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Gamers Like Opening Loot Boxes Too Much to Stop Now, Even at the Expense of Balanced Gameplay

Whether it's loot boxes, CCGs, or Ultimate Team, gamers love opening packs. And big-budget developers are pushing it as far as they can.

Opinion by Kat Bailey, .

The first time I ever came across what you might call a "loot box" was in Star Trek Online. As part of their active push toward free-to-play, Cryptic flooded loot drops with boxes that could only be opened with a $1 key. Inside was a load of garbage... and a roughly 1 in 1000 chance at an insanely rare ship.

I gave up after a few tries—there's nothing worse than spending money in a game and getting nothing in return—but many more people did not. Some even dropped tens of thousands of dollars on their elusive quest for a ship.

Little did I know that this was only a harbinger what was to come. While Star Trek Online was pushing lock boxes, FIFA and Madden were introducing Ultimate Team for the first time—a mode in which you built fantasy teams by ripping card packs to obtain players of varying degrees of rarity. Madden Ultimate Team and FIFA Ultimate Team proved wildly popular, almost single-handedly transforming sports gaming (some would say for the worse).

The strangest aspect of this culture has been the Youtube and streaming community that has grown around it. Every weekend, thousands of viewers tune in to the most popular streamers to watch them open packs.

That's it. All they do is open packs and react.

In turn, people give them money so they can open even more packs. It's a wildly strange culture that has managed to subsume the actual game, making it a mere vehicle for watching charismatic Youtubers react to "epic pulls."

This video has 13 million views. Seriously.

Loot boxes, CCGs, Ultimate Team, and gacha-driven mobile games like Fire Emblem Heroes all have their differences and their quirks, but they're all driven by the simple pleasure of opening a mystery box and getting something good. They could be an epic costume; a new character, or in the case of Middle-earth: Shadow of War, a really great orc. Whatever it may be, people love it. They love it so much that they're willing to dump insane amounts of money into it.

With the rise of loot boxes in Overwatch and CCGs like Hearthstone, the culture has now taken over mainstream gaming. Observe!

Everyone loved Overwatch's loot box culture at first because it was purely cosmetic. It didn't impact gameplay, so it was okay. But somewhere along the line, loot boxes began to dominate the conversation around that game. By Halloween, all anyone was talking about was Mercy's cute witch costume (yes, including us). Even now, Overwatch costumes continue to be all the rage, and people are willing to spend big bucks to get them. Or just watch other people spend big bucks.

It took just a year for Overwatch to make a cool billion dollars—an obscene sum driven largely by loot boxes. Youtube pack-ripping culture wasn't the sole reason for the rise of loot boxes, but there's no denying that it pushed it to even greater heights. And naturally, publishers like EA—who are always looking to find another revenue stream for their games—have taken notice.

So it's no accident that loot boxes are suddenly popping up in games like Middle-earth: Shadow of War and Star Wars Battlefront 2. We asked for this—we like loot boxes in our games. We see it in the success of gacha games like Fire Emblem Heroes; the craze for Overwatch costumes, and the obscene amount of money people dump into FIFA Ultimate Team year after year.

People love opening randomized packs. They love it even more than the game itself. They love it so much that they're willing to watch other people do it for them. You can see it in everything from the long lasting success of Magic The Gathering and even baseball cards.

Having seen the rise of this subculture up close over the past few years in the Madden and FIFA communities, I'm left with the lingering feeling that there's no going back now. Loot boxes, CCG packs, and general randomized gacha mechanics are going to continue to proliferate as big-budget developers chase the almighty dollar. And for as much as we complain, we're still going to see video after video of people opening boxes with exclamations of "sick pull, bro!"

In other words, the genie is already out of the bottle. And it's not going back in. The best we can do is support the games that mitigate the damage.

Star Wars Battlefront 2 and Pay-to-win Loot Boxes

Of course, leave it to EA to find the clumsiest possible way to introduce their own loot box system and spark an actual discussion. You gotta hand it to them: they've never found a good monetization scheme they couldn't push to the absolute limit.

It only makes sense that EA would be the ones to start pushing loot boxes that affect the actual gameplay in Battlefront 2. They've been profiting off Ultimate Team for years now, which is the definition of "pay-to-win." Oh sure, you can grind through solo challenges, snipe at the auction house, and build your team over the course of literally hundreds of matches. But it's no secret that EA wants you to dump money into the game to accelerate the process.

"Here we go again."

Star Wars Battlefront 2 is their way of introducing that dynamic into the first-person shooter genre. Instead of players, you get "Star Cards" containing strategic stat buffs and abilities—extremely useful for quickly gearing up your character.

The resulting backlash has become about not so much because it's pay-to-win, but because it's so nakedly obvious what EA is trying to accomplish. If they had sprinkled in a bunch of neat costumes and emotes, everyone would probably be talking about those instead. But the beta primarily focused on Star Cards, so that's what the conversation ended up being about.

