Video Game Loot Boxes: Innocent Fun or Greedy Gambling?

Are game studios taking advantage of unsuspecting wallets?
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A loot box is a delicious thing. It doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. The loot boxes in “Overwatch” emit a golden glow and a shower of adorable sounds when opened. “Middle-earth: Shadow of War” loot boxes open with a flash of light, an earthquake effect and cheers. But whether you cheer, too, after opening that loot box -- that’s questionable, at best.

These digital treasure chests have become endemic to triple-A games, but while loot boxes offer the promise of incredible goodies, all too often you'll end up spending real-world money on a loot box that gets you nothing but disappointment. So are they innocent fun or greedy gambling? Let’s take a look at the gaming industry’s loot boxes in their current state: prolific, often cruel, and always expensive.

The Promised Goods Not Such a Promise

Star Wars Battlefront 2 Loot Box

Loot boxes can hold a variety of things. For “Overwatch” loot boxes, you can receive anything from a rare skin to a junky spray for a character you never use. The “Star Wars Battlefront 2” crates can offer up Star Cards, which help to unlock weapons. Other boxes accelerate gameplay with high-level goods and stats. Some microtransactions even fast-forward actual parts of the game, making it easier to win without the typical amount of effort and time.

However, regardless of what it claims to have inside, your loot box probably isn’t going to give you what you want. For example, according to numbers released as part of regulations from China, the “Overwatch” loot boxes offer up a legendary item after a player opens around 14 of them. That’s a lot of loot boxes. Given the sheer number of characters and possibilities in "Overwatch," even if you do invest in 14 or more loot boxes, you still might not get what you want.

The Problem with Not Getting What You Want

Overwatch Halloween Loot Box

But loot boxes are optional, right? And the vast majority of games with a loot box system also make it possible to get loot boxes by just… playing the game, right? Hypothetically, you could just keep playing and eventually you would have enough in-game currency to purchase the cosmetic you wanted, even if it never appeared in a box.

The key word there is eventually. “Overwatch,” for example, regularly releases seasonal events that come with a smashing array of new and delectable goodies. The problem is that these items are typically only available during the event.  And how do you get those event-specific goodies, you ask? By opening loot boxes. And when you only get a legendary shiny after 14 or so boxes, using real money to buy more boxes suddenly becomes more than just a wishful option. It becomes a necessity.

Two Halloween loot boxes will run you $1.99, five for $4.99, and all the way up to 50 for $39.99. That’s right -- for the same price as what you pay to get the Game of the Year Edition of “Overwatch,” you can have 50 loot boxes, which, yes, have absolutely no real-world value whatsoever.

In-Game Gambling

Overwatch Lunar New Year

Confession time. Yours truly is an avid “Overwatch” player. Last year, Blizzard Entertainment ran a Lunar New Year Event that boasted some particularly spectacular skins. One of those skins was for Zenyatta. I play Zenyatta. I needed that skin. I held my nose and pulled the trigger on spending the $39.99 for the 50 loot boxes.

Guess what didn’t show up? The Zenyatta skin. I opened 50 loot boxes(!) and not one of them contained the legendary Zenyatta skin that I absolutely had to have. And this is the crux of the matter. The odds are astronomically against you. But, frankly, as much as it pains me to admit, it has to be that way.

When loot boxes are done right, they don’t offer any game-breakers. They offer piddling goodies that look amazing, but have nothing to do with how you progress through a game. They’re tempting, but not necessary.

And, yes, they provide an additional source of revenue for the studio making and supporting the game you’re playing. Is it gambling? Sure. Lawmakers in various countries have tried and failed to designate loot box systems as actual casino-style gambling. And in reality, it is basically gambling. The loot boxes are designed to convince you to spend your hard-earned real-world money on them, and to keep you spending that money on them, even though the chances of getting something special is really, really low.

Probably Morally Unscrupulous, But…

Middle-earth Shadow of War Loot Box

Game studios go out of their way to make you want loot boxes. But is that really so different from what “Magic: The Gathering” or “Pokémon Trading Cards” tried to do, and continue to do?

They promise the chance of getting something unique and valuable in each pack of physical cards. In reality, you’re mostly getting garbage and fluff. But you’re still getting something, right? The same is true of loot boxes in video games. You spend the money, and you do get a little something for your trouble. You might even get a big something.

Of course, some games fail miserably with their loot box systems. Any system that forces a “pay to play” mindset is a failure, pure and simple. Systems like the one in “Overwatch,” however, are simply brilliant. Blizzard Entertainment doesn’t have to give out free content for seasonal events. They don’t have to create new skins, new maps, new characters. They don’t have to keep supporting the game the way that they currently do.

I’m a little ashamed that I spent $39.99 to try and get an event skin from “Overwatch,” but, frankly? Blizzard deserved that money. They went out of their way to earn it from me. No, I didn't get what I wanted, but it wasn't impossible, and, heck, I’ve been dealing with this sort of gambling disappointment since “Neopets.”

And if you’re fiercely against loot boxes that you can buy with real-world money? Don’t worry. A good game won’t force you to need them. A truly good game will make you want to buy them, and to ultimately buy them as a donation to help the studio create even bigger and better games. Not every studio does it right, but here’s to hoping more will look to Blizzard’s system in the future.

*****

What do you think? Do you find that the loot box systems ruin your gaming experience? Do you enjoy getting the chance to win a prize, like at the fair? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

 

Featured image and screenshots courtesy of  Blizzard Entertainment, Monolith Productions, and LucasArts



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About the Author
Taryn Ziegler Contributor

Taryn Ziegler is a digital content specialist working out of the greater Seattle area. She has managed content production, strategy, editing, and scheduling for a variety of different clients. She graduated from the University of Washington Bothell and harbors a deep love for all things content-related. She is happily married and enjoys living the Pacific Northwest lifestyle with her husband and two dogs.


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#2
A skin isn't a "necessity" by any reasonable definition of the word... Sheep who throw away silly amounts of cash for these skins are why all the game companies are coming to fleece them. Don't blame the companies. This isn't pay to win, or even pay to play. This is just milking people who deserve it.
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#3
With lootboxes you're paying for IP, just like the game itself, movies, music, magazines, photography, and art. Some people falsely believe that IP doesn't have value, but it does, and in many cases IP is worth more than physical items. As the article states, the loot box system allows developers to create new items for these games which didn't fit into the original game budget. That keeps prices lower for those that don't care about these items, but gives others the opportunity to enhance their experience if they like the artwork. On the other hand it was nice a while back when you could just buy the specific item/skin you wanted for a couple bucks each. It would be nice if you could either purchase loot boxes or the items directly, so you had a choice if you wanted to "gamble" or not.
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#4
you do realize, that if you main zenyatta and you didn't get the zenyatta skin...

it wouldn't surprise me if you only get skins for characters you don't normally play in order to entice the user to spend more money... case and point... never bought a lootbox for overwatch... what I will say I have gotten purple or orange skins over and over again for characters I either
A. never played in a game or
B. my playtime on that character is below 30 mins as I did not enjoy the character

the issue I have with the system is there is no reason they could not have the skins available for just cash.... I mean hell 2 dollars for a skin I would be fine... but having random junk come out of the boxes.. on top of that the seasonal boxes can toss out items that aren't even the seasonal items..... that is the issue - there is no recourse like with other card games.. if you don't get the card you want you can physically buy it somewhere that is selling it....

that is where the system is broken... and comparing profile avatars / spraypaints to actual items is a joke.... for years games had systems that let you put in custom avatars and spraypaints

the issue I have is they can manipulate it in a way that it is not random... and it just forces people to spend X amount of dollars until they get something for a character they play often
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Our community has rated this post as helpful. If you agree, why not rep kainsword?
#5
>I'm a little ashamed that I spent $39.99 to try and get an event skin from "Overwatch," but, frankly? Blizzard deserved that money.

But it's OK when Blizzard does it! They charged you full price upfront for the game and $40 for an attempt to get something you didn't get.

I'll never tire of Blizzard apologists. If I pay full price for a piece of software, developers and publishers make their investment back and then some. Microtransactions, subscriptions fees, etc have always been marketed as a scam necessity to keep the game alive, when it literally just just lines corporate wallets more. Games have sold successfully in the past and in the present without this additional bullshit and have recouped their costs without issues.

Pokemon Sun/Moon? No DLC, No Season Pass, No Microtransactions, etc. It sold just fine. I can list plenty of other current examples, but the fact of the matter is that I don't and shouldn't need to rationalize to readers that $40 - $60 upfront can pay for the development of a game and then plenty of profit to development companies, publishers, shareholders, etc.

