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Loot Boxes – Anti Consumer, Anti Gamer, and Anti the Force

Gaming was alight with rage and burning pitchforks coming towards the release of EA’s Star Wars Battlefront 2 in November which caused the infamous “sense of pride and accomplishment” Reddit comment in response to the backlash that their loot box system and unlocking of in-game rewards had caused. And while at the time EA and game developer DICE pulled back the reins a bit, we lie here in the same situation as loot boxes emerge from the rug they’ve been hiding under for the last couple of months. Battlefront brought a wide range of questions about the gaming industry as a whole in November, and has left many in the know wondering how to get the sour taste out of their mouth. Loot boxes are becoming a staple of the market, but it’s a question of why this has happened, and where we see loot boxes going in the future, as they seem to be more and more of a feature in our favourite games.

Bit of context first and foremost – what is a loot box? If you’ve happened to take up a sudden interest in gaming upon seeing this article, you probably have no idea what a “loot box” is. A loot box is a virtual item in games that you can purchase using real life money in most cases, or spend a large amount of time playing the game in order to get one, and it gives that player a random set of rewards – normally cosmetic, so your character looks especially bitchin’. Well that doesn’t sound overly bad, does it? Where we are now though doesn’t reflect the original purpose at all. Free to play games were the first to start using loot boxes, and contents varied between the simple cosmetic purpose as a way of generating money to allowing loot boxes to give items that would give one player an advantage over another.

This is where everyone should kind of stop and say “ehhhhhhh what?” You can pay for loot boxes that may give you a chance to be better than another player regardless of skill because you either (a) paid money for loot boxes, or (b) played longer. The ‘play longer’ part is okay – if I pour more time into a game I should be rewarded for my time and dedication, sure! But when real money gets involved, the situation becomes sticky; right now it isn’t the same as when this came into being. The argument that it’s okay to pay to have an advantage did have some merit when it first came into being – if we look at free to play games, where all of this started, someone or a group of people spent hours upon hours so that you can play a game for free. You’ve paid nothing to get access to this game, so if I were to spend 20 on it to give back in some way, and I get a bonus for that, then it’s a bit of a win-win for myself and the developer.

Context is key though, and while I can argue it isn’t a mortal sin to have loot boxes that give a competitive advantage in free to play games, the second you are obliged to put a single cent into a game you’ve already purchased, just to actually play it, then everything changes. Probably one of the earliest instances of a successful loot box system in a paid game is again an EA published game in the form of top football sim FIFA. FIFA is an annualised franchise for EA, where every year they update team rosters, jerseys, etc., and most importantly fix what they messed up the year before by inadvertently messing something else up – ‘but please give over your 70 anyway’. And something that has become the main focus and staple of each release is FIFA Ultimate Team. Introduced in 2010, Ultimate Team allows you to create your own team of players from most leagues through buying player packs. Better players, however, are rarer – for example, for every Ronaldo there’s probably 100,000 Shrewsbury Town players. You have to buy packs using either coins, which are earned in-game for playing matches and running drills, mostly, but you can buy packs using FIFA points, which can only be purchased using real money. So if you want Ronaldo on your team you could grind for coins for a nearly infinite amount of time, and not even get him, or quickly pump money into the game until you get him. In saying that, you probably won’t get Ronaldo regardless, because he’s so rare, but it’s the carrot on a stick approach when you know he’s there, and forking over cash is the easier, quicker option.

When it comes to Ultimate Team there wasn’t a massive backlash against it, maybe due to the fact that the whole game mode is designed around being random, and that FIFA is based so much off of player skill that even if you have the best combination of players possible you could still lose to a more skilled player. Regardless, Ultimate Team was not a speed bump on the loot box road. It’s quite telling, the effect that this mode had on EA’s profits, as very quickly Ultimate Team became a staple and ‘poster boy’ for every sports game that they possess. Last year it was estimated that EA generates $800 million from just the Ultimate Team modes across its sports franchises, and it was just something everyone eventually took for granted – but this should be considered wrong, right? If I pay for a product it’s now mine, I own it, you can’t do anything about it. And that’s still true here, but it’s like “oh! You do own it, butttttt you’re not going to have the best experience possible, so you should totally spend more money!”

And this brings me onto Star Wars Battlefront 2, and why it took the model FIFA had created but applied it in such a manner that didn’t translate. Firstly, I think everyone should take into account how much money EA must have spent so they could get exclusive rights to publishing any Star Wars game, so obviously they want to make a profit out of that, and have to fire on all corporate cylinders so they can take our cash. I would think, in an effort to try and maximise all the revenue they could, they included loot boxes. And sure why wouldn’t they? Call of Duty has been doing it for two years at this stage, Destiny implemented it nearly three years ago, and Overwatch popularised it in a way that it was all a-okay to spend money on this – but it comes back to advantages: I might have a cool looking red weapon, for instance, or my character can do the Carlton dance, but you can still shoot me dead at the same rate regardless of you spending loads on loot boxes or not. Battlefront 2 took a different approach by saying hey, here’s a loot box, and when you open it you’ll get something that will give you quicker cooldowns, or the ability to shoot rockets and throw grenades faster – suddenly we’ve gone from nice weapons skins and getting good players in a sports game to literally being able to be better at a game because you spent more money than someone else, making it difficult for them to compete.

We roll back to the question I posed at the start: is it fair for someone to spend more money on a game to gain advantage, and we just accept that? The only answer is god no. It is just so manipulative of your customer that it is impossible to enjoy a product fully without pouring an infinite amount of extra money into a game just so you can unlock all the content. I would argue that loot boxes have been so anti-consumer that it’s too late to reverse the damage, so what I’m trying to accomplish here is to: (a) advise us, as gamers and consumers, to avoid another Star Wars Battlefront 2 situation, and (b) facing facts about the industry. The money that loot boxes make is ridiculous, one only needs to look at the previously quoted $800 million figure on the Ultimate Team revenue to know this fad is going nowhere, even, unfortunately, only gaining more traction as we get more and more used to it.

I don’t think there would be enough pages in this newspaper to cover the issues with loot boxes beyond what I’ve covered from a consumer perspective. I didn’t even touch on the idea of gambling, how loot boxes affect the psyche of children, the negative effect on the quality of games and the prospect of government legislation worldwide comparing loot boxes to gambling. Loot boxes have been creeping into gaming in an omnipresent fashion, and it wasn’t until we got force smacked in the face by Star Wars that we realised what happened to the industry. Gaming publishers (EA, Activision, etc.) have the upper hand in this where they understand how this works, and how to make money from it, and to bring it back to Star Wars, it doesn’t mean we can’t rebel against it; it may seem like there’s no point, but rebellions are built on hope (possibly the cheesiest line I’ve ever put in this paper in my two years of writing).