Why we don’t have Loot Boxes (and why other people do)

There’s lots of discussion about Loot Boxes in the last week, and it seemed like a good point to discuss why we don’t have them in Hand of Fate 2. Card games essentially invented the concept of a “Loot Box,” and to this day many games follow the model and distribution established by Magic : The Gathering. Given we make card games, Loot Boxes (or booster packs) seem like a natural fit. Yet they’re not right for us as a studio. Why?

There’s a few different reasons, and I think the counterpoints to these are interesting. Especially so given the amount of discussion there’s been around the implementation of Loot Boxes in Forza, Destiny 2, and Shadow of War in the last few weeks.

First off, what is a Loot Box? It’s a way of getting content in a game. Earn enough in game currency (or spend actual cash) and you can buy a box of random goodies to help improve your game. Most Loot Boxes give you an assortment of in-game gear, ranging from the useful to the purely cosmetic. The real key is, you don’t get to choose what you spend your money on — you just get given a random set of stuff. If there’s a particular piece of gear you want, you might have to open tens (or even hundreds) of boxes in order to get your hands on it.

On the positive side, opening Loot Boxes is fun! It really is. They’re designed to tap in to our essential desire to collect things. They’re designed to feel satisfying, rewarding, and to keep you coming back for more.

I mean, look at how much fun they’re having!

Given that, why don’t we have them in Hand of Fate 2?

1. Hand of Fate 2 is a deeper investment in the franchise and in our fans.

We see the success of Hand of Fate as an investement by our players. They’ve invested in us, and they’ve invested in the premise. Like Shadow of Mordor, Hand of Fate was a bigger success than anticipated, especially in the long term. We’re at least 50 times smaller that Shadow of Mordor in terms of dev budgets and return on investment, but both titles did better than anticipated upon release. For us, that gave us the opportunity to add some extra talent to the team and to build the game we really wanted to. It let us take our time (we’re about 9 months over, on a project that’s been going for 30 months or so) and it let us do things right.

In the case of Mordor, though, the unanticipated success doesn’t help to fund the next iteration. The profits made are siphoned off into the WBIE (Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment, the parent company) overall results for that year, and then a new project is begun. While the sequel, Shadow of War, retains the goodwill from the first title, the money is gone. It needs to be bigger and better AND it needs to pay for that additional scale by being an even bigger success than the first. In fact, the baseline for success has been reset. What was “bigger success than anticipated,” for SoM would be considered a catastrophic failure for the sequel. More has been invested this time around, so more money has to be made in order to keep the profit margins high.

We have the luxury (and it is a luxury) of funding the games we want to make from our own resources. We don’t have any idea how Hand of Fate 2 will sell. If it sells as well as Hand of Fate 1, that’s great! If it sells a lot worse, then we’ve made a bad decision and we’ll move on from it. If it sells a lot better, that’s great too — and it gives us more opportunities to invest more in HoF2. It allows us to create DLC (free and paid), expand our feature set, and do more with the game. Ultimately, we consider each sale an investment in our ideas from our player base — and we try to reward that investment by turning it into an investment in the titles we create, and in the team that creates them.

The Dealer is also delicately balanced.

2. Hand of Fate 2 is delicately balanced.

Anyone who’s played Hand of Fate 1 is probably chuckling at this point. HoF1 didn’t so much have a difficulty curve as much as a steep difficulty cliff around the mid/late game. That’s one of the big things we’ve improved in HoF2, and we’ve spent a lot of time looking at how the game is built for that reason. We’ve made sure the balance of encounters and challenges is just right. We’ve given the player tools to navigate the difficulty, and ways to modify their approach. We’ve built ways to bypass challenges if they’re too hard, and return later. We’ve spent an enormous amount of time considering the ways that players approach our game.

Loot Boxes break that relationship. They risk either making the game too easy for people who spend money, or making the game too grindy for those who don’t. Either of those results is, for us, a bad result. If the base game becomes too grindy, then we lose the delicate relationship with balance we’re looking for. If the game becomes too easy, it loses its potential appeal for people looking for a bit of push back.

3. Hand of Fate 2 lacks disposable content.

Key to making Loot Boxes work is having currency to spend on them, and content to come from them. We don’t have any ‘disposable’ content in HoF2 — no long term player currency that they collect from mission to mission that they could spend on Loot Boxes. On the flip side, we don’t have player currency that could come from the Loot Boxes, we only have discrete cards. Each card in HoF2 is a block of player content — either a weapon we’ve created and balanced, or an encounter we’ve written.

An in-game companion like Ariadne is thousands of hours of work to create, with multiple storylines and game mechanics depending on her.

Don’t get me wrong, we could make all of this work. Instead of offering players specific cards when they complete tokens or challenges, we could give them some form of currency that allowed them to purchase Loot Boxes. We could give you a second currency (similar to Hearthstone’s Dust, or the Mirain of Shadow of War) from those Loot Boxes that you could use to purchase specific legendary cards that couldn’t be found in Loot Boxes. We could let you earn duplicates of cards, and let you destroy those duplicates to gain more Dust/Mirain to spend on things.

All of that is possible. It’s all a bunch of work, but at least the parameters for those types of mechanics are relatively well defined. All of it is work that’s not directly related to creating a better experience for the player though, so it’s not work that we prioritise.

4. Hand of Fate is a card game, but we’re not a CCG

The goal with Hand of Fate has always been to provide a specific experience. Because that experience is condensed into cards, it can be remixed, redealt, and recreated in endless ways. Because we allow deckbuilding, the player can take some control over the ways in which the experience is crafted. In this sense, even though we use cards, we’re a lot closer to a roguelike than we are to a CCG. In a CCG, multiplayer is much more important — and it’s arguable that even the singleplayer side of most CCG’s only exist to demonstrate the multiplayer mechanics. Hand of Fate is a straight up singleplayer experience.

5. We don’t have a publisher/shareholders to encourage us to maximise revenue.

Profit is really low on the list of our studio objectives. Don’t get me wrong, we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can best make games that allow us to fund the studio, so we can keep paying rent and keep making games. Money though, is a means to an end for a studio like ours. We have three key company goals :

- Make great games
- Employ great people
- Treat people well

That ultimately means that if we happen to leave money on the table, there are no publishers or shareholders pressuring us to monetize more agressively. “Make the most money humanly possible,” is never one of the goals we’re reaching for.

We spend a LOT of time thinking about which games we’re going to make. We spend a lot of time deciding whether the things we create will make enough money to be worth spending our time on. That money gives us the freedom to create the games we want to make, so it’s not to be sniffed at. However, so long as we make enough to make the next game, we’re okay with that.

In Conclusion :

Outlining the logic behind our choices should also give you some insight into the decision making process that leads to Loot Boxes in other games. I’m not trying to say there’s anything inherently wrong with Loot Boxes (I think most people would agree that Overwatch does them well, along with Magic : The Gathering) but merely to outline the decisions that result in people implementing them.

Unfortunately with most of the recent and controversial cases (SoW, Forza) the reason doesn’t seem to be “It makes the experience better for the player,” and it’s a little unfortunate that many studios are in the position where that can’t be their leading requirement.

This might seem like a value judgement. It’s not. There’s a reason Shadow of Mordor has 50 times the development budget of Hand of Fate 2, and a lot of the pressures we don’t have come from the luxury of having less mouths to feed.

That said, I’m glad we’re able to put the player experience first and foremost in our decision making — you’ll get a chance to see how that worked out soon, with HoF2 coming out (finally) in November.