I have no issue with a free-to-play game offering non-pay-to-win cosmetics.

I have no issue with a pay-to-play game offering a game experience for an upfront cost.

I have less of an issue with games that take the success of a game and create an expansion rather than another game to build on their initial success, and planned and developed the expansion only after the original game's launch.

I have an issue when greedy corporate suits look at me like a walking wallet and can't decide what cost model to approach their game and decide to go with BOTH an upfront cost and microtransactions (AYYYY, mo money! bulb), and then the audacity to put their crap behind an RNG paywall, or to have on-disk DLC, or to announce season pass of DLC for a given price when they haven't even decided nor do you even know what you're receiving for the $30 you're so graciously pledging.

No. In a video game industry full of scummery and bad practices, it's NOT OK to give Blizzard the pass on this. They're just as much at fault for the current poor cost models applied to games today as anyone else on the market.
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Last edited by kainsword November 9, 2017 at 09:21 AM.
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#6
Quote from kainsword
:
>I'm a little ashamed that I spent $39.99 to try and get an event skin from "Overwatch," but, frankly? Blizzard deserved that money.

But it's OK when Blizzard does it! They charged you full price upfront for the game and $40 for an attempt to get something you didn't get.

I'll never tire of Blizzard apologists. If I pay full price for a piece of software, developers and publishers make their investment back and then some. Microtransactions, subscriptions fees, etc have always been marketed as a scam necessity to keep the game alive, when it literally just just lines corporate wallets more. Games have sold successfully in the past and in the present without this additional bullshit and have recouped their costs without issues.

Pokemon Sun/Moon? No DLC, No Season Pass, No Microtransactions, etc. It sold just fine. I can list plenty of other current examples, but the fact of the matter is that I don't and shouldn't need to rationalize to readers that $40 - $60 upfront can pay for the development of a game and then plenty of profit to development companies, publishers, shareholders, etc.

I have no issue with a free-to-play game offering non-pay-to-win cosmetics.

I have no issue with a pay-to-play game offering a game experience for an upfront cost.

I have less of an issue with games that take the success of a game and create an expansion rather than another game to build on their initial success, and planned and developed the expansion only after the original game's launch.

I have an issue when greedy corporate suits look at me like a walking wallet and can't decide what cost model to approach their game and decide to go with BOTH an upfront cost and microtransactions (AYYYY, mo money! ), and then the audacity to put their crap behind an RNG paywall, or to have on-disk DLC, or to announce season pass of DLC for a given price when they haven't even decided nor do you even know what you're receiving for the $30 you're so graciously pledging.

No. In a video game industry full of scummery and bad practices, it's NOT OK to give Blizzard the pass on this. They're just as much at fault for the current poor cost models applied to games today as anyone else on the market.
Since Overwatch's release, Blizzard has added a few new heroes, new maps, a bunch of new skins, emotes, etc. all with no additional cost, available to everybody who bought the base game. You are given loot boxes so frequently just from having fun with the game that buying loot boxes has never even crossed my mind.

The fact that you can buy whatever skin you want with an in-game currency that you get just from getting duplicates means you don't even have to rely on RNG to get that cool skin or emote you want. With their system, buying loot boxes is a just tool for the impatient.
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#7
Your comment regarding MTG and Pokemon (and other assumed TCGs) for me is the exact point I've been waiting for someone else to make. People (myself included) are willing to shill out $4/pack for a TCG, and yet when the thought of paying $2 for a crate comes up, some act like it's the greatest insult to their existence.

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#8
Actually, in MtG commons, uncommons, and rares are fairly well balanced out. Rares can sometimes be just as junky as commons and many commons end up being staples in powerful decks. While some rares can be quite powerful, more often than not they are simply unique in their abilities. And the number of commons, uncommons, and rares never changes in any pack. So you actually do know what you are getting.
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#9
Star Wars Battlefront II's system is pure stupidity. EA lost a lot of customers, including me.

I already got a taste of that silliness during beta test and from what I've read from reviews the full shebang is even worse.
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#10
The problem is Battlefront without the loot boxes essentially makes the online game unplayable. The competitive disadvantage is just too steep. They claim that they developed a system to put together players of similar skill levels, but they should be putting together players who are similarly equipped instead.

I'd much rather they charged what they feel is a fair price for the game and avoid all the 'loot' nonsense. If $60 isn't making you a profit, sell it for $100. If that doesn't work, then at least make it so that loot boxes are outright purchases (e.g., x dollars for Vader) and not probabilistic (thus encouraging the gambling claims).
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#11
Overwatch is a bad example for loot box toxicity. You don't need loot boxes to play new content, and the loot has no change in game-play.

It's purely cosmetic.
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#12
Quote from kainsword
:
>I'm a little ashamed that I spent $39.99 to try and get an event skin from "Overwatch," but, frankly? Blizzard deserved that money.

But it's OK when Blizzard does it! They charged you full price upfront for the game and $40 for an attempt to get something you didn't get.

I'll never tire of Blizzard apologists. If I pay full price for a piece of software, developers and publishers make their investment back and then some. Microtransactions, subscriptions fees, etc have always been marketed as a scam necessity to keep the game alive, when it literally just just lines corporate wallets more. Games have sold successfully in the past and in the present without this additional bullshit and have recouped their costs without issues.

Pokemon Sun/Moon? No DLC, No Season Pass, No Microtransactions, etc. It sold just fine. I can list plenty of other current examples, but the fact of the matter is that I don't and shouldn't need to rationalize to readers that $40 - $60 upfront can pay for the development of a game and then plenty of profit to development companies, publishers, shareholders, etc.

I have no issue with a free-to-play game offering non-pay-to-win cosmetics.

I have no issue with a pay-to-play game offering a game experience for an upfront cost.

I have less of an issue with games that take the success of a game and create an expansion rather than another game to build on their initial success, and planned and developed the expansion only after the original game's launch.

I have an issue when greedy corporate suits look at me like a walking wallet and can't decide what cost model to approach their game and decide to go with BOTH an upfront cost and microtransactions (AYYYY, mo money! ), and then the audacity to put their crap behind an RNG paywall, or to have on-disk DLC, or to announce season pass of DLC for a given price when they haven't even decided nor do you even know what you're receiving for the $30 you're so graciously pledging.

No. In a video game industry full of scummery and bad practices, it's NOT OK to give Blizzard the pass on this. They're just as much at fault for the current poor cost models applied to games today as anyone else on the market.
You're angry that you have to grind levels to get a chance to get event cosmetic items. Some people want to pay extra to get cosmetic items. I'm fine with that, maybe they don't have the time to grind. it isn't pay to win at all. Don't be so greedy.
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#13
The worst offender may be Scopely's The Walking Dead: Road to Survival. Nearly every purchase is a gamble. The purchases are not cosmetic, they are pretty much required to compete with other players in PVP competitions. The items are not attainable through grinding. You spin the roulette wheel or you get left behind. They provide no information about the actual odds of getting the one thing out of 100 that you want. Someone was able to reverse engineer their code and found that the "RNG" was, in fact, not truly random and the odds of getting an epic item (in this case a 5* character) were actually around 1 in 150 and the results could easily be manipulated. That translates to around $150 for some epic. They also use misleading advertising in which they say the odds are "double". But what they really mean is the odds are still 1 in 150 of getting some epic item, but you have double odds of getting the advertised epic item instead of an alternate one you don't want or need or already have. They recently decided the money was drying up so they released 6* characters designed to render all of the 5* characters people had spent hundreds of dollars on unusable overnight. They even started giving away for free those now worthless 5*s that some paid hundreds for. They should be shut down.
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#14
Blizzard gets a pass because it's cosmetic and does not impact gameplay. If it's important for you to have all of the skins, then spend the money and get them. It would be nice if it was more reasonable than a rare every 14 crates (which for casual gamers is like 2 weeks of playing if you include the 3 arcade boxes weekly), but in the end, I enjoy the game for the solid gameplay, not the skins. Either way, it's not in your face if you don't wish to participate. You don't have popups telling you to buy more.
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#15
Quote from Rawlaw
:
You're angry that you have to grind levels to get a chance to get event cosmetic items. Some people want to pay extra to get cosmetic items. I'm fine with that, maybe they don't have the time to grind. it isn't pay to win at all. Don't be so greedy.
I find it more insideous, because at the end of the day, people want to have the cool looking character more than they care about 2% more damage in something like battlefront 2, this coupled with the limited time to get those characters like the holiday skins could lead to people spending more money to get more chances before their time runs out.
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