Are Lootboxes and Microtransactions a Necessary Evil?

Are loot boxes here to stay, and are they the reason we're still only paying $60 for a new game? Or is it just greed getting in the way of our games?

Rey, Inferno Trooper, and Darth Maul in Star Wars Battlefront II

It's October, which means the biggest video games of the season are upon us. Call of Duty WWII, Star Wars Battlefront II, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Super Mario Odyssey, and Assassin's Creed Origins are just a few of the many heavy hitters vying for the attention of consumers this holiday season.

The biggest games of the year have the potential to sell tens of millions of units, raking in literally billions of dollars in revenue. At the same time, development teams have grown larger, game creation itself takes longer, and budgets have become greater than ever. After all, it takes a lot of effort to make today's games look and feel so amazing. Through it all, however, the price of a retail game has not changed.

Back in the PS2 era, new games for home consoles would cost consumers $50. With the advent of the Xbox 360 and PS3 in 2005 and 2006, respectively, that price rose to $60. Despite the rise of a new generation of consoles and over a decade of inflation, the average PS4 or Xbox One game still costs only $60. In fact, some titles, like Knack 2 and Everybody's Golf only cost $40, an aggressive price point for fully-featured retail games.

Naturally, there's a catch. Many games (most, really) feature downloadable content: additional items, levels, and features which can only be accessed by paying more money on top of the initial cost of buying a game. The latest wrinkle to the DLC formula is the inclusion of "loot boxes," a form of microtransaction designed to keep players paying extra money for months and even years after they first buy a game. In 2017, is this trend a problem, or are lootboxes and microtransactions a necessary evil?

What Are Microtransactions?

Typical DLC (downloadable content) comes in the form of levels or expansions. Back in the old days, PC games would receive "Expansion Packs," such as StarCraft: Brood War or Diablo: Hellfire; they're not sequels, but they, as their classification suggests, expand upon the content of the original game, while working within the same framework and engine as the original.

For the most part, barring atypical examples like Sonic 3 and Knuckles, expansions were exclusively the domain of the PC gaming space. That all changed with the launch of the Xbox 360 and PS3, with their easily-accessed internet capabilities. Almost immediately, nearly all games had some sort of DLC avenue, from extra multiplayer maps in titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield, to new areas to explore in narrative-driven games like Fallout 3 and Borderlands.

On the opposite side of these hearty and expansive offerings, we have microtransactions. Basically, a microtransaction is when the player pays a small amount of money for something extra in a game, such as an XP Boost, a piece of equipment, or even a digital pile of in-game currency – paying real money for more fake money. The latter microtransaction method often tends to be the main source of income for Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs which are Free to Play. Games like Star Trek Online and The Lord of the Rings Online rely on their thriving in-game economy to make money, rather than monthly subscription fees and charging for expansions.

What is a Loot box?

One form of microtransaction is called a loot box. This isn't the same as finding a chest in The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy; while those are literally boxes filled with loot, a loot box in this sense is an item, purchased with real money, though they can sometimes be earned without paying real dollars. Sometimes they're called Crates, War Chests, Lockboxes, or something else, but the principle is always the same. This loot box is then opened, adorning the player with semi-random items. It's akin to buying a pack for collectable card games like Pokèmon, Yu-Gi-Oh, or Magic: The Gathering. The consumer isn't buying an item, but the possibility of an item they want, while incurring the risk that they'll be stuck with something worthless to them.

Games like Overwatch use loot boxes to distribute new emotes, profile customization options, or costumes for characters to wear. These items are purely cosmetic and have no effect on gameplay, and loot boxes can be earned just by playing the game, or in exchange for real money. Reception has been positive because of the way the game doles out a reasonable drip of loot boxes just for playing the game, fueling an addictive cycle of "play the game, get loot, show off loot by playing, repeat." There's always the temptation to spend real money; the way the trickle of free boxes slows down the more you play is intentional, insidious, and incentivizes paying for more boxes. Regardless, many fans consider it an integral part of the gameplay loop, for better or worse.

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