In the late hours of the night, as I drift down mountain highways and shift into high gear on Need for Speed: Payback’s straight aways, the controller disappears from my hand. The car and the road and the checkpoints and the other racers do, too. This isn’t unique to Payback; this happens whenever I play even the most average racing games.
Instead of worrying about how tight to slalom down one of Payback’s serpentine freeways, I’m thinking about how the turns of this world feel mundane when compared to the cartoonish curves of Burnout: Paradise. Instead of working out whether I should save my nitrous for fourth or fifth gear, I’m comparing the signage of Payback’s fake Subway sandwich shop to the ones I remember from The Crew. Instead of trying to win, I’m trying to parse: What is this, specific race car fantasy?
On it’s face, that’s an easy to answer question: Need For Speed Payback wants you to feel like you’re running your own version of the Fast and the Furious familia. Set in a fictionalized Las Vegas (and its desert-and-mountains surroundings), you play as a team of roadway criminals determined set out to take down “The House” (a slightly more organized collection of criminals that run the city’s casinos).
Unlike Fast and the Furious, the bulk of Payback isn’t focused on surprisingly warm characterization or spectacular set pieces. And unlike the Ballad of Dom and Brian, Payback’s pacing is terrible: Though there are high-intensity missions inspired by action movies, they come few and far between. Instead, you spend most of your time taking on smaller gangs in races across familiar categories (street racing, drifting, offroad, drag racing, and “runner” races—getaways and courier tasks that make up most of your crime-doing), earning “bank” and “reputation.”
But underneath the checkpoints and drift scores, Payback peddling something else. Once I started paying attention to the overall structure of the game—to all those hours spent between races trying to keep my cars leveled up—I realized that Payback’s most distinct quality was how it made literal slot machine progression mechanics palatable, not in how it rendered cars going at high speeds. And in a year where major publishers are trying to figure out how to make loot boxes the future of monetization, that is something worth paying attention to.
The structure of Need for Speed: Payback closely follows the model set forth by 2014’s The Crew, in combining RPG-style stat increases with arcade racing. Every car has a starting level and a max level, ranging from 100-400 (with the early and mid-game vehicles capping out at 300), and every race in the game is listed with recommended level, working as a sort of soft “gate” to your progress. Sure, your level 140 Roadster might be able to take on a field of level 150 opponents if you play very well, but if there’s a 20+ level difference, things get rough.
The math behind those levels is pretty unclear, but your car’s level is tied at least partially to the collection of parts you have equipped on any given frame, and that’s where Payback begins to show its hand.
After buying a new car from a dealership or finding collectibles that offer you “derelict” vehicles, you then need to spend more time and money getting them up to the task of actually racing by upgrading its component parts. There are six types of parts, each featuring a stat boost and a (fictional) manufacturer—if you equip three parts from any one manufacturer, you get a bonus.
On its face, Payback is just operating from the same playbook as The Crew, which offered an endless flow of non-specific parts that increased your performance. The curve of upgrades so closely mimicked the feeling of becoming more skillful that you may think that it was practice paying off. But if you dropped back down to an earlier, less leveled car, all that precision fell away. At the time, this felt emblematic of a larger shift happening across the landscape of gaming. As I wrote for Paste, it felt like a “prime example of the new power fantasy:”
If, as Rowan Kaiser has argued, the old fantasy was about having power, the new fantasy is about accumulating power. The old power fantasy was invincibility codes and infinite ammo. The new power fantasy is the feeling that you’ve earned your success by your hard work alone. This is the fantasy behind the guitar-riff that signifies that you’ve leveled up in Call of Duty multiplayer. It’s the fireworks and orchestral bombast of Peggle. It’s the steady return on investment in Fantasy Life. It is a power fantasy that reflects our time. We want to be reassured that our effort will pay off in the end, that progress is guaranteed, and that our achievements are fully our own.
The Crew was disappointing for a host of reasons, but I get the appeal of that fantasy. It’s not like I’m fundamentally opposed to “leveling up” in games, and just thinking about Fantasy Life reduces my stress. Our world is filled with inequity, and it is soothing to step into a world where persistence always pays off. “Making the numbers go up” in video games feels good because the problems in our own lives are rarely even reducible to “numbers,” let alone solved with a simple mixture of determination and time. I’m not going to judge anyone who, in a year like 2017, actively seeks respite in games that assure us that we can make things better if we put in the work. The real world isn’t that easy, sure, but as Slim Charles said: If it’s a lie, we fight on that lie.
But Payback takes the structure of that fantasy—consistent, predictable progress—and strips away the feeling that you’re improving at all. And it does this with a slot machine.
Throughout Payback’s campaign, you’ll often face huge leaps in the “recommended” car level listed between missions, which means you’ll need new parts constantly. Finishing a story mission always left me looking at new, higher level activities only to find that I could barely afford to upgrade one of my cars enough to take on the task. And remember, because there are five types of events, you (at minimum) need keep five different cars kitted out.
While you get one new part whenever you complete a race, that was never enough to keep me on pace to keep up with the ever-rising requirements of the next mission. So, I bought the vast majority of my stat upgrades in Payback with in-game currency.
There are two ways to get new parts from the scattered tune up shops scattered across Fortune Valley. The first is to simply buy them for “Bank,” the in-game currency you earn through races, challenges, and other events and which you also spend on new cars, garages around town, and visual customization for your fleet of vehicles.
