While Star Wars Battlefront 2 has earned the lion's share of attention, it's not the only EA that will be leaning on loot boxes. Need for Speed: Payback also has RNG boxes, and they also contain items that impact the gameplay.
Referred to as "Shipments," Need for Speed's loot boxes contain vanity items like Underglow Neon, money, and most critically, Speed Cards. Speed Cards are randomized stat boosters that can be attached to different parts of your car.
Speed Cards are critical because Payback puts a good deal of emphasis on customization and progression. If you don't tune up your car using the Speed Cards, you will struggle mightily to keep pace in the races. That makes Speed Cards one of the core mechanics.
Speed Cards can be earned in various ways-by winning events, buying them with "Bank" at local shops, or acquiring them through Shipments. Shipments are earned over the course of the normal run of play by acquiring Reputation, which is awarded by winning various events. They can also be purchased from Need for Speed's online storefront.
Lead designer Riley Cooper says that the Shipments purchased online are meant to be pure time savers. While loot boxes have proven controversial, he says it's all about how you execute them. "It's when it doesn't feel like a choice. That's when it's not okay. If I can do this because I want more rewards, versus when I feel like I have to in order to get the best experience," he says.
Unlike NBA 2K18, which is heavily balanced toward purchasing Virtual Currency, Cooper claims that it will be relatively easy to acquire Shipments and quickly level up your cars. So if you don't want to use the accelerators, you can enjoy the game normally.
Need for Speed: Payback, NBA 2K18, and Grinding
In that light, Need for Speed: Payback's microtransactions seem relatively benign. But there are still a few things to keep a close eye on when Need for Speed launches next week:
- Derelict Cars Look Pretty Overpowered: Like Forza Horizon 3, Need for Speed: Payback will feature "Derelicts" that you can find scattered around the open world. Derelicts begin as your absolute worst car; but with enough investment, they can eventually become enormously powerful. It strikes me that this is a gambit to get you grinding so that you're tempted to purchase Shipments to hasten the process. And if they are available in multiplayer, then watch out: everyone will be driving them.
- It Appears That The Collections May Be Unified Between Single-Player and Multiplayer: Need for Speed: Payback will include offline single-player, which is definitely a blessing for those who don't want to mess with multiplayer. However, if the collections are ultimately unified between the two modes, that opens the door for people to dump money into Shipments so they can get the best possible cars as quickly as possible. The only way to counter such practices is to either keep the collections separate, or to have extremely robust matchmaking that ensures you always get paired with someone who is roughly the same level.
- The Balance May Only Apply to the Early Game: A common approach with games like these is to make it easy to progress through the main story, but to make the late game and optional content much more grind intensive. Since Need for Speed: Payback's progression is tied in part to its Shipments, there's a scenario where late game events will require lots of grinding to get the Speed Cards necessary to properly compete. Once again, this is where the microtransactions would come in.
As you can see, introducing accelerators in a premium game is a bit of a slippery slope for EA. In tying the progression in part to premium loot boxes, they are opening themselves to the temptation of making certain races a grind. Notably, EA's track record on this isn't particularly great. While fans laud Madden Ultimate Team for offering lots of rewards, its solo challenges are a serious slog. And if Kotaku's recent exposé is any indication, internal comparisons to Ultimate Team's revenue will be inevitable.
Personally, I'm of the opinion that any progression-based microtransactions can't help compromising the overall balance of the game. The temptation is just too strong to balance the gameplay toward grinding so that people dump money into accelerators. NBA 2K18 long ago succumbed to this temptation, and its once sterling reputation has been irreversibly damaged as a result.
I don't think Need for Speed: Payback will be as bad as NBA 2K18, most notably because it will have an offline single-player mode. But the opportunities are certainly there to make it a pay-to-progress slog. Here's hoping that Ghost Games sticks to their promises in ensuring that their microtransactions don't get out of control.