In 2019, the term “Loot box” means a lot of things to a lot of people. To the everyday gamer, it could mean a barrier in progression that, in many cases, demands real-world money or a healthy dose of grinding. To the game publishing corporation, this means a lucrative (albeit unhealthy) business model that ensures a steady stream of income despite the premium paid for the initial purchase. For the average YouTuber, this is a goto topic that is guaranteed to generate some buzz and turn heads. Based on where you see it from loot boxes play deferent roles to different demographics. But, rarely are they looked at in a positive light. And rightfully so. With the arguments on loot boxes taking centre stage regularly, why is the industry still embracing this questionable model? And what is the future of gaming going to be like? Will we be seeing every newly released game implement some form of loot box system? Or will this be a dying trend in the near future? Let’s take a closer look.
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The Evolution of Unlockable Content
Back in 1998 the PlayStation 1 had a little game called Tekken 3. It was a 3D fighting game which was revolutionary for its time. It had slick cinematics and super smooth 3D gameplay that was easy to pick up and hard to master. More importantly, it was a gift that kept on giving. Finishing the Arcade mode with each character unlocked a new character. Then there were new modes like Tekken Ball mode, theatre mode etc., that unlocked as we kept playing the game. And just when you thought you have seen everything the game offered, it threw in Doctor B. This character was special. He was a feeble old man who could hardly stand on his legs which was a direct contrast to the hulking heroes and villain of the game. But master Doctor B’s move set and none of the characters stood a chance. It was a blast playing with him. He never returned as a playable character in the subsequent games in the series, until Tekken Tag Tournament 2 in 2011. But this time he was a DLC character, although free. Fast forward to 2015 and Tekken 7 had a good number of fighters as paid DLC. And the long-awaited Mobile version of Tekken is rife with loot boxes. Reflecting back on Doctor B today, it amazes me how much effort and love has gone into making this character. Something that was given away for free. This is something that you can never expect in today’s age of microtransactions and loot boxes. Monetization and recurring income streams have become priorities and the conviction of making a proper game has taken a back seat. The Tekken series is not the only offender here. It is merely following the trends of today. And so are most of the companies and studios that are involved in making games.
Microtransactions and DLCs are different
Upon its release, Resident Evil 5 had a $5 DLC. Once the purchase was made the content was unlocked from within the Disc. These were the days when micro transactions and DLCs were taking their baby steps. Companies have been trying to implement new forms of monetization since and there have been multiple implementations with varying degrees of success. DLCs for games quickly evolved into microtransactions which particularly thrived in the FPS and fighting genres. And after enduring the initial uproar, companies have been aggressively pushing micro transactions until it became the norm. Today any form of DLC with reasonable quality and value is acceptable. Micro transactions have been embraced, so long as they are cosmetic only. And if we consider the companies’ argument of the cost of development being a lot higher than before, which it naturally is, then it does feel fair now that we are used to the idea. Besides, the player has full control over whether or not he wants to make the purchase and above all, he knows what he is getting. Unlike loot boxes. Loot boxes simply meant random rewards of varying value. Something that cannot be specified and left up to chance, or how the developers had programmed it be. This evokes a feeling of winning a lottery. Something that you pay for beforehand without knowing what you get. This model has been promptly pushed by companies. And its ramifications are much worse than just companies trying to nickel and dime their players.
Great Games mutate into Boring Grind Fests
As a natural evolution of the monetization ideas loot boxes have crept into many games, so much so that the game is designed to favour loot boxes and not the other way around. Two such examples are Shadow of War, and more famously Star Wars Battle Front II. Let’s look at Shadow of War first. This was a sequel to the surprise hit Shadow of Mordor. The game had promise, as it set out to improve upon its excellent nemesis system with plenty of refinements to its game playtest. It’s initial 16-minute gameplay trailer showed a lot of promise and there was plenty of hype surrounding the game upon its release. While the game did have all the above, it was marred by the implementation of loot boxes. This system affected the game by a large degree. As mentioned earlier it felt like the game was built around the loot box systems and trying to obtain any item without the boost of actual money was an unbearable grind fest. Something similar could be said about Star Wars Battlefront II, expect everything was dialled up to eleven. From the implementation (of loot boxes), to the grind, to the controversy, Battlefront II was everything that the fans did not want. Special credit to this game for being so loot box centric that they became the talk of the industry, with government officials and bodies getting involved to investigate the matter. Today, both Shadow of War and Battlefront II have been reworked and are free of loot boxes and are much better games now. I recently finished Shadow of war and you could feel the love and attention that has gone into this game. It is clear this was a passion project for the developers. And it is a shame that such a great game was met with such negativity at launch, thanks to loot boxes.
What of the Player?
Loot boxes are not only harmful to the games in how they work, but more importantly for the player. Video games have been embraced by a large audience spanning multiple demographics. Among them are kids. And some governing bodies have realised this and have been pushing for the removal of loot boxes. As the exposure to such ideas as loot boxes evokes a sense of gambling which could lead to gambling addiction. This, of course is serious, and it is baffling how companies seem to ignore this fact. That said, things have been changing and a lot of noise is being made about it as well. The Belgian government has banned loot boxes in video games and would not allow the sale of any game with such mechanics. Companies, in general, seem to have taken a step back in how they approach monetization through loot boxes.
Loot Boxes are here to stay
While the ban on loot boxes seem encouraging, it is unlikely that companies will let go of such a profitable business model. While things have toned down a bit, and we are seeing a better implementation of it in recent games like Apex Legends, loot boxes are here to stay. With titles as recent as the Trials Rising implementing loot boxes, it looks likes companies will keep pushing it with the excuse of ‘cosmetic only’ until this too becomes a norm. But with all the attention from everyone in the world, it is highly unlikely that loot boxes will be embraced like the idea of a DLC. It will be interesting to watch how things pan out and how it evolves. Only time will tell what our future games hold for us.
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