Of course, the Battlefront 2 beta just happened to drop right at the same time as Middle-earth: Shadow of War—another game with some shady loot box mechanics—so it was also the victim of bad timing. But EA has a unique way of blundering into controversies like these in their quest to monetize as much as possible.

The best possible result of this week's discussion is that EA may have been shamed into balancing away from pay-to-win Star Cards.

We also have heard some players are looking for a way to play where all players will have the same set of Star Cards with flattened values. Like everything else, we will be continually making necessary changes to ensure the game is fun for everyone. We will work to make sure the system is balanced both for players who want to earn everything, as well as for players who are short on time and would like to move faster in their progress towards various rewards.

I'll take what I can get, I suppose.

The problem as I see it is that loot boxes just make too much money for developers to ignore. When popular games can make literally billions of dollars off randomized boxes, publishers are going to push it as far as they can. And we're already inured to the kind of mindless grinding that mechanics like Middle-earth's foster. Just look at Destiny 2.

The best I can recommend is this: Don't support games like Star Wars Battlefront 2 and Middle-earth: Shadow of War. Don't spend your money on loot boxes and Ultimate Team packs. And for god's sake, stop watching other people open boxes for you. It's embarrassing.

The loot box pandemic is only going to get worse, and game balance will continue to be affected, but we haven't lost our ability to vote with our dollars and play games that aren't blatantly exploitive (like Titanfall 2!).

It's just a shame that we've let ourselves get to this point.

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Comments 21

  • Avatar for StrwbrryJams #1 StrwbrryJams A month ago
    I try desperately not to judge things, especially things prevalent in younger groups since wheat I like once was new and weird too, but... man loot crate YT videos are a phenomenon I fail to understand.
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  • Avatar for Talraen #2 Talraen A month ago
    It's weird how people keep telling me gambling is illegal, yet everywhere I look in pop culture it's loot boxes this, fantasy sports that. Frankly, at this point we'd better hope that our general disdain for gambling was misguided, because it's creeping up everywhere.
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  • Avatar for Nuclear-Vomit #3 Nuclear-Vomit A month ago
    What a dark future I had forseen. It was my son, who had just morgage his home to pay for some dump loot box pulls.. all common crap. He's desperate and already owes the loan shark money. And it was time to pay.

    He comes to mom and dad with broken fingers.
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  • Avatar for The-Challenger #4 The-Challenger A month ago
    I wonder if loot boxes will invade the FF7 remake, and KH3.
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  • Avatar for Nuclear-Vomit #5 Nuclear-Vomit A month ago
    @The-Challenger Noooo. Shut your mouth! I'll be so pissed if I spend $100+ and never get the Ultima materia.

    Group Suicide?
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #6 Kat.Bailey A month ago
    @The-Challenger Crossdressing Cloud will be an ultra rare skin.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #7 link6616 A month ago
    ... I don't like to judge too much. Overwatch fine with it but not thrilled.

    Already free to play games, mechanical advantage behind them. I won't play them but fine I guess it's already free.

    But this fee to play loot box system is rubbing me the wrong way.

    I just fear when/if these will infect spike chunsoft adventure games. I don't want to have to loot box in danganronpa. If I ever have to I might quit gaming.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #8 link6616 A month ago
    @The-Challenger kh3 loot boxes are just people paying for the chance for it to be released.
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  • Avatar for The-Challenger #9 The-Challenger A month ago
    @Kat.Bailey I bet they stuff Aeris' corpse into at least one ultra rare loot box.
    @Nuclear-Vomit Don't worry, I'm sure they will add some type of fusion mechanic for all those fira spells you will accumulate.
    @link6166 HA! Sad, but true.Edited last month by The-Challenger
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  • Avatar for WiIIyTheAntelope #10 WiIIyTheAntelope A month ago
    Sooner or later they're going to push too far and cause another game industry crash. I was fine with DLC expansions. Hell there was a time when DLC seemed like a great and exciting new way to expand the life of a game you really love...but in the course of a single generation it went from that to having to question exactly how much content was cut from the game proper just to sell to you later on, and everyones favorite..disc locked content.

    Again, loot boxes seemed harmless at first. Every publisher would swear on a stack of bibles that it will never affect gameplay, cosmetic only, blah blah blah. And look how far it's gone from that in just a few short years.

    Publishers need to stop looking at the mobile games market for inspiration on ways to make money without having to actually expend any effort to get it.

    Assuming the numbers are similar, it's only something like 10% of people that will ever spend any money on microtransaction nonsense. To me that sounds like a fantastic way to piss off the other 90% when you start attaching gameplay advantages to those few.

    And yes, I'm still pissed off that Take2 dropped all their plans for GTAV expansions when they saw exactly how much money they could make off those stupid shark cards.
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #11 MetManMas A month ago
    Really depends on context, to me. That 1 in 1000 chance of a rare ship thing is ludicrous, but I will admit that I have less of a beef with loot boxes in MMORPGs because I realize that such enormous games cost a huge amount of money to maintain, bug fix, and update with new content. Especially if paid subscriptions are optional.

    That's also why I don't mind them in Overwatch. Like, I'm not about to get into it* 'cuz I'm not into multiplayer shooters, but I know those skins and emotes and tags players go nuts over are how Blizzard's able to offer free DLC for the game.

    Things get more sleazy when games that stick to a more traditional paid DLC model start nickel-and-diming players.

    * Do love the Overwatch expanded universe videos, though. It'd be awesome if Blizzard made a game that was actually based in that world instead of the one we got where heroes and villains and clones alike do different variations of Team Vs. forever and ever.
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  • Avatar for jihon83 #12 jihon83 A month ago
    Yay, performative man children and greedy publishers circle jerking for money, forever and ever. It seems like something that should exist in this, the darkest timeline.
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  • Your add never made it out of the gate, routinely blocked through using the use of Mediafire... https://vanphongdepgiare.com/
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #14 SatelliteOfLove A month ago
    SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMIZATION TITLE NOMENCLATURE

    BIG DUMB FACES MUCH SHOCK ALL THE WOW

    DEATH OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION

    ABORT ABORT ABORT
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  • Avatar for Thetick #15 Thetick A month ago
    I think transparency could help a lot here. Before a game is made, they make a budget. right now season passes and loot boxes are part of that budget and no doubt translates in more funds available for the game itself.

    A team of a couple hundred guys working on AAA game is a huge monthly bill. Not to mention the tech behind it. But all we hear sometimes is:"this games cost this much $ to make. But that number is so high, it's hard to get your head around. $256 million (GTA5, this includes marketing). For most people it's just a number and very hard to translate in something tangible. If we get a better picture of game development, maybe we see where the money from lootboxes and DLC goes. It might surprise some people. But right now it is always seen as a greedy practise

    i'm not sayin that it isn't. Companies want to make money, and if they see a way to make more money, they take it. And they are always looking for the limit, which is good in a business way, but bad in a customer relations way. But i do think the situation is a bit more complex and devs and publishers are not helping by just saying "deal with it"
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #16 Roto13 A month ago
    Is anyone using loot boxes and card packs without the option to pay real money for them? It was fun to open card packs way back in the Pokemon Trading Card Game on Game Boy, but they obviously weren't for sale.
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  • Avatar for Frosty840 #17 Frosty840 A month ago
    I don't care about whatever costumes turn up in the now-inevitable FF7 Remake loot boxes. I just want all the other 34 35ths of that SOLDIER...
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  • Avatar for camchow #18 camchow A month ago
    It's tough. I definitely am not one to spend real money on this kind of thing I mean it's just basically mobile gaming gachapon shit leaking into regular games. I bought Middle-earth: Shadow of War because I loved the first game (well and because GMG had the pre order at $36) but I'm never going to spend real money on it's loot boxes. It's like MGS5, LOVED that game despite it's flaws but I never spent money on any of the microtransactions. As long as that stuff doesn't effect how the single player game plays I'm pretty okay with ignoring it.
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  • Avatar for Talraen #19 Talraen A month ago
    @WiIIyTheAntelope I do want to question the hate for disc-locked content. If the content is on the disc, that just means you don't need to spend extra storage space to download it. (Well, back when the entire game was on the disc you didn't, anyway.) Would you prefer they take the content, remove it from the disc, and then make you download it? They're going to sell it either way; if you want to take issue, take issue with that instead.
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  • Avatar for TernBird #20 TernBird A month ago
    Jim Sterling made a really good point: this really is all about greed.

    It's never the small games that do this--the budget titles made on a shoestring. It's always the full-priced AAA games that nickle-and-dime us with pointless special editions, Gold/Silver/Platinum launch editions, Season Passes AND now lootboxes. Not one or the other. ALL of these.

    It's on them, and we should PUT it on them. We didn't ask for games to be made on bloated budgets, we didn't ask for games to be made on experimental tech--and if they're doing it to appeal to us, it's not our fault their games are too expensive to make back their budgets. A reasonable mind would dial back the budget and make something easier to recoup.

    Another point. Japan imposed policy that requires that all games with gacha elements reveal their odds for pulling rewards of given tiers. That's something worth replicating.

    That, or not making games with bleeding-edge graphics, patting yourself on the back for it, then whining when 5 million copies isn't enough to make back your budget.
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  • Avatar for TonyDino66 #21 TonyDino66 27 days ago
    Couldn't agree more. Damn these developers who have found out our very human foibles.
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