Few things in video games are as addictive as the dopamine rush of randomized loot. And, when it’s tied to real money, few things make people as angry. As we enter the year’s busiest game season, it’s fair to wonder: Do we have a loot box epidemic?
It started with Shadow of War, which gave YouTubers two months worth of rage material when its developers announced in August that the game would let you pay real cash for in-game loot. And this wasn’t just regular loot—Shadow of War would let you purchase loot boxes, the little slot machines that are most popular in “gacha” games like Fire Emblem Heroes and Final Fantasy Record Keeper. In Shadow of War, these boxes would contain a random selection of gear and recruitable orcs. (Now that it’s out, our reviewer says you can play the game just fine without spending an extra cent.)
Next came Forza 7, which has been slammed for its own set of loot crates. (Microsoft has already reversed some of the controversial changes to that game’s VIP credit system.) And, most recently, it became clear through last week’s Star Wars Battlefront II beta that EA’s next big game will have its own slot machine, in the form of randomized card packs that allow you to upgrade each of your character classes. Although EA has not confirmed that these card packs will cost money, it’s a safe assumption to make. (The beta menu shows three different types of currency, which is usually a sign that one of them costs real money.)
That’s at least three major fall games that cost $60 but want you to spend more money gambling for loot boxes, which has led to anger all across the internet, from massive Reddit threads to YouTube videos with hundreds of thousands of views. Other fall games, like NBA 2K18, are so dominated by microtransactions that they make it tough to discuss much else. Even when these in-game transactions are completely optional, they linger over games like a bad stench, making everything feel a bit more suspicious.
The rage has even led OpenCritic, a review aggregation site, to start exploring a new model that will show each game’s microtransaction options. The site’s founder, Matthew Enthoven, told me in an e-mail this afternoon that he plans to start adding tags like “Game progression accelerators unlocked via loot boxes” and “Multiplayer Maps and Modes unlocked via direct purchase” to games with add-ons.
“We feel that, even if a thing is available via normal gameplay, we should call out when it’s available for purchase,” Enthoven said. “In general, we think it’s very difficult to balance payers and non-payers with these types of features.”
It’s easy to see why this is happening. The meteoric rise of game costs coupled with unreasonable growth expectations have led to a world where $60 games are just not enough for most big video game publishers. As companies like EA and Warner Bros. chase service games, the traditional $60 model is becoming obsolete. To those guys, the only way for video games to justify their nine-digit budgets is for them to generate revenue on top of the sticker price. No number of angry YouTube videos is going to change that.