Loot boxes are currently one of the most prominent trends in gaming and while they are not an entirely new development, in fact they have been present in gaming for almost a decade, their prevalence has come under the spotlight with the release or impending release of games this year. I think it’s important to separate cosmetic loot boxes and gameplay loot boxes because while cosmetic loot boxes can still be done in an unfair manner, as they only contain cosmetic goods, they don’t affect how the game is played and keep players on an even basis, therefore they won’t be mentioned in this article. The vast majority of games that use a loot box system tend to be focused on multiplayer content, such as a game series like FIFA which, since 2009, has had a loot box type system in ‘packs’ that contain players and boosts to your team, helping your Ultimate Team defeat your opposition and win tournaments. FIFA’s Ultimate Team mode is now one of EA’s greatest sources of revenue and is played more than any other game mode in FIFA. Of course, if a player grinds for long enough, they can save up coins and buy packs for themselves, however the option to pay real money for a pack is always present and is the option the majority of people take. This type of loot box is similar to those found in card games, as the loot box (or pack), while not actually necessary to progressing in the game, is a far easier way to progress rather than spending countless hours grinding coins to then buy packs. What is key in these two types of packs is that they effect gameplay. In a card game like Hearthstone buying packs sets you at a massive advantage to an opponent who has bought none, especially when buying packs from new expansions as the power level of the cards has only gone up since launch.
Having loot box systems like this are an obvious way to make large amounts of revenue through player micro-transactions from people who either don’t have the time or the effort to put in the grind that is necessary to progress in the game. However, as a gamer, this type of loot box system is one that aggravates me, the so called ‘Pay to Win’ system that rewards a player for spending more money than their opponent. In the case of Hearthstone it is perhaps more understandable to have this type of system being a free to play game that needs to make revenue in some way, and while many have made the argument that Hearthstone is Pay to Win, there have been many cases of players not spending money on packs and creating a deck that makes it to Legend rank, and in the case of arena, if you can consistently get over 7 wins then you are guaranteed to make back the coins you spent on the arena run. Also, while spending large amounts of money on packs will definitely set you ahead of your opponents, you still need to know how to use those cards and if you don’t, you will lose to someone who knows what they’re doing more often than not, this is an important distinction in loot boxes as certain games that I will mention later, take a very different approach.
FIFA’s usage of packs is more reprehensible being a full price game with micro transactions on top of it, something that is again raising massive debate and anger in the gaming community. Both Star Wars Battlefront 2 and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War are full priced games that contain loot box systems, both being released in 2017. In Battlefront 2’s case, loot boxes directly enhance gameplay in the most un-intelligent, in your face way possible. As previously explained, while buying packs in Hearthstone can definitely set you ahead of your opponent, if you don’t know what your cards do and how to use them, but your opponent does, you will lose more often than not. In the case of Battlefront 2, I believe the opposite will be true as the gameplay bonuses that are obtained from loot boxes are as simply as, damage increases, health increase, and cooldown reductions. These type of gameplay enhancements mean your skill level has to be a lot higher than your opponents for you to win in a one vs one battle and if you and an opponent are at about an even skill level, if they have these bonuses and you don’t, they will crush you.
In Shadow of War’s case, loot boxes are very confusing to me. Shadow of War is a single player focused game with some minor multiplayer game modes, yet as described by Philip Kollar and Chris Plante in their review of the game on Polygon, the ending to the game’s “fourth act” is locked behind hours of grinding. However, this grinding can be avoided if you’re willing to purchase loot boxes that can contain orcs who will remove the need for this grind. This may seem harmless at first as if you don’t want to pay you don’t have to, yet this is very harmful. Not only are the majority of people who purchase this game not going to have the time or effort to grind for the final ending, but it being a single player game, makes grinding even harder and less fun as when you’re not playing with your friends, doing the same quests and missions repeatedly get boring a lot faster. This will lead to a lot of players buying these packs to, as Monolith themselves described, “speed up” the game and get the ending to the fourth act. This to me is worse than what Battlefront 2 is going for as in Shadow of War’s case, hiding story content behind hours of grinding is a harmful method of making a single player focused game. Perhaps this is more of an egregious system to me because of my love for open-world, RPG games that are driven by an engaging story, and the thought that they could become blocked by pay walls, is one that scares me more. Is a full priced £50 game, no longer enough revenue to allow developers to create a great game? I doubt it, microtransactions have now just become the best way to make massive revenue, and now that this is seeping into story driven single player games, this is a worrying sign for the future of AAA releases.