Done right, it's a fun way for players to gamble in mystery. Done wrong, it feels exploitative and destructive to good game design.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
By most accounts, both Forza Motorsport 7 and Middle-earth: Shadow of War are good games. (I haven't played them, personally.) But you can't find a conversation about either without hearing players dissect the ways both are trying to extract more money from them in ways that don't make many feel great about experiences they otherwise might enjoy. In a year of extremely crowded video games, a seemingly reckless pursuit of money may put these games in danger of alienating fans they could otherwise count on to be supporters.
Game publishers are always looking for new ways to make money off players, especially after they've already bought the game. It's a business. Microtransactions, season passes—same goal, different execution. The latest trend is loot boxes, where players open a treasure chest of some kind, having no idea what's inside. Loot boxes can typically be purchased with in-game currency, but often, it's easier and faster to spend real money. Many free-to-play games use cosmetic-focused loot boxes as their primary way of making money.
In Shadow of War, loot boxes can either be found organically in the game or purchased through a new storefront called the Market. What's inside the boxes are not limited to cosmetics, however, and that's what riled up fans when the Market was announced in August. The boxes can contain gear (weapons and armor), XP boosts, and orc followers, who can become part of your personal army. The developers claimed the loot boxes were completely optional, and the game had been tuned so you can easily play without them.
Why, then, are they there?
"It's there, from my perspective, for people who are protective of their spare time and scared when a massive game comes along that they're not getting to see the full experience," said Shadow of War design director Bob Roberts to Eurogamer last month. "It's the same design philosophy as us adding in difficulty modes. So we now have Easy mode, and we've added Hard mode at the other end of the spectrum."
Shadow of War is not a free-to-play game, it's $60. On the other hand, you don't have to buy the loot boxes, so what's the harm? Turns out, it's more complicated than that. GameSpot reviewer Justin Haywald played through the game without needing to pay for a single loot box, calling the Market "less predatory and more like a cluelessly unnecessary addition." (
Also, weirdly, you can only get Epic-graded gear for free, while Legendary-graded gear is pay-only. What? Update: This is not true, apparently.)
Polygon reviewer Phil Kollar, however, noticed something more unnerving. When you "beat" Shadow of War, it unlocks a new postgame mode called Shadow Wars, where the flashy castle siege sequences are flipped on their head. Rather than trying to take over fortresses in Middle-earth, you're holding onto the ones you have from invading armies. It gives players something to do in the world after the story is seemingly over. Except, in this case, it isn't!
Monolith hid the game's "true ending" behind completing the Shadow Wars mode. Kollar didn't feel any need to purchase a loot box in the campaign, but Shadow Wars was different. Here's how Kollar explains the dilemma for players, given that Shadow Wars requires you to acquire more and more powerful orcs, in order to defend the strongholds you're overseeing:
When you run out of in-game money, you have two choices: Make a huge time investment by hunting down orcs in your game world and earning chests via vendetta missions, or spend some real money to get the more powerful orcs you need now. Does the game ever force you to spend money? No. I'm sure you can get to the end of Shadow Wars without spending a dime, as long as you're patient and persistent. But locking progress through this mode (and, again, toward the game's true ending) behind either spending more money or doing tons of tedious busywork feels at least greedy if not predatory.
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.
Forza Motorsport 7 is more complicated, under fire for two different but related issues.
Whereas Shadow of War's loot boxes are, for the most part, on the fringe—the game's core is really about exploration and combat—they're at the heart of Turn 10's latest racing game; loot boxes have transformed the way you access new cars. In previous Forza games, the more successful you were during a race, the more in-game credits you receive, and that currency could be used for upgrades or purchasing new vehicles. Pretty straightforward.
Forza Motorsport 7, however, introduces Prize Crates, creating a new loop for players. I'll let US Gamer's Mike Williams explains how it works:
"Prize Crates represent another thing to spend your [credits] on in Forza Motorsport 7. You can still buy many of the cars with [credits], but if you want to boost your experience or [credits]earnings, you need to turn to Mod Cards. As the name suggests, these cards modify races-you can equip up to three per race, each with their own objective and resulting bonuses. If you want to maximize your time spent in Forza 7, you use mod cards.
Forza Motorsport 6 also had mod cards, but most of them (Dare and Crew types) were unlimited use, with single-use mods being rather special. You'd open Card Packs, collecting a deck of full range of unlimited use mods, using them whenever you felt like it. The issue now is Forza Motorsport 7's mod cards are limited use, offering between 1 and 5 uses before they're consumed. Basically, if you want to use mods, you'll have to have a rolling supply, meaning you're always picking up prize crates."
You might have enough money to buy a fancy Ferrari, but because it's locked behind a certain tier, you can't access it until you buy enough cars from other tiers first. To buy cars, you need more money, and the best way to get more money is by engaging with Prize Crates. It's a frustrating treadmill, and one that seems ripe for exploitation, especially if you were able to buy boosters that would allow you to bypass the loop and earn money faster.
Right now, Forza Motorsport 7 does not have these boosters—but they're coming. In a statement to Ars Technica, part of a lengthy and excellent analysis of the way this loop works, Turn 10 admitted that a paid currency would be added to the game at a later date.
"Once we confirm that the game economy is balanced and fun for our players out in the wild," said the studio, "we plan to offer Tokens [a real-money currency that works like CR] as a matter of player choice. Some players appreciate using Tokens as a way of gaining immediate access to content that may take many hours to acquire in the normal course of play. There will also be an option within the in-game menu to turn off Tokens entirely."
Though Tokens may not be present in Forza Motorsport 7 yet, their presence looms, and like Shadow of War, you cannot help but be suspicious over the motives behind them
Again, it's possible the two could exist in harmony, a way for busy parents to access more of Forza Motorsport 7 without spending hours grinding, but it's hard to shake the shadier angle. And while grinding is part of playing a game like this—unlocking tracks, cars, upgrades at a regular pace is ingrained in racing simulators—there's a fine line that Forza Motorspot 7 doesn't seem to be walking for a lot of players. Thus, some default to assuming the worst.
Fueling suspicions was Turn 10's decision last night to change the way its VIP program works. In the past, paying $20 extra provided players with things like exclusive cars, but the true allure was earning double credit forever. It was basically an expensive XP boost, but everyone knew what they were buying, and for gear heads, it let them push through faster.
In Forza Motorsport 7, the VIP program only allowed for a set of five bonuses to be used five times each. After 25 races, they were gone. This was a fundamental shift from the way the program had worked in the past, a change that wasn't communicated to hardcore fans.
"Over the weekend we heard loud and clear from Ultimate Edition owners expressing frustration over the VIP membership offer in Forza Motorsport 7," said Turn 10 studio head Alan hartman in a blog post. "We immediately updated the VIP description in the Windows Store to alleviate any future confusion. As head of the studio, I apologize for any confusion or frustration our players may have experienced."
As an apology, VIP members have been gifted three cars—2016 Jaguar F-TYPE Project 7 Forza Edition, 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Forza Edition, 2010 Maserati Gran Turismo S Forza Edition—and one million credits to spend on additional vehicles. The double credits bonus is coming back, as well, but in a clear signal they did not anticipate a backlash, the feature has to be re-developed for Forza Motorsport 7, so it's coming in a patch "soon."
In a vacuum, it's easy to see how a change like this slips by. But combined with Forza Motorsport 7's new focus on loot boxes, and an admission that players will eventually be able to purchase money to speed through the system faster, creates a very real tension.
Games are a business, and I'm guessing few players take issue with publishers trying to make money. The popularity of loot boxes in other games (look at Overwatch or DOTA 2) means there are legitimate reasons to think they have applications elsewhere. But in the same way crappy Season Passes prompted many to believe (often erroneously) developers were cynically holding content until after release, Forza Motorsport 7 and Shadow of War's financial experimentations are poisoning future attempts at the same idea, good or bad.