A Handy Chart

October 13, 2017 by Tim

Happy Friday the 13th! Last day to snag one of the posters from our store. Orders close at 11:59pm ET.

So, loot boxes, huh? You can’t turn around at the moment without seeing a game with loot boxes. It’s a bit of a hot button issue, and there’s no way I was going to capture the full spectrum of opinions regarding their use in a single comic, but I do want to share my perspective on them.

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First, I think we can all acknowledge that the mere concept of paid loot boxes gets our hackles up. Why is that? Well, the most obvious reason is that in their very worst implementation, it means someone can shell out a ton of cash to become, essentially, unbeatable. They can acquire power that makes a contest of skill irrelevant. They are paying to win, and that sucks because it makes you feel like you have to shell out cash just to play on the same level.

Which leads to the second reason we hate them: it makes us feel like we’re being milked. Like the developer sees us as easy marks, and that by putting shiny objects behind additional paywalls for a game we enjoy, eventually peer pressure will win out, we’ll cave, and hand over some money. And nobody likes to feel like they’re just a wallet to be drained.

So that is the worst case scenario with loot boxes, and while there are games out there that go full on bullshit like that, it should also be acknowledged that there are loot box systems at every step in-between the two extremes.

Video games are becoming more and more expensive to produce. Increasing the price of a game to $70 or $80 is likely a non-starter, and so developers and publishers look for other ways to bring in revenue, and that’s spurred the idea of gaming as a service. In that, rather than buying a game and that’s it, a game can be an ongoing service that continues to bring in revenue after the initial purchase. DLC, subscriptions, loot boxes, etc.

I understand the appeal of the model, and I do not fundamentally disagree with it. I do believe that loot boxes are a viable approach to revenue in a lot of games, and that they can be executed in a way that doesn’t necessarily harm the experience. But, because they can go so wrong, and because there is such a stigma surrounding them, the messaging of their implementation is just as important as their balance.

A couple of big titles this month have introduced loot boxes, and they’ve generated a lot of negative attention: Shadow of War and Battlefront 2.

Shadow of War lets you use real money to buy crates that include all manner of power ups, including orcs to use in your army. When it was announced, it sounded terrible, it sounded like straight up pay to win, especially since there’s a whole end-game that revolves around raiding other players’ keeps and defending your own.

In practice, however, I have not felt the slightest bit compelled to spend money on crates. I didn’t intend to regardless, but the crates I have opened (the game does allow you to earn currency) didn’t really impress upon me a need to buy them, as I’ve not once run short of orcs for my army. And recruiting new orcs doesn’t seem all that difficult. In fact, I’ve felt the orcs I personally recruited were always a better choice than the random ones from the crates.

So it seems to me like the option exists, as an alternative for those so inclined, who perhaps maybe want to save themselves a few minutes if their recruits are getting low, but at no point did I feel handicapped as the result of not buying crates.

That brings me to Battlefront 2. During the course of the beta, you could not buy boxes with cash, though it seems pretty apparent you will be able to at launch. However I did see some signs of a system that could prove incredibly problematic if not tweaked in the next month.

I ran across many people that played the beta quite a bit more than I did, and so they had far more unlocked perks and gear than me. Some of the time they killed me, and some of the time I killed them. In general, I didn’t feel useless just because I had an empty slot or two on a particular class.

But there were some abilities that just felt, to me, like they were not particularly balanced. A star card that reduced Boba Fett’s damage taken by 100% wile he was firing rockets. Massively increased rates of fire, or 50% more health in some cases.

These were abilities that felt like they significantly impacted a player’s performance (as exemplified by certain players running the table during post game MVP awards). Now this is, at its core, not so much of a game balance issue if these perks and abilities were tied to rank. If someone had played for fifty hours, you’d expect them to be more powerful than someone who had played for five.

But once you combine these abilities with the possibility of acquiring them on day one just by dropping a ton of cash, it drastically skews the playing field in a way that most players don’t find particularly fun. This is not, I think, a problem that lies solely at the feet of the loot box business model. In other words, it’s not the loot box system alone that is causing the problem, but rather the loot box system in conjunction with the game’s progression system that illustrated why achieving a balance between the two is so very important.

I feel like most gamers are fine with loot boxes that contain cosmetic items, and even accept loot boxes that maybe offer a bit of a time saver, but whose contents can be acquired via other gameplay means as well.

But if your loot boxes grant immediate, overwhelming shifts to power dynamics, or if their inclusion gives the impression that the game was designed around the expectation of their purchase (ie, attempting to remove your choice in the matter), then I think the system is doing more harm than good, and short term gains may translate to long term losses as these developers lose consumer confidence.

Again, I can live with loot boxes. I’m typically of the opinion that even if I did drop a ton of cash to acquire a bunch of gear, I still wouldn’t be #1 in the world, so I don’t tend to feel a great deal of pressure to buy boxes I don’t want to. If they’re going to be a part of our games, though, then greater attention needs to be paid to walking the fine line between optional bonus or ongoing tax. And if you can’t achieve that balance, err on the side of benign.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter in the comments below.

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