These parts are always slightly better (on average) than the ones you have equipped on the car you are currently driving—which yes, means a brand new, low level car is only going to have terrible parts available out of the gate. That storefront refreshes its stock every 10 minutes, theoretically encouraging you to go do a side event (but actually encouraging you to be the person who hangs out in the Auto Zone parking lot all day).
By the mid-point of Payback, I felt deeply familiar with its loot box system.
The second way is to spend one of your other currencies (”Spare Parts”) and take a chance at the “Lock and Roll” slot machine. Made up of three reels—either a part type, one of five stats, or one of the part manufacturers—you “lock” the one you want and spin the other two.
Like the parts you can buy for Bank, these seem to reflect your current level, sort of like the loot curve of Destiny. And like the bulk of the Destiny campaign, most of what you get is something you’ll use for 20 or 30 minutes before replacing. And unlike the parts you buy with Bank, the parts you get from this slot machine don’t refresh on a timer, so every time you re-roll, you have a chance of getting better (and better, and better) stats.
Each spin costs 3 Spare Parts, which you get either through “trading in” old parts (one for one), or through (you guessed it) loot boxes, which contain a vanity item, some Bank, and a haul of Spare Parts. Called “shipments,” these loot boxes are awarded whenever you raise your Reputation level by completing races, finding collectibles, and cleaning up side objectives. Or whenever you hand over a couple of bucks, of course.
Your best, bet for simply progressing through the game and keeping up with the level requirements is to… well, it’s to spend real money, but if you’re not willing to do that, then it’s to repeat a single race over and over, grinding away, like YouTube user rubhen925 lays out in this video:
And remember: Once you get that rep, you get a box that might have the number of Spare Parts you need. Once, it was only because a loot box gave me a 25 Spare Part windfall that I was able to continue the campaign without grinding. More than once, these loot boxes gave me a paltry 5 Spare Parts, not even enough to play Lc and Roll twice.
Because also remember that once you get those Spare Parts, you then need to pull the slot machine handle and hope that you get good stuff (besides the endorphin rush of seeing reels spinning numbers going up). If the progression curve of The Crew was built to make you feel like you were getting better, the progression curve of Payback is much more cynical, built to make you feel comfortable rolling the dice. By the mid-point of The Crew I felt like I’d become unfathomably good at drifting. By the mid-point of Payback, I felt deeply familiar with its loot box system.
At some point, I realized that if I was being honest, I wasn’t actually playing a game about stealing cars or climbing the ranks of an organized crime syndicate. When the controller and the car and the road disappeared from my view, I was looking past the next curve and towards the fantasy that Payback is pursuing. What I found was a casino. Races just filled the time between visits.
This multi-leveled system of loot boxes isn’t just an element added to an above average driving game, the cars were added to the outer edges of a slot machine, shining and chiming and desperate to distract me long enough to pull the handle again.
That might seem unfair. Some really dedicated devs built that ridiculous helicopter with its anti-car spotlight. Some other devs designed some of the gorgeous vistas and sweeping mountain passes of Fortune Valley. Someone really wanted to take what they loved about action movie chase sequences and bring it to gaming. I can see that here. So if anything is unfair, it is that their work was squashed into this format and structure.
And this is troubling. There has been a lot of discourse this year about the future of the single player game, about the place of loot boxes and microtransactions. Some of that criticism has carried the air of consumer-first, consumer-only advocacy, or has unfairly labeled any game with a “gacha” element as exploitative. Many of these takes have been too-reactive or have carried too limited a view—not enough has been said about gambling addiction in relation to this, for instance. But Need for Speed Payback is a reminder of two things.
First: It illustrates how the goals of a development team and the goals of a publisher can collide in a way that makes the game way less than what it could’ve been. I’m not wounded by these loot boxes, “Lock and Roll” doesn’t offend me (beyond its terrible name). But I am disappointed, because I would’ve loved a version of Payback more in line with the goals communicated by everything except its structure.
Second: It’s a reminder that whatever thing we’re complaining about now, what comes tomorrow will be—is actively being—refined. Years ago it was horse armor, then it was character skins, then it was game “boosts.” (Ironically, the way that Payback’s loot boxes are embedded into the game’s structure feels like a response to the outrage around these other sorts of monetization.)
Payback’s slot machine exists in this overall continuum of additional monetization, and could point forward to a new model. It makes me wonder what new tactics we might see deployed by big publishers in the coming years, and how those tactics will prey on those who struggle with addiction and how they will undermine the visions of development teams.
Back when I reviewed the first Project CARS, I was struck by the fact that there were no unlockables. “Project CARS doesn’t deliver a fantasy of accumulation and progress,” I wrote, “What it does deliver is a simulation of racing as tense as it is deep … No experience points. No parts to buy. No cars to add to your collection." But it isn’t that there were no microtransactions that makes Project Cars great. It’s that the developers so well realized their goal, which was of providing a toy box of cars that were fun to learn how to drive.
Every game—every creative work—is a compromise between imagination and reality, and as critics, consumers, and fans it is important to recognize that context. But the ongoing loot box controversy is a reminder that we should be pushing for more a sustainable and healthy development environment. One where developers don’t need latch storefronts onto games in the most nihilistic ways, where major publishers re-calibrate expectations and budgets so that they aren’t banking on microtransaction income.
Until that happens, we will continue to be disappointed.