Since Overwatch brought them into the spotlight, Lootboxes are popping up everywhere, much to the dismay of most players. Which begs the question: Can Lootboxes be designed and implemented in a good and interesting way, instead of ruining the fun and progression in games?
As usual I have to start with a disclaimer: This was supposed to be out months ago. I pretty much finished the basic draft back in fall when Lootboxes were being put everywhere. Just when I thought I was good to go all hell broke loose: The EA/Battlefront Shitstorm, Lawmakers and Courts getting involved, and all kinds of other craziness. During rethinking and rewriting I slipped into the Christmas period and promptly found myself without the time necessary to finish this. I am finally doing it now, but large parts have stayed relatively unchanged, simply because I believe that they are still relevant and important. While the flood of lootboxes seems to have thinned, I doubt that things will stay like this. EA will be putting them back in Battlefront II and more games will start to use them. Right now nobody wants to be the first because the rage is still fresh, but things wont stay like this for long, nor will other games suddenly remove their Lootbox-Systems.
So, lets take this unexpected break and have a good, honest discussion about the whole topic, because, whether we like it or not: Lootboxes are here to stay. Some outrage over Star Wars Battlefront II wont change that, even if EA indeed reacted to it (at least temporary).
No, instead we will likely see even more of them and there are two very clear reasons for that:
1. Those that took a look at Ubisofts recent numbers already know it but to put it very simple: It works. Microtransactions, and, therefore Lootboxes, are earning developers a whole lot of money. And in a way that’s actually a good thing, because…
2. This kind of revenue is necessary. Making games is expensive, and it has gotten only more so over the last few years. Even with gradual increases to the price of the games themselves, companies have a hard time keeping up with ballooning production costs. GTA V and Destiny both cost several hundred million dollar to make. And that’s without continuous server management or marketing or support and whatnot. Also, developers don’t want to get even. They need to make a profit, or they will not be able to make any more games! Microtransactions are one of the most effective ways in getting in that extra money, especially over the long term.
Now, both if these arguments could lead to a discussion not about Lootboxes but about microtransactions, but due to the fact that there already have been way too many of those, written by way smarter people than me, I’ll settle for the Lootboxes right now.
So, what do I want to achieve here? I am simply going to give a bunch of suggestions, how I think Lootboxes should work in an optimal scenario. Depending on the type of game (Online, Offline, PvE, PvP, F2P, etc…) there will probably be a lot of special cases. Also, this is just what I could think of from the top of my head, so please add your own ideas in the comments. If you are okay with it, I will edit this blog and include them (please state this in your comment, unclear statements will be interpreted as a no!).
So, lets get started!
Earn Lootboxes without money
Okay, this one is easy, and nearly everyone already does, but it still bears mentioning that Lootboxes need to be available for everyone, even if some players will never pay a single cent for them. While I don’t know of any game where Lootboxes are purely exclusive to purchase per microtransaction, there are games where the farming process needed to get them without money is ludicrously difficult and long. This is often excused by pointing at excessive players that would otherwise farm them too quickly. This is obviously sh*tty, mostly because there are several simple solutions: The three Lootboxes you can earn in Overwatchs Arcade on a weekly cooldown are a good example. Other games give Lootboxes as regular Login-rewards that can’t be farmed or cheesed. You could also offer a cheaper version of a Lootbox that can be farmed easier but does not contain all of the same items, though this has to be balanced properly. The point is simple: Players need to be able to play your game and use your Lootbox system without being forced to pay money for it. This also goes for the bad version of the last example: Cheap Lootboxes for everyone, but the best stuff is locked behind expensive Lootboxes that have to be bought. Even if you are a free to play mobile game, this kind of stuff is really sh*tty. If you do it, give out some free versions of said high-end lootboxes from time to time, or allow players to farm for its contents in a different way. Just don’t try to obscure that you are locking away content behind a paywall by using Lootboxes.
Don’t include Gameplay relevant items
This should technically be a no-brainer, after all it was supposed to be a not-all-that-ironclad law for microtransactions in general. Don’t put things in Lootboxes that have a direct impact in gameplay, especially not if we are talking about a multiplayer game. Allowing players to pay for an unfair advantage is bad enough in a normal microtransaction system, in a Lootbox system it is even worse. Not only can some players gain an advantage over others for money, they themselves are likely screwed over as well, thanks to the randomness of Lootboxes, being forced to pay even more which in turn pressures other players to do the same so they can keep up. If your game is a single-player game you can maybe get away with this (emphasis on the CAN MAYBE), but only if the Lootboxes are not the exclusive way of getting said loot. The player already paid for the game, don’t lock parts of it behind shitty, money-guzzling RNG! A good pseudo-example are some of the amiibos in Zelda BotW. They give you some randomized loot, though most of it can simply be found in the game. (Yes, there are also the exclusive Weapons and Gear, I know, on the flipside you only have to buy the amiibo once. Still far from perfect but better than what Battlefront II tries to pull.) The point is: Players should not be forced to buy Lootboxes to get everything out of the game they already bought, especially not when it comes to equipment or other content with a direct impact on the gameplay.
The one possible exception to this are free-to-play titles build around these systems (though they are usually called “Gacha” in this case), where the player earns the central item (mostly heroes/characters) mostly through Lootboxes. In this there is usually a guarantee of some sort to get X amount of higher rarity versions, or the ability to improve lower grade versions, or possibilities to earn them in other ways. (See Fire Emblem Heroes) All of this is usually thanks to everything in the game being build around the Lootbox/Gacha system instead of the latter just being tacked on to a functioning game to pad it out. While those Systems have their own set of issues, they usually manage to do it in a better way than some of the recent experiments by AAA-publishers.
Give players some control
This is something that still needs a lot of work and will likely not happen soon. Lootboxes are random by nature. Players HATE randomness in their games. They want to be able to rely on something. Why else are Fire Emblem and X-COM so rage inducing? The point is: Let the player influence the randomness in some way. Fire Emblem Heroes is doing that by offering different versions of their “Lootboxes”, each containing a different set of rare characters while also letting you choose the “element” of the hero and giving you the chance to “quit” the Lootbox before you pay the full price. On the other side of the aisle is Overwatch. I want a skin for Soldier 76. Well, sucks for me, I will have to buy the same sort of Lootbox again and again, hoping that I get that skin out of the pool of EVERY ITEM IN THE GAME. In the case of Fire Emblem said pool is somewhat reduced, giving the player a slightly higher chance of actually getting what they want. This of course could be solved in other ways as well. Take Overwatch again. What if your character-picks would influence your Lootbox-probabilities? I suck at FPS so I play Soldier and Mei a lot. (Yes, yes, let the hate flow through you!) Overwatch is already tracking those numbers and percentages. Now imagine they would influence the Lootbox RNG and slightly increase my chance of getting stuff for Soldier and Mei. It would’nt need to be much, some 10% - 20% should already do the trick. It would make the whole process a lot less frustrating. But instead here I stand with half-a-dozen epics and legendaries for Junkrat and Roadhog, two heroes I wouldn’t even touch if the only alternative was being the fifth Hanzo on an Attack map. Simply said, the randomness and the grind are already infuriating enough. Considering that I (and most other non-paying players) will never even get close to getting everything, why not make it a bit easier for us to get the things we actually want?
Make the content available in other ways/forms
This again goes in tandem with some of my earlier points, but the idea is relatively simple: Allow player to grind for their loot without having to use randomized boxes.
You know, just like it used to work in pretty much EVERY GAME EVER!?!?
This is, in my opinion, the most annoying thing about Lootboxes, especially in paid games like Overwatch. Not counting the Event-Loot, I already paid for all of this stuff. And hey, I play Warframe, I have no problem with grinding a bit for the stuff I want. But the amount of time it takes to get a Lootbox, which, I have to remind you is likely to just contain two sprays, one line and low-level skin for a character I never use, combined with the knowledge that I literally cant grind for what I want specifically, is rage-inducing and depressing at the same time. There are some good ideas, like the 2-3 sprays per hero that can be earned using achievements, but again, this would have to go MUCH further. And considering that the credits are also only found in Lootboxes, they not only don’t help, but actually seem to be mocking me. Ironically Star Wars Battlefront of all games seemed like it tried something like this, though they seem to have messed up on pretty much every other point I just made.
By now some of you may be confused because judging by how I talk about them. I clearly hate Lootboxes, and yet am talking about how they will stay. And, yeah, I REALLY don’t like Lootboxes. They are incredibly lazy padding that pretty much min-maxes how little effort you have to put into developing them and how it takes the players as long as possible to get what they want out of them. So apart from being really annoying they are also lazy, shitty game-design to boot!
But, as said at the beginning of this post, I am looking at the situation with a realistic/cynical outlook. Nobody really liked microtransactions or shitty DLC that contained parts of the main game, and yet both are still around. It will be the same for Lootboxes.
Lastly, I haven’t talked about the whole legal situation that is currently discussed, and there is a very good reason for that: I have pretty much zero experience with law and am really not qualified to give constructive input on the matter. To quickly summarize my opinion as a video game player and designer: While I think that certain rules and regulations are absolutely necessary, like publicizing the odds and stuff like that, I think they shouldn’t come from actual law, for two reasons: One, if different laws get passed in different legal systems in different countries, online games will have a really hard time adhering to all of them while still allowing everyone to play with everyone else on a fair and level playing field. And two, laws tend to be slow and inflexible, while games can change overnight with a patch or a hotfix. If the laws end up being to narrow, many games will immediately abuse the loopholes left open, if they end up to broad these laws might do more damage than good and end up blocking completely harmless features.
So, with that said, what is your opinion? Is there a way to get Lootboxes right, and if so, what is it?