You might remember that a couple of weeks ago on the podcast we covered the story of the UK sorta-kinda banning lootboxes. In response to that, a reader / listener sent in a question that’s way too complicated to tackle in podcast form. This discussion requires a lot of nuance, some very careful phrasing, and lengthy examination of the topic from several angles. So instead I’m going to cover this in a pair of posts.
The question is thus:
Shamus, what is your opinion on lootboxes? From your tone, you’re clearly not a big fan, but you usually focus less on your own stance than on the public dynamics of “If EA doesn’t change course, the backlash is going to pressure governments into banning them entirely.” That assessment is probably right, and a more useful contribution to discourse than you being the billionth person to throw in their opinion, but I’m still curious. As a consumer, do you ever buy lootboxes/microtransactions and how do you feel about it? If you somehow became King of America, what if any laws do you think should be passed on the issue?
PS: The way you avoid stating your own opinion while talking about the mob of angry people always reminds me of this comic.
Like Dr. Breen, I sense that Ninety-Three has asked an explicit question, while perhaps gesturing towards an implicit one.
- Explicit: Given your negative rhetoric, what’s your actual position on lootboxes?
- Implicit: Why are you so cagey when it comes to talk of banning? Why do you always sound like you’re offering a threat on behalf of someone else?
Now, these are perfectly reasonable and fair questions. The second runs afoul of politics, so let’s put that off for now and focus on the first one. Yes, my position on lootboxes is fairly negative, but I think my reasoning differs from that of most people.
A majority of objections seem to come at this from a public health perspective. The argument goes something like, “Lootboxes are bad because they exploit naive children and people with a weakness for gambling. They’re inherently predatory.” That’s fine, but again it feels a little political. Also, I’m worried that this argument would be met with indifference by the EA leadershipEveryone is doing lootboxes now, and maybe EA isn’t even the worst. But EA is the publisher I’ve studied the most, so I’m going to single them out. and their shareholders. I know EA CEO Andrew Wilson doesn’t read my blog, but for whatever reason I still have a desire to construct arguments that the leadership might find persuasive.
I’ll circle back to this public health idea later, but for now let’s look at it from another angle:
Lootboxes Attack the Entire Premise of a Video Game
The definition of “video game” is a subject of constant debate, and we’re not going to untangle that knot today. But for the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to use this definition:
A video game is where a player must use some form of skillLogic, reflexes, memory, knowledge, patience, situational awareness, spatial reasoning, planning, pattern recognition, timing mastery, etc etc. to overcome a system of rules in order to receive rewards or bring the game into some desirable prescribed state.
A shorter version of this same definition could be expressed as:
The player does stuff to get stuff.
You don’t have to accept that definition in a universal senseI actually think this definition is too limiting, but it’s short and that’s what I’m looking for at the moment., just as long as you understand that this is the definition we’re using for this post.
Maybe you memorize all of the combos so you can beat your opponents in Street Fighter, or maybe you use logic to solve the puzzles in Hexcells Infinite, or maybe you grind mobs in the Canyon of the Magi looking for rare drops, or maybe you walk through the island to get to the end credits of Dear Esther, but you’re doing stuff within the game to get stuff. The stuff you get is your motivation and the stuff you do is the gameplay that (hopefully) makes the process fun.
Let’s set aside lootboxes for a second and just talk about microtransactions. Games with microtransactions attack this “do stuff to get stuff” cycle, destroying both the fun and the extrinsic motivation to engage. The Diablo 3 auction house was a good example of this. You’re supposed to kill monsters to acquire gear that you use to kill tougher monsters to get better gear. But if you can just BUY the items you want for cash, then you’re skipping over the gameplay and at the same time destroying your motivation for continuing. Now that you’ve got the gear you want, you no longer have anything left to search for and no reason to keep playing. You don’t even need to take the time to get good at the game. Just type in your credit card and skip to the end. It’s like paying money to skip riding the rollercoaster. That’s what you came here to do!
In a psychological sense, the player is trying to optimize their progression. Acquire the best gear. Discover the best build. Learn the strategies to optimally defeat the boss that yields the best loot. But now suddenly the optimal route to the endgame is spending money. The optimal way to play the game is to skip playing the game.
