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Loot boxes are not bad game design, say devs

Star Wars aside, loot boxes are here to stay; "It's just us dinosaurs that remember buying a game once for a fixed price and getting a set experience"

Star Wars Battlefront II's handling of loot boxes and Electronic Arts' last-minute concession to pull all in-game microtransactions for the time being has put a spotlight on the increasing presence of additional purchases for games that already cost players as much as $60. While one analyst has suggested that publishers should actually be charging gamers more, GamesIndustry.biz wanted to see what the development community thinks about the controversy and loot boxes in general.

There is definitely a sense in which the gamer community got too caught up in the controversy. Daniel Goldberg, manager of content and communications for Paradox Interactive comments, "It's what you get when you have all the right ingredients come together in a perfect shitstorm - a publisher that players love hating on, the biggest IP ever and a beloved game series that still has a firm footing in the business models of the past. We've had super grindy games with loot boxes before - this isn't new or radically 'worse'."

That may be true, but that doesn't mean it's a controversy over nothing either. As Vlambeer's Rami Ismail tells me, players have every right to make a stink about loot boxes. He just doesn't appreciate the way in which some of these players express themselves.

"Of course the controversy is warranted, and of course the topic of loot boxes - both in free and paid games - should be controversial. What is not warranted is the tone, and the general lack of research and investigation before opinions are blasted onto the internet," he says.

"The whole notion that they're always a top-down affair forced by the publisher is preposterous, even though that makes for a nice story in the head of internet 'experts'"

Rami Ismail, Vlambeer

"I know there should be no expectation of informed opinion on the internet, but when it comes to popular YouTubers, I'd much rather see 'popular' YouTubers than populist YouTubers that just say whatever they think will be popular. There's clearly a tremendous gap in understanding how the industry works, and how much it costs to make games, and how the microtransactions/free-to-play model works. It's awful that people are exploited - and we do need industry regulation - that being said, most of the industry's experience in F2P suggests that the 'whale' story of a poor person not being able to pay for food because of microtransactions seems to be as rare as someone getting violent because of a videogame - as in, remarkably rare."

Gearbox Software boss Randy Pitchford, when asked for comment, pointed to his recent Twitter thread on the topic. The Borderlands developer is "against predatory monetization schemes in F2P games for consumable goods and even more so against them in premium games" but he's also concerned that the words "loot box" are coming to represent something evil, and as a developer he's not against the concept of a loot box.

"As an artist and creator who very much loves the nature of the 'loot box' as it appears in our Borderlands games, I'm concerned that the words 'loot box' are being used as short hand for a practice I am not in favor of," he says. "Can we find another term for what we object to?"

Ismail agrees that when utilized with care, loot boxes can actually make a game fun; the idea does not have to be one borne out of greed.

"They're not bad design, they mesh well with certain progression systems, they're highly lucrative and effective if implemented well, and they've been part of gaming since forever - even if you think of them as card game booster cards," he explains. "The whole notion that they're always a top-down affair forced by the publisher is preposterous, even though that makes for a nice story in the head of internet 'experts'.

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At what point EA will bring back loot crates in Battlefront II is unclear

"In mobile, F2P/MTX are the de facto standard now, and I think PC/console won't be able to avoid it if the economics of game developers or the expectations or sales behaviour of game consumers don't change. This model exists because it apparently sells, and it sells despite the objections to it. Either the people that dislike loot boxes (which includes myself) have stopped being the target audience for games, or we've really messed up our spending habits on video games. Either way, the whole situation is a mess."

Shams Jorjani, VP of business development at Paradox Interactive, concurs that the perception of loot boxes being some publisher-driven scheme to extract more money out of players needs to change. There are many developers who like the idea and aren't forced into implementing it.

When I ask if a developer would ever want to include loot boxes without being pushed from a publisher, he responds, "I somewhat resent the way the question is asked as it implies that all developers care about are good experiences and publishers only care about making money. The games industry isn't that black or white. A sustainable business model (i.e. monetization that works - regardless of form) is important to both developers and publishers.

"Do we really think the kids growing up today will be complaining about loot boxes and micro transactions - that have been an ingrained part of how they played games ever since they were born?"

Shams Jorjani, Paradox Interactive

"Developers [making] more money means staying in business longer, and for publishers, well-received design/games make it possible to make money in the long-term. The games industry is in a transitional phase where we have one foot in the business model of the past: A, one price point for all, and B, a dynamic price point where everyone can find the right spot for their behavior and wallet size. The A model is declining year over year and the B model is growing."

Ultimately, Jorjani - who also participated in a Paradox podcast on the topic recently - sees the loot box system as one that's already accepted, especially by younger players. It's the older players that tend to complain because they were used to set prices for one experience for a long time.

He continues, "That growth is being driven by non-Western markets as well as younger generations. One way of thinking about this is this: do we really think the kids growing up today will be complaining about loot boxes and micro transactions - that have been an ingrained part of how they played games ever since they were born? It's just us dinosaurs that remember buying a game once for a fixed price and getting a set experience."

The problem with loot boxes when not designed properly is that players are going to feel taken advantage of. That was one problem with EA's implementation with Battlefront II - shouldn't $60 have been enough to access a character like Darth Vader in a Star Wars game?

As Pitchford explains it, "At least one decade ago, I began saying that the relationship we should strive to have with one another is the relationship between an entertainer and an audience. The relationship we need to avoid in our medium is like the relationship between a tobacco company and an addict."

Of course, more than tobacco, the common comparison surrounding the loot box situation so far has been to the gambling industry. Ratings boards like the ESRB and PEGI maintain that the loot box mechanic is absolutely not considered gambling, but various gambling commissions are still investigating whether loot boxes ought to be.

"Good MTX design is an art. It requires designers to be equal partners with Product Managers to come up with something that is perceived as fair and is celebrated"

Damion Schubert, Boss Fight

Ismail adds, "My legal understanding is that for loot boxes to be gambling, there should be a chance of something of objective value to be returned. Loot boxes always return a digital item of subjective value, whereas the objective value is zero - this being a binary file. However, I agree that loot boxes should be closely examined.

"We've stumbled upon something that the law doesn't understand, and I've become quite hesitant of technology being allowed free reign while the law catches up. If they get outlawed, I'm curious to see what'll happen. Chances are a number of free games will simply 'go down', and microtransaction games will be retooled towards whatever the closest thing to loot boxes is that is legal."

At the end of the day, it's important to remember that the games business is still in the early stages when it comes to its relationship with microtransactions. Mistakes will be made, and clearly EA made a big one with Battlefront II, but that doesn't mean EA shouldn't be trusted with microtransactions in other games. Boss Fight design director Damion Schubert, who led the conversion at BioWare for EA's MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic to F2P, comments on Twitter, "There are definitely companies I would not work at based on their MTX philosophies. EA is actually not one of them."

The key, says Schubert, is for publishers and designers to work together as a unified team when implementing loot boxes: "Good MTX design is an art. It requires designers to be equal partners with Product Managers to come up with something that is perceived as fair and is celebrated."

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Latest comments (16)

Dariusz G. Jagielski Game Developer 28 days ago
What a load of...

No, it isn't because of "dinosaurs". The fixed price model or a model with microtransactions where you actually chose exactly what item you are buying is simply customer-friendly. Short term greed, like one being executed by Activision, EA, Ubisoft, results in long-term losses. These companies need to understand that.

But no, "triple A" games are too expensive to make and the costs can't be justified without predatory tactics such as loot boxes. Yeah, right. