7 July 2018

Lootboxes done right

    Lootboxes have been a sensitive topic for a couple years now. With lots of games being accused of abusing them in a predatory nature, likening them to gambling and worried how they prey on people's compulsions; especially the more vulnerable audience, those with mental health issues, gambling problems, or less mature players. I think there is a lot of merit to lootboxes despite this, and don't want to see it completely removed from gaming, however even as a defender of lootboxes can't overlook that they have been abused in games they aren't welcome for the sake of profit. In this article, I wish to explore the subject further, both the good and bad sides of the argument.

    The con's of lootboxes have been discussed by many since their popularisation, the fact that they appeal to people who find it difficult saying no is very apparent, it feels like everyone can give personal examples of people who have spent money they really shouldn't have on this stuff. I personally have seen a boy in college, who can barely pay for heating, burning $100's his currency on Fortnite's loot-llama's. At the very start of the whole lootbox thing, I personally spent $60 on Overwatch loot-crates before realising it was gone, it wasn't until I was checking my budgeting I realised how much I had burned, and promised myself not to fall for that trap again. There is a very real concern about this, because for some people losing that kind of money isn't a big deal, but for other's you only get so much money, and have to make every last penny count, even going as far as pirating games you want to support, because you just can't cough up the money for it right now. Lootboxes have also been likened to gambling in many ways, much like you spin a slot machine hoping for a payout, you roll the dice and bless the god's of chance that the item inside your lootbox is the one you wanted. They have perfected lootboxes down to a science, right down to making fancy animations that are fun and feel good when we click them, the same way slot machines have lots of flashing lights and maybe a theme we'd enjoy. It's awful that it can leave so many players feeling bad about their purchase, they spend so much money looking for a particular item from this box almost expecting to get it, and when they don't get that, they can feel dissatisfied and gives them one of two ultimatums. Either they suck up the wasted money, or they try again until they do get what they want.

    However it isn't all doom and gloom, lootboxes can create scenario's and gamestates unlike any other, people can end up with truly unique stories based off the random effects the entire game is built around. We see a similar technique used in games like The Binding of Isaac and Spelunky where because everything is procedurally generated, nothing is truly predictable. You play long enough you might recognise certain rooms or tiles, but there are so many different combinations and possibilities, the chance of you actually seeing the same floor layout is so low it's basically impossible. This create's a unique experience for the player, they know that no-one else has had quite the same experience they've had, and it encourages discussion among friends when something wacky happens. It also challenges players in vastly different ways, there are few games out there that reward players who can think on their feet and adapt to a situation. It can also create a situation where collectionist players can build and develop a collection they can be proud of. That's a big deal for some players, and the fact it's difficult often to keep that collection feeds that pride further.

    There is the discussion to be had of whether you can have that same experience when you interact with real money or with in game money. This is a bit muddy at the moment, discussion on this is constantly brought up with cosmetic micro transactions as well, however there is some merit to locking cosmetics behind a pay wall. It makes you commit more to your purchases, only buy the cosmetics you really want, and develop an identity within the game... Or it could make a person spend way more money on a game than they intended, no clear right answer. Adding a price to lootboxes does help, in that it prevents situations where an experienced player with lots of time on their hands gets access to everything, and surpasses the limitations lootboxes are designed to put on the player, giving them a situation that wasn't intended (albeit, giving that opportunity to the rich man instead).

    Magic: The Gathering is a Trading Card Game, that distributes itself through various different methods, but mostly from booster packs. You get a 11 common cards, 3 uncommon cards and a rare or greater card from each pack, very much the same structure as modern day lootboxes and a distribution model most every cardgame world wide now follows. It has been a tremendous reason why the game is still popular to some extent today, and has shaped the game since it's inception over 25 years ago. Because the game has been built this way, you have no way of knowing what is in your opponents deck. You can make educated guesses based on what other cards he's played, if his deck is following an archetype you can assume he's going to use the best cards from that archetype and can adjust your decisions accordingly, however there is a very real possibility they just don't have one in their collection. Or likewise a card might not fit their deck particularly well, but they run it anyway because it has sentimental value. This can create really interesting situations, and is a key reason why the game is still enjoyable and fun to this day. Trading for new cards also becomes a social event, and brings players together. This has been crucial for finding new players to play with, everywhere there are games hubs and hobby stores where people meet, you get to know other people who play, and if you don't have many people to play with, you quickly find you spend 12 hours building a deck and looking after your collection, only to play with it once and dismantle it for parts.

    Despite all that however, we do have to ask whether that is the experience we want in our game. Whether we want players trading, and unable to play certain playstyles just because we weren't lucky enough, which brings me to my next example. Whilst FortniteStW is a great game, there are a lot of issues regarding it's monetisation. You could just get plain unlucky and never find the class or subclass you want to play. the game celebrates a collection book for players to fill up for their own satisfaction, however whether they succeed depends solely on how much money they spend and how lucky they get. And do we really want players turned away because they don't have a playstyle or player identity? This can somewhat be fixed through trading and opening a player market, similar to how similar games like Warframe work, however we still have to ask whether that's something we really need in a game with easy matchmaking, and less of a demand for teamwork and coordination. Traditional card games, you need that social interaction from trading to find new players and get people together to actually play, you can argue it could help with Fortnite for making friends online and getting people together for larger and more difficult events that might require a little more pre-preparation and planning, however even then the game isn't significantly built to support teamwork, feeling more often than not a competitive game where you're trying to defend harder than everyone else on your team. This is a similar question we need to ask for cosmetic lootboxes in games like Overwatch and such, whether we want to lock cosmetics behind a dice roll. Personally I don't think this is using lootboxes well at all, I would much prefer to see them take the traditional, tried and tested microtransaction model, where you pay a little money and acquire the cosmetic you like. However there is no denying there is more money in Lootboxes, so I can't fault them for it.

    In conclusion, lootboxes still a solid tool games designers can use in their games, however it's veered away from what makes it a good system in the first place. Many developers have been introducing them to their games without fully understanding how to make them great, what makes them worth using in the first place? Hopefully with the backlash from games like Star Wars: Battlefront 2 EA and such receiving so much backlash for their misuse of lootboxes for profit, we will see the practice regain some of it's dignity, or maybe I'm just too optimistic.

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