The Lootbox Bubble in the Gaming Industry

Publishers and developers in the gaming industry aren’t talking to their customers and are simply following the trail of money- and it’s not working out for anybody.

Nothing could go wrong with this system! (Image Source: USGamer)

The winter months are an exciting time to a gaming hobbyist. Some of the biggest titles land in the most wonderful time of the year, and 2017 hasn’t been an exception to that rule. We’ve not only had some quality titles as pleasant surprises like Cuphead- which I’m amazed even saw release considering the attention to detail and craft involved- but had our blockbuster releases in the sequel to the console loot-em-up Destiny in Destiny 2 and a possibly redemptive second coming of the Battlefront series.

These two games seemingly had everything going for them leading up to release. Bungie, the developers behind the original three Halo games, could seemingly do no wrong. A huge gameplay premiere, complete with baying fan crowd and developers lapping up the grandiose nature of the entire thing, filled the watchers ears with honey with promises for Destiny 2. Bigger story, better systems, better loot. The place buzzed with energy. It’s always great to hear when developers seem to be on the money, filling the holes that have marred previous releases like dutiful road workers patching up the potholes, and this was no exception. Destiny had always had a rocky PR road, with an incredibly shaky launch caused by developer upheaval being a burden that the studio was unable to shake. It’s something that Bungie were clearly conscious of, and trying to steer away from. The message was clear: we acknowledge our failings, we know what you want, we’re going to build upon and improve on the stuff you want. We’re loyal. We’re your buddies. Let’s do this together.

Image Source: Ars Technica

Oddly enough, industry juggernaut EA had exactly the same struggle with Battlefront but with none of the past goodwill that Bungie had accrued over the years. Battlefront, the third game in the series (confusing absolutely nobody) had been a resounding disappointment in the gameplay department, with players being rewarded with vehicles and heroes by hunting them like easter eggs, rather than for playing well: a slow trickle of DLC with an extremely expensive season pass offering little in the ways of expanding the gameplay from the shallow puddle that it ended up being. While Destiny had cultivated a cult fanbase that had accepted the original game with warts-and-all, even turning some of the bizarre writing and design bungles into affectionate ‘oh you, what were you thinking!’ memes, EA and DICE had seemingly plunged their PR into an all-too familiar nosedive, reigniting the loathing that hobbyists have had towards the studio into a napalm-fuelled maelstrom. Star Wars as a franchise was, at least, beyond reproach, and could insulate some of the damage: it wasn’t going to put anybody off the games as a concept, but trust in DICE and EA to deliver on the basics had certainly taken a dent. While EA often cultivates an image of being some kind of industry constant, an ever-present malign force, it’s still a corporation that would desire at least the occasional good PR- or so you’d think.

Both games were a shot at PR redemption.

So what went wrong?

A Bridge Too Far

Lootboxes have been somewhat of a recent phenomenon in the gaming world. While micro-transactions have slowly gained acceptance in certain unobtrusive forms, lootboxes are having exactly the same hurdles that its predecessors originally did. From a developer standpoint, it’s an excellent quick job to gate content and to keep players playing for that special doo-dad that they want. Why bother with an actual progression system or balancing a slow trickle of classes, abilities and weapons when you can just randomise the whole thing and be done with it- and charge for the pleasure of doing so to keep your wealthier, I-want-it-now players happy?

Any system that brings in a juxtaposition of real-world money and in-game currency needs to be handled with care. Instead, it’s being used like a sledgehammer for heart surgery- and the fans and industry are suffering for it.

Destiny 2 and Battlefront 2 (which, lest we forget how nonsensical this is, is actually Battlefront 4) had similar reactions upon launch. Bungie’s looty-shooty had all the hallmarks of quality that people expected: a soaring score, solid and tight shooting, and excellent visuals. The story was lacklustre, but unless you were a lore nut, the original Destiny had similar growing pains.

The one thing that fans wanted treated with care and consideration- the one thing that needed to be done right- had been given the sledgehammer. The endgame, the progression, had a giant lootbox dropped on it. Needless to say, when your game is about looting and shooting, and the looting feels lacklustre- your community isn’t going to be happy about it.

“Wow, my three-billionth Sweet Business! Can’t wait to dismantle my next!” (Image Source: VG247)

And this is before they found out that the game slowed down your chance to get these lootboxes the more you played to give you incentive to buy them outright.

If Destiny 2’s reaction was a protest, Battlefront 2’s was an all-out riot. While Destiny 2’s lootboxes were, at the very least, only cosmetics: the problem was that progression had been boiled down and nerfed seemingly in favour of the lootboxes. EA, seemingly having a stroll down memory lane and fondly remembering trying to diddle everybody with microtransactions and DLC, decided to link the personal power of the player with how lucky they got with lootboxes. You want a more powerful grenade? Lootbox. A new ability? Lootbox. Chewbacca? Lootbox. Oh, you could buy them, but it’d take you a hell of a long time to do it with in-game currency- and that’s currency that wasn’t even gained based off of how well you played. The reception was so inflammatory that, as of writing, the lootboxes have been turned off. At least EA are now the proud owners of the “Most Downvoted Comment of All Time” award on Reddit.

What can be done?

The Lootbox Bubble is a problem. It’s a craze that’s catching on with publishers, that’s being awkwardly foisted upon developers (presumably- I can’t imagine anybody with any passion for games or the industry being remotely excited about having to put these systems in their games). The incentive of a quick fix, an easy way of keeping people that enjoy your game to keep playing and getting the chance of getting further money out of them, is something that’s too effective for a publisher to ignore.

This kind of flagrant money-grubbing is damaging to the industry. A dip in quality and a lack of concern for the consumer is what lead to the video game market crash in the 80s. This isn’t to suggest that I think there could be a major backlash of such proportions in this day and age- though it’s not entirely unfeasible in the long term- but customer distrust will build. Games are more like communities than ever: people talk, and people share.

There has to be a better way of doing this, and customers need to remain wise and savvy. The Lootbox Bubble has to burst: it’s not merely a matter of publishers not being wise to how much these boxes damage the games that are being produced, but not being wise to how far consumers can be pushed. Because when that tension builds, and builds, and builds- growth will decline. Responsibility has to be taken for the well-being of the industry, and it has to start soon- or, further down the line, we may not have an industry left.

I realise this is my first article in a while, and I apologised for my absence- I’m currently struggling with a completely broken keyboard, too! What do you think? Do you like lootboxes? Hate them? What can be done? Let me know at @TheRealZeppy on Twitter or email me at tebrierley@gmail.com.