Worse, this creates a system of perverse incentives. In a game with fixed pricingEither a single up-front cost, or a monthly subscription fee. the designer has an incentive to make the game as fun and engaging as possible. More fun means more sales. More fun means users stick around and pay the monthly MMO fee longer. It means people will be more likely to buy the expansions. But if you’re selling the game to a player a tiny chunk at a time, then you want to push them to spend more. The last thing you want is to make the game as good as possible. If the game feels complete, then the users won’t be motivated to add anything to it. What you want is to make the game just barely good enough to keep them engaged, but boring / annoying / frustrating enough that they’ll fork over more money to escape that manufactured boredom / annoyance / frustration.
This is the problem I had with Black Desert Online. I couldn’t form a plan and work towards my goals, because all the stuff I wanted was only available for cash. The game gave me tons of in-game currency, but you couldn’t buy anything useful with it because they wanted me to buy it for cash.
It Gets Worse…
That’s just the damage that microtransactions inflict on the design of a game. Lootboxes take all of that damage and amplify it. Now I can’t even slap down a few bucks and get the thing I want, I have to keep putting money in and hoping the slot machine will bless me with the thing I’m looking for. My skill doesn’t matter. Understanding the mechanics doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is this horrendous electronic casino, which now supersedes all other game systems as the player’s central means of progression.
People say things like “Nobody is forcing you to buy the lootboxes. Just ignore them if you don’t like them!” It would be nice if it was that simple, but the fact that lootboxes are in the game means that the design has been twisted in service of this slot machine. Battlefront II is a classic example. The rewards were spread out so far that it would take a week of full-time play just to unlock a single character. The designer doesn’t want you to do stuff to get stuff. They want you to pay money to get stuff, so they make the grind as long, empty, and boring as possible.
Lootboxes are poison. I might understand if they were a revenue model for a free-to-play game, but charging someone top dollar for a game and then making them pay to play slot machines to progress is ghastly.
Worse, I’m not sure how well the big publishers understand the implications of this shift. If you take down your skee-ball machines and billiard tables to put up slot machines and roulette wheels, you’re not just making a different kind of game – you’re entering into a whole new kind of business. This requires a different kind of expertise and a different kind of focus. A smart person would branch out into a new space, leaving their original business intact in case things don’t work out. But EA is taking their flagship titles and retooling them to serve this new market. They’re effectively ceeding this territory to whomever wants it. Now, maybe that’s a move that will pay off in the long term, but does EA realize they’re doing this and do they have an exit strategy if things don’t work out?
I wonder if this isn’t a big part of why everyone is so bananas for Cyberpunk 2077. Maybe the world is really excited for a cyberpunk game, or maybe there’s a huge underserved market of people looking for story based single-player experiences that aren’t always pestering you to jump online or buy the rest of the game.
The Problem is People
Yes, the big publishers are clumsily jamming lootboxes into our games and ruining the gameplay. That’s bad, but I feel like we need to stop and recognize fact that people keep buying these stupid things.
Obviously this problem isn’t unique to lootboxes.
Constant-connection DRM is an obvious attack on ownership that creates inconvenience for the end user even when it’s working as intended. It’s ghastly and offensive, but millions of people buy those games anyway. They complain if something goes wrong, but they don’t understand or care enough to make a principled stance.
This includes me! I hate how Steam infringes on our supposed ownership of games, but I own over 750 games on the platform. If I want a world with a “You bought it, you own it, you control it” approach to ownership, then I’ve spent the last 16 years sending exactly the wrong message.
The Michael Bay transformer movies are obnoxious, nonsensical, and agonizingly paced. Inane plot threads yank us in multiple directions to create tedious scenes that add nothing to the movie. Everyone is an idiot and the series doesn’t even care about its own convoluted lore. But millions of people line up to sit in an air conditioned theater and watch two hours of gasoline explosions, so the sequels keep coming.
Grand Theft Auto V is an aimless, mean-spirited, thematically incoherent, morally confused, massively hypocriticalThis is a game that makes fun of lowest-common-denominator online shooters with toxic communities, while also being THAT VERY THING. It makes fun of greedy amoral corporations while being run by a company that is THAT VERY THING. single-player story attached to a horrendous pay-to-win multiplayer grindfest / griefing engine. It’s also the second highest rated game of all time and also the most profitable entertainment product ever made.
We can scream at the big publishers all we want about how much they’re ruining games, but let’s save a slice of that outrage for the tasteless masses that lap this stuff up. I realize it’s poor form to accuse the audience because that means I’m either:
- Condescendingly pointing a finger at the readership of this blog, or…
- Arrogantly pretending that weThe readership / writership of this blog. are some refined class of consumer, above the drooling masses.
Neither of those is a good look. You’re not supposed to point this out. But if we’re going to talk about lootboxes then we need to acknowledge that millions of people buy these stupid games and then dump money into these wretched boxes. I’m not talking about gambling addicts here, I’m just talking about the everyday players that throw money at these ruined games because they don’t care.
The narrative of blaming everything on the villains at EA is very fun and I appreciate the simplicity of it, but any serious analysis of the problem needs to take into account the fact that millions of consumers are offering billions of dollars in exchange for lootbox-fueled games. There’s a large group of people offering EA money to keep doing it, and a small but extremely vocal group of us telling them to stop. EA is just listening to the money.
Will it Last?
The one question I have regarding our current situation is: Can it last? Yes, lootbox-driven games are doing great now, but that doesn’t mean they will continue to do so. Despite my cynicism in the previous section, I think it’s possible that lootboxes are headed for some sort of retraction in the coming years.
Maybe The Backlash is Coming, but Slowly.
We’re really focused on critical reception and analysis on this site, but the general public isn’t really tuned in to that. They just buy their games at Wal-Mart and don’t think too much about it. But just because they don’t read critical reviews doesn’t mean they don’t care about quality. It might take them a little longer, but It’s very possible that these shallower games will leave the general public feeling unsatisfied. Perhaps this is like the Gaming Crash of 1983. Atari began shovelling out dross years before the collapse happened, but people didn’t stop buying games right away. They needed to buy a couple of duds before they realized they were panning for gold in the shower. But when they did catch on, they stopped buying games in a big way. Video games peaked at around $3.2 billion in 1983, and fell to ~$100 million by 1985. That’s a drop of almost 97 percent! Like, I can’t think of another market drop THAT big in my lifetime. I’m not saying we’re headed for a market-wide crash, I’m just saying the public might react to this, and that reaction might seem abrupt and extreme to the big publishers.
Maybe the publishers will over-commit to this singular but unsustainable idea.
Lootbox games work differently compared to normal games. Very few people would buy a lootbox for a 6 hour game you beat over a weekend. Also, most people probably don’t have the interest / money to support two different games at once. This could create a winner-take-all effect. These live service games cost a TON of money to produce, and the more there are, the more they’re going to be fighting over the same finite audience. It’s easy money now, but what happens when all the big publishers have expensively-produced offerings in a situation where the biggest game gets most of the money and the rest have to fight over the scraps? The losers will try to siphon users from the winner by offering better odds, rapidly driving prices down and making the games even less profitable.
But What About Legislation?
The question of how we balance Individual Liberty versus Public Good is messy and prone to starting flame wars that create stressful moderation problems for me. And once you strip away the technological novelty of it all, that’s exactly what the lootbox debate boils down to.
However, aside from the danger of moderating a thread where Red and Blue spit venom at each other, there is another reason I’m so cagey about regulation proposals. In the next entry I’m going to very gently attempt to explore this topic in a way that won’t make people hate me or start a huge fight.
Wish me luck.
 Everyone is doing lootboxes now, and maybe EA isn’t even the worst. But EA is the publisher I’ve studied the most, so I’m going to single them out.
 Logic, reflexes, memory, knowledge, patience, situational awareness, spatial reasoning, planning, pattern recognition, timing mastery, etc etc.
 I actually think this definition is too limiting, but it’s short and that’s what I’m looking for at the moment.
 Either a single up-front cost, or a monthly subscription fee.
 This is a game that makes fun of lowest-common-denominator online shooters with toxic communities, while also being THAT VERY THING. It makes fun of greedy amoral corporations while being run by a company that is THAT VERY THING.
 The readership / writership of this blog.
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