The Loot Box War is Already Over.
And we let them win.
Games are a business.
Wait, aren’t games art?
Yes, they totally are! And also a business. A big one.
Not for everyone making them, of course…
But if you hear about a game out there in the wider world, and not just by browsing the depths of Steam or a mobile store, that means it probably had some marketing behind it… and that means it’s part of a business. Like it or hate it.
And that’s totally okay and just how it is.
Let’s talk about Loot Boxes.
I don’t hate loot boxes. I kind of like them. If that made you hate me, I’m sorry.
I just don’t know why these inspire such tremendous rage in certain players. The rage is too late. Loot boxes are a permanently ingrained concept in the modern gaming landscape. Trying to obliterate them now would require a massive market shift akin to the game market crash/reset of the mid 1980's.
I don’t think such a shift is impossible…but I do think that those that crusade relentlessly against loot boxes haven’t considered that the next evolution will probably be even worse, to them. And the rest of the market will continue to roll along unabated, monetizing the crap out of anyone it can.
The world of the pay-once single player narrative game is not gone. Far from it. But those games hit the ceiling of their ability to grow a market long ago. And the market always has to grow because games cost money to make.
That’s what businesses try to do. That’s their whole aim. To make more money and then make more things, and repeat.
The explosion of different types of monetization, from paid DLC for those single player games, to multiplayer map packs, to free-to-play games powered by cosmetic items and loot boxes, is the inevitable result of games being a business.
More people have game-playing devices now that at any other point in history.
And most of them don’t want to play something like Quantum Break. I’m sorry to pick on Quantum Break, but it’s true.
People want social experiences. People want quick pick-up-and-play fun. People want a sense of progression. Skyrim still sold millions of copies in this modern gaming world, but it had lots of paid DLC.
Millions of people still love intense multiplayer games like Dota and League, which have a direct lineage back to the most intense RTS games created in the “golden era” of single-purchase boxed 90’s games.
They just happen to be free-to-play, and supported by bonus transactions. The core gaming concepts didn’t go away, they’ve just evolved and the business has evolved around them. That’s what time does.
In order for the art of games to keep growing, the business must also evolve. Whether you like it, or not.
If the old way of doing things had been the best way, the market would have kept doing it forever and still have been able to support the increased demand for better graphics, gameplay, story, and so on.
But that’s not what happened.
Loot boxes are the ultimate gamification of the notion of a transaction. They provide the same satisfaction that completing an in-game task provides. You get a fun animation and then a thing pops out. But you spent currency to get it instead of jumping over a guy.
Yes, they rely on similar mechanics that casinos use to keep you spending money. I won’t dispute that.
But they’re quite different from pure gambling, also. For one, most games allow you to earn loot boxes for free if you play a bit or check in every so often. Casinos don’t really do that.
Secondly, with loot boxes, you always get a thing. It might not be the thing you wanted, and that can compel you to keep buying and spending, sure…but you still always get something.
This design mentality is identical to the methodology that drove old arcade games. You’d pay a little money, and you’d get to play the game for a bit in return. Depending on your luck, you might get to play longer than the last player. And many games gave you bonuses for spending more money. But unlike a roulette table, you were always guaranteed some fun gaming action.
Game developers have to eat, too.
Current free-to-play games, when well designed, don’t ever require the player to spend money. I’ve been happily progressing in Heroes of Incredible Tales and earning free loot boxes and premium currency for weeks now and I haven’t spent a cent. I know that’s not the case with every game, but loot boxes on their own don’t inherently mean that the game design is good or bad.
They’re just another way to monetize in an ever-evolving competitive business.
What Can You Do To Change This?
If you hate loot boxes, take a breath. Then follow this guide:
- You don’t have to support loot box games! But that also means you’ll be playing a dwindling number of new products from big studios.
- Please don’t criticize people that enjoy loot box games. A lot of folks are going to like the new Lord of the Rings game, Shadow of War. Many of them will ignore the loot boxes, and many of them won’t. If you call them terrible for liking a thing you don’t like, you’re spreading discord. Video games aren’t important political topics (usually). Those players you’re angry at are just other people like you, supporting the industry you love.
- Ardently campaign for the games you think are doing things the right way. It’s better to boost something you like than to tear something else down.
I happen to love loot boxes, and I think they’re a lot of fun if implemented in a “fair” way. What’s fair? If I can spend some time and earn some boxes, and occasionally get something very cool out of them, then I’m 1000 percent less likely to feel exploited.
I know that some folks have trouble not just buying thousands of them and that it’s a problem, but I think those folks are in the minority and it’s also just as much an issue of impulse control and the lack of mental health awareness/support in the world as it is “evil design.”
It’s a symptom of a much bigger problem that’s wider-reaching than video games, and even if you stomped loot boxes into oblivion, I still think it’d be tackling the hill from the wrong side.
As long as I’m getting something for my money, I know the “risks” up front. If it were like a slot machine and sometimes I got literally zero things out of the loot box, that’d be different.
But it’s not like that.
The market has already accepted this world, foibles and all. And the gaming industry is always going to be about business first. Once you accept that, it’s a lot easier to have fun and not stress out so much. You only have to support the things you like. Don’t be mean to other people if they’re not actively ruining your fun.