it very difficult to whinge about “10+ hours of grinding” to get the true ending of a game.

      Try a JRPG where the true ending involves playing the whole thing again and doing a whole bunch of extra stuff and then discover that even though you’re massively overpowered because everything carried over into the new game, you’ve just spent 20 hours and missed one tiny thing that gives you the wrong ending and have to play it all again.

      Probably explains why I also don’t agree with your hatred of loot. I like looking at lots of numbers and finding that piece of equipment that’s 1% stronger but has a slight weakness somewhere else.

      • I think the issue with the final grind is that by the time you get to that point, it already feels like you’ve been playing for several years nonstop, due to the repetitive nature of gameplay.

        I definitely prefer the upgrade system in games like Tomb Raider Reboot.

        I thought they had it perfect in the first game but the Borderlandsesque system they’ve used in the new game doesn’t work for me at all. Don’t get me wrong, I do like Borderlands but I don’t want every game to be Borderlands.

  3. Never bought any loot boxes, never will. I find it much more rewarding to play the games and earn stuff through skill rather than being a cheating man-baby and buying everything.

    Also money spent on loot boxes means less money for pizza, and clearly that’s wrong.

    • But the cheating man-babies can keep buying them and then the rest of us get nice things for free.

      You can have pizza and also “gaming subsidised by idiots”. Everyone wins. Except the idiots that pay for them.

      Obviously that doesn’t apply when a game takes it a bit too far, but that’s what 3/10 is for.

  4. When gameplay stuff is left to chance in loot boxes, that is wrong. Well at least the industry seems to have moved away from selling content that is on disc? Online passes, single player sequences/missions/levels that form part of the main game-we have put up with some tripe haven’t we?

  5. If developers want to include loot boxes to make extra money then thats fine so long as it does not hamper the game experience. There are plenty of examples where its be done and its OK. BF1 has them, but you can completely ignore them as its all cosmetic guff.

    However, where it crosses the line is when it impacts game progression effectively forcing you to pay up or face an inevitable grind.

    The fact is most of these games mentioned lately already have extra DLC editions, usually gold and silver, so there is your extra cash right there. To then double down and chuck in loot boxes on top is just a piss take.

    I also dont buy this nonsense about games being the same price for years, thats utter nonsense. A full price AAA game now is not the full game, there are bits stripped out and you have to buy the silver or gold editions to get the full game. The £50 version of the game is now just an entry fee, if you want the full game your looking at upwards of £100 in most cases.


      Take a look at some of Jim Sterlings videos, he is usually spot on with this subject if you ask me.

    • Also are there not more gamers buying the games? Surely there must be. I hardly doubt the gaming industry is hard strapped for cash. They must be one of the most profitable industries right now. They’re not struggling, they’re just super greedy.

      • More people are buying games now than they were a decade ago, but not 10x as many. Again, Gears of War cost $12 million to make, but team sizes for some games are now 10x larger, development cycles are getting longer, and all of this means that games need to sell more in order to break even, let alone turn a profit.

      • I get what your saying and I’m certainly no expert on the subject but I do remember reading an article a while back, describing the Videogame industry as a $100 Billion industry in 2016. I’ve just done a quick google search and it’s actually closer to $91 Billion globally in 2016. By comparison the movie industry had a global revenue of $39 Billion and the music industry, $16 Billion.

        I understand the smaller studios struggling to turn a profit but surely the big games like FIFA, COD, GTA etc. are always guaranteed to turn a huge profit (and they’re the games most likely to include micro transactions). GTA V alone must be one of the most profitable games ever by now but they still have Shark cards etc.

  6. This middle ground they are looking for is obvious: “On the whole, loot boxes that affect gameplay are a red line in the community”.

    Cosmetic is fine, gameplay altering is not. Simple.

  7. They’re crap and I’m avoiding games that feature them. Loved shadow of mordor but was put off the sequel due to their inclusion. Same with battlefront 2. Just give the option to buy the specific items rather than this gambling crap. Rainbow 6 siege got it right. Paid skins but will with free maps and characters that can be bought with in game currency or paid for.

    It’s just the natural greed of the industry that they’re all getting in on them now. Hopefully with enough backlash that affects sales they’ll go the same way of the online pass.

  8. Patches are the true root of all evil in gaming

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