Odd Thoughts: Reward Cubes

Be they Loot Boxes, Prize Crates or good ol’ fashion RNG Containers, there’s nothing quite like the topic of Reward Cubes to bring a heated boil to the gaming community at large.  Are they pay-to-win?  Are they gambling?  Do they belong in full price $60 games?  Do they belong in anything beyond Free-To-Play games?  Should they exist at all?

Recently, the controversy has boiled up a bit thanks to some rather ahem… enthusiastic reaches by companies like WB Interactive and Electronic Arts in their big fall titles (Shadows of War, Star Wars Battlefront 2) and I’ve heard that even the sports games have decided to dab their quills into the ink as well with the latest installment of 2K sportsball and Forza something or other.  I will admit, the practice has gotten admittedly scummier since my first encounter with the loot box scenario when they were added when Star Wars The Old Republic went debatably free to play (two hot bars, a 250k credit limit, and can’t equip any epic loot but hey it’s free to suffer through!)

Now you have loot boxes that are tied directly to player progression, offering new abilities and ability boosts in Battlefront 2 or simply being able to skip the grind and have a medley of legendary orcs spring forth from a chest like clowns from a car.  And yeah, that’s B.S.  I’m not even gonna sugar coat it.  Optional or not, cash should not be a way to skip the game you just paid sixty bucks for.  It definitely shouldn’t let you be able to quickly overpower players that don’t shell out for it.  I’m glad there seems to be at least a majority consensus on THAT at least.

Personally, the only way I’ve really “enjoyed” loot boxes – not that I’ve ever enjoyed them.  Put up with them? – was in games like Overwatch.  Where they don’t give you anything BUT random visual flair to add to the game.  And you earn them when you level up. Nice. But hey, then they went above and beyond and added ADDITIONAL ways to get free crates in the Arcade. So not only do you not have any tangible reason to get them beyond looking cool but they also keep giving you more ways to get them? Not a half bad model.  Still would like just ways to unlock the skins and whatnot on my own in the game maybe.  Not banking on random chance from a box every few hours.  Maybe some sort of unlock systems based on in-game achievements? You know like you already do with certain sprays?  Bah. Oh well.

Of course, there are still down sides to Overwatch’s model too. The whole thing is psychologically angled to make you want to spend.  You see someone with the cool thing? You want the cool thing. Better go pay money for a chance to get the cool thing.  A covetous model of persuasion is exactly what Activision’s recent patent for Microtransaction-based Matchmaking is built on. Instead of matching players on skill or win ratio, it finds the ‘Haves’ and then pairs them against the ‘Have Nots’ and then after you lose to their Cash Shop Super Weapon while donning their Ultra Rare Skin, you offer them the chance to get the same cool stuff from these handy dandy cubes o’ stuff we sell for real dollars.  Psychology is a dangerous weapon when paired with greed.

For no better example of psychology being used to line the pockets, look no further than gambling.  Oh, I hear the screams of forums back in TOR echoing through to the youtube comments of today of ‘It’s not gambling – you always get something!’  And that’s true. Sort of.  Loot crates are a weird legal loophole where since you always get something out of it, it’s not gambling. But you also always get nothing – nothing tangible with an attached dollar value that can resold – so it’s also not gambling.  HOWEVER, from a psychological standpoint and not a legal one, Reward Cubes are very much gambling.  They scratch that same itch, provoke the same reaction, and still drive you to swipe your credit card over and over chasing an elusive jackpot.  Heck, why else would the crazy Kylo Ren-style lightsabers be introduced as a new ultra-ultra-ultra rare platinum item in SWTOR?  It’s the hot new thing. It’s only comes from the cash-only loot boxes.  It’s got a 1-in-10,000 chance to drop! Didn’t get it in this box? That makes it MORE likely to be in the next, right? (Not how that works at all by the way.)

Loot boxes CAN be dangerously addicting to those with a pension for such habits.  And sure, there are non-loot box ways you could get it. Someone could sell theirs in the in-game market for in-game currency.  But that still means SOMEONE paid cash for it. And to be honest, I casually played SWTOR for years – played every class at least once if not twice or three times – and I STILL never made enough credits to buy one of those Kylo Ren sabers for what they were going for on the market.  Eventually just decided that was one thing I was never gonna end up getting. Like PvP achievements.

Overall, I think what I was going for with writing about this was that I’m used to seeing people take a very hard line stance on this issue. Understandable since it’s a very passionate issue.  But I don’t think there’s really a good hard line stance to take.  Loot boxes can be a fun addition to a game.  I do think Blizzard is getting a knack for what a good balance of what should be in the crate, how easy it should be to get free crates vs paid crates, and definitely figured out a good way to make them feel fun.  However, left unchecked the whole system begins to turn corrupt.  You see pay to win become an incentive to buy crates, you see things being designed to nudge players toward crates to speed up or skip parts of the game, and you see the effort being put in to continue to make more alluring jackpot items to drive that addictive quality in wanting to keep buying to get the best stuff.  Heck, I’ll even say that Overwatch could be improved.  They gave away loot boxes for Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone for Twitch Prime that had guaranteed rare items like legendaries or gold cards.  I’d love to see that sort of thing be added to the game as a reward for major achievements.  Get 100 wins? Get a gold box.  Unlocked all of a character’s achievements? Get a gold box.  Complete a limited time holiday quest? Get a gold box so you will at least get ONE of the legendary skins during the small holiday event windows.

I wanted to approach it all rationally.  I don’t think reward cubes are going anywhere.  I think that as the industry pushes more to perpetual monetization over pay-once-and-your-done tactics with games we need to start really critically thinking about where we as consumers feel comfortable drawing the line.  All or nothing approaches may be admirable, but so is throwing yourself on your sword and none of it accomplishes much.  There doesn’t have to be a universal approach either.  I want to encourage everyone to find their own personal line on the topic and then work with that.  Let that be a personal factor in your buying decisions.  It’s one of the reasons that despite looking amazing and fun, I didn’t buy into Battlefront or Battlefront 2.  It’s why I remain hesitant about Anthem.  It’s one of the major reasons I decided to stop playing SWTOR.

But I am not going to presume to tell you to do the same.  All I’m gonna ask is that you think about it.  Think about what you want and what you are comfortable with.

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Posted on October 20, 2017, in Gaming, Other Random Geekery and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. That’s one of the best overviews of the current controversy that I’ve read. I was posting about lockboxes (mount skins specifically) in GW2 this morning and if i’d read this first I’d have worked in a link.

    There’s altogether too much taking of extreme positions and making existential threats going on over all of this. There are undoubtedly some areas where regulation or even legislation may be required but equally there’s a lot of hot air being blown about some things that aren’t of any great concern.

    The part that interests me most is the way this whole debate has been taken up as platform for the significant demographic of gamers who have never accepted the validity of randomization as a guiding principle in gameplay. There’s a subset of players of all types of video game who seem to want complete and total predictability and RNG lockboxes have become a handy crowbar for them to try and prize the lid off that particular can of worms.

    As a lover of chaos and random weirdness I find that to be the most worrying part of all. The irony is that, should those people ever attain ascendancy, their approach would literally turn all games into virtual shopping malls, where every activity and item came with a specific, unvarying price ticket, be that in gold, hours played or dollars. Not a gaming future that appeals to me.

    (Reposted because of WordPress weirdness. Apologies if it duplicates).

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