2017 Was a Year of Reckoning for Video Game Microtransactions
The first omens came in the form of horse armor over a decade ago. Now, the lootboxes (and the discourse) have truly arrived.
Header art by Tom Humberstone
When Electronic Arts announced Star Wars: Battlefront II, people were excited for a few reasons, including the addition of a much requested single-player campaign and space battles. It was so easy to see how the original game’s lack of depth could be resolved in a follow-up with more stuff for people to do. What the splashy trailers didn’t feature, however, was how EA planned to make money off players, beyond the $60 it would charge for a copy of the game. Enter loot boxes. In 2017, thanks to Battlefront II and a few others, loot boxes became the latest skirmish in a larger fight over how to make money selling games.
We should narrow that a bit. Nobody questions whether companies should make money selling games, but there is an open question as to how they collect it. Gaming’s come a long way from people raging at Bethesda over horse armor, a cosmetic addition to an otherwise enormous and wholly complete RPG, to earned skepticism about whether loot boxes are a form of gambling and psychological manipulation.
Reading through a 2006 story I wrote about horse armor—please excuse the poor writing, I was only 21—is fascinating. Some of the reactions from player were remarkably prescient. I'm guessing some folks wish things had remained so simple:
"I am going to pay a "premium" for a nifty hat?" said 1UP user Ryan Kaplan, aka Tylahedras. "I don't like the idea that if I want to color Master Chief white in Halo 3 multiplayer I will need to shell out even more cash. Doesn't anyone else see that this micropayment crap will lead to incomplete games?"
Horse armor was an experiment, one Bethesda said was worth the backlash in 2015.
"Back in 2005,” said level designer Joel Burgess, as part of a Game Developers Conference talk, “developers were wondering, well, what does DLC even mean? How do we make it? How do we expect to know what people even want to play or what it's going to cost? ... We didn't even know what we should charge.”
Though horse armor would take on a kind of mythical/meme-ical status, it's worth revisiting. Whatever you thought about horse armor, it was, in the end, cosmetic, and didn’t materially impact one's ability to play Oblivion. Battlefront II caught the ire of so many because it was engineered to mingle with the game design. You were opening boxes to find cards that materially impacted gameplay. Someone’s health could be recharging faster than you. Another player might have increased damage. It brought chance into a game of skill, and while you can be patient and earn loot boxes through in-game credits, it’s much faster to hand over money and buy them.
Battlefront II proved a firestorm for a variety of reasons: the Internet has a hard on for tearing EA down every few years, Star Wars is as big as they come, and while other games in 2017 had included loot boxes, few were aggressive as Battlefront II.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War and Forza Motorsport 2 focused the debate in October, prompting me to write a piece arguing poor and especially exploitative implementation of loot boxes was poisoning them forever. (Some argue loot boxes are conceptually poisonous, but I’ve found some approaches—cosmetic only—acceptable.)
“The presence of microtransactions and loot boxes beyond cosmetics is not, inherently, bad. But their presence suggests the game's balance has been tinkered with by outside forces interested in extracting more money, rather than making the best possible game. You suddenly have reasons to distrust what the game is telling you, and every time a game does a poor job of including these options, it immediately draws suspicion to every other attempt.”
Battlefront II does not signal the death of loot boxes, even if EA’s own shooter might end up prevent people from paying for them, thanks to the backlash. But you can bet every developer is going to be asked about loot boxes in 2018, and if a game includes them, the response won't be pretty. The questions is whether a game can be irresistible enough that players are willing to bite the bullet. We’ll have to see.
I mean, you now have developers announcing whether a game will have loot boxes before the game’s been announced, and designers re-examining the ethics of including types of microtransactions that may prey upon people unable to control impulses.
A quote from the designer behind Clicker Heroes, announcing the sequel would ditch free-to-play monetization mechanics in favor of a single purchase, has stuck with me:
“We really don't like making money off players who are in denial of their addiction. And that's what a large part of free-to-play gaming is all about. Everyone in the industry seems to rationalize it by shifting the blame, assuming way too much cognizance on the part of their victims."
The question is whether more designers will ask themselves the same thing in 2018.