Loot Boxes Don't Have To Be Terrible

Loot boxes suck. That’s just a universally true maxim of the gaming world. But it so does not have to be this way! Why do they even exist, and how can be we make loot boxes better?

Why Do We Need Loot Boxes?

Modern AAA video games are extraordinarily expensive to make. They cost as much as a blockbuster Hollywood movie, running up budgets around $100 million or as high as $265 million for a game like Grand Theft Auto V. Art and marketing make up the vast majority of that budget, including magazine ads, television ad spots, E3 booths, convention swag, and every other sponsored representation of the game. The remainder is dedicated to the production costs associated with developing the product. This is your salaries for project managers and coders, licensing for engines and third-party utilities, voice actor salaries, the whole shebang.

Unfortunately, games don’t sell nearly as many copies as a popular Hollywood movie sells tickets. Even the biggest titles of the year aren’t going to sell the tens of millions of tickets that a Marvel movie like Black Panther will get. Like movies, games have to make back their production costs to be successful. Failure to recoup production costs on a major game could lead to the bankruptcy and closure of an entire studio. That means you and all your friends lose their jobs, and now you have a major failure on your resume, making it harder to get future work.

How Did We Get Here?

It wasn’t always this way. Games weren’t always this expensive to make. Back in the day of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, games cost more like $20 million dollars. Nevertheless, they sold for the standard price of $60. Today, your games still cost $60. But now budgets are many multiples of that comparatively paltry sum.

How are studios able to make ends meet? Let’s imagine that you’re running the studio, and it’s your job to make sure you don’t get shut down thanks to failing to recoup production costs.

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First, maybe we could make a cheaper game. Sure, we could reduce graphical fidelity, but then consumers won’t be as interested. And remember, marketing is the biggest chunk of your budget, and reducing that will lead to a linear reduction in copies sold. So reducing costs isn’t much of an option.

What if we charge more for the game? That will almost certainly reduce demand. If only your game raises its price to, say, $75, your game will almost certainly sell fewer copies than its competitors. Even if you somehow managed to rise the price for every game on your platform, that’s going to shift purchasers towards other platforms, reducing the number of copies sold. Hardcore fans would pick up the game, or gamers that don’t care so much about price. But with fewer copies sold, the game doesn’t go as far or get as much attention.

Fewer copies sold on release day has a cumulative effect down the line. huge part of post-release marketing has to do with word of mouth and multiplayer critical mass. if your multiplayer game has empty servers, you’re not going to find a ton of gamers excited about picking up the title. And if all your friends are playing the hot new CoD game, you’ll be inclined to grab the game as well so you can drop in with your squad. Without this snowball effect, games will crash and burn. This means it’s harder to recoup costs, and remember: your job is on the line.

So, if you want to keep your job and continuing feeding your family by pursuing your art, you’ll need to find other ways to bring in money. And that’s how we ended up with the loot boxes we have today. It’s a low-risk way to make more money. Gamers, so far, haven’t bought fewer games thanks to loot boxes. And we gotta make that $100 million back somehow.

Why Loot Boxes Suck

On the face of it, loot boxes don’t seem that bad. Gamers that want to drop some extra money to support the developer can, and they get cool rewards for their expense. But that’s so rarely the way it works out.

In many games, loot boxes contain items that improve your performance in the game. This means that two gamers of equal skill can face off in multiplayer, and the one with the better loot will probably win. Battles stop being about skill, or at least are no longer only about skill. The gamers that spend the most money will have the best results. This so-called “pay-to-win” model has drawn a ton of fire from gamers. Witness Battlefront 2, EA’s most recent Star Wars game. At launch, the game planned to include a heavy-handed pay-to-win system, based on Star Cards that improved player stats. Worse still, this came on top of a $60 game, not a free-to-play title for your phone.

Sure, players could earn these cards by grinding for an incredible number of hours, but it was inhumanly tedious, requiring thousands of hours of real human time to earn cards that could be purchased for a couple bucks. If earning rewards through playtime is impractically difficult, the only realistic avenue is paying for loot boxes to stay competitive. This was vilified by gamers and the industry press online and in social media. Eventually bowing to the incredible volume of negative press, EA removed the pay-to-win elements. Of course, they didn’t really fix anything else, but that’s a case study in failure for another day.

How Loot Boxes Should Work

Loot boxes don’t need to be pay-to-win. Sure, it brings in the most money for the studio, probably. But it’s a short-sighted tactic. Without moderation, that kind of strategy throughout the industry will gradually drive gamers away from our titles. Over time, fewer copies will sell. Will it still be enough to support a major pay-to-win game? At first, sure. But players will only tolerate being exploited for so long. Soon, the market will be ripe for games that don’t exploit the player by locking progression, story, and critical items behind a paywall.

Some games have done loot boxes properly. Overwatch is generally held up as the sterling example of loot boxes done right. Players can buy loot boxes for a reasonable fee or win them through normal advancement. These boxes contains emotes, skins, sprays and player icons. Importantly, those items are solely cosmetic. There’s nothing in a loot box that will improve your stats. Unless you consider Witch Mercy to be crucial to your play style, as I do.

This doesn’t exploit gamers. Instead, it offers an avenue for those that can afford it to earn cool cosmetics more quickly. It’s fun to have that stuff, but you can’t shoot anyone better thanks to your dope emotes.

What About Gambling?

Are modern loot boxes gambling? Belgium thinks so. Other countries disagree. They’re exploitative, sure, but they aren’t exactly gambling in the eyes of the law. However, that doesn’t mean players with a gambling problem won’t get sucked in. If you’re in recovery from gambling, you’ll probably want to avoid any game with loot boxes. But that means that you’ll be gradually avoiding a larger and larger percentage of games, until you avoid all of them completely.

Good Loot Boxes, Please

We can improve loot boxes in a few ways. First, cosmetic items only. Don’t lock critical game elements in loot boxes. Second, provide the opportunity for folks to disable loot boxes to protect vulnerable players Third, indicate what kind of content is within loot boxes on the packaging. Fourth, make achieving loot boxes through playing only reasonable, rewarding your most loyal players. They’re the ones most likely to talk up your game and stream it on Twitch, after all. You shouldn’t treat them like second-class citizens because they don’t have their mom’s credit card.

Will this happen in the future? It’s hard to say, but EA’s misadventure with Battlefront 2 has probably warned companies off really heavy-handed loot boxes for now. Loot boxes are almost definitely here to stay for now, but hopefully they won’t be as terrible as we’ve feared.

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