Loot Boxes Suck, But What Takes Their Place?

Games aren’t getting any cheaper to make, but companies have created an air of mistrust.

by Patrick Klepek
Nov 22 2017, 3:45pm

Image courtesy of Blizzard

Last night, VTM News reported Belgium’s Gambling Commission gave the Internet what it’s been demanding: a formal declaration loot boxes are gambling. Though criticisms over loot boxes has gained fiery momentum in recent months, buoyed by sloppy integration in games like Forza Motorsport 7 and Shadow of War, everything crystallized over the egregious nature of Star Wars Battlefront II, a game where the loot boxes seem to go well beyond merely providing an additional revenue stream, and negatively impacted the game itself.

It’s unclear what happens next, but according to the commission, it’ll seek to ban loot boxes and expand its definition beyond Belgium’s borders and into broader Europe. Whether loot boxes will truly be banned or merely modified to be more transparent—giving players options to purchase what they want over randomization, being upfront about the rarity of items—is unknown, but it’s the clearest sign yet companies may have to think twice about using them.

Loot boxes didn’t appear out of nowhere, though, and if they disappear, something will have to take their place. Before loot boxes, there were season passes. Before season passes, there was horse armor. In 2017, these varying takes often frustratingly stack on top of one another. Though the concept of loot boxes came from free-to-play, their application to big-budget games like Battlefront II dance around a real problem: games are expensive to make, with no sign they’re going to get cheaper.

Part of Battlefront II’s appeal is DICE’s uncanny ability to nail the Star Wars aesthetic in video game form, and for all of Battlefront II’s faults, it effin’ nails that part of the experience. And as much as I love independent games, I cannot deny the allure of playing something where it’s clear millions, if not tens of millions, were spent making it look incredible. The bar for these types of games are raised year after year, game after game, sequel after sequel, requiring monstrous resources across art, programming, design, and other disciplines. As the bar goes higher, the staff sizes get bigger, and the budgets escalate in a single direction.

Make no mistake, I’m not excusing Electronic Art’s clear and present money grab with Battlefront II, especially how they allowed it to undercut its design principles. You shouldn’t have to invest dozens of hours to play as Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader. You shouldn’t have to worry about dying because another player managed to open a loot box that gave them an unfair advantage over you. That's terrible.

And yet, the money has to come from somewhere. The current path seems, at best, an huge contributor to the unhealthy instability in game development (see: constant layoffs and studio closures), and, at worst, a credible threat to gaming’s future—well, certain types of games.

Could publishers charge more for certain games, arguing it’s the cost of eliminating other revenue streams? I don’t know. Moments like this, where EA clearly took advantage of having access to one of the biggest brands in the world, contributes to an air of unease and suspicion amongst players. How to know someone's not trying to take advantage of you?

On Monday, the designer behind Clicker Heroes announced he’d be ditching free-to-play for the sequel, saying “it feels wrong” to potentially be taking advantage of people. His open letter to fans, explaining why a free game would suddenly charge $30 for its follow-up, came across as genuine and heartfelt. You could see where he was coming from in the writing.

I’m not saying—or maybe I am saying?—EA needs to get better at humanizing itself in order to better explain its decisions to players. But it does have a credibility problem, and given how the latest Need For Speed also had problematic loot boxes, it’s not hard to wonder what this means for the BioWare’s exciting new game, Anthem, or even the future of Dragon Age. But you can bet it's going be on everyone's mind.

EA isn’t alone in this; they’re the ones with the target on their back right now. The industry needs to wrestle with this one. All the criticisms about loot boxes being manipulative and exploitative have merit, but when and if loot boxes disappear—and the revenue they were or might have generated goes with it—does that simply mean EA has a good financial quarter instead of a great financial quarter, or do we lose the games they were going to fund, too? Maybe that's okay.

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