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."
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.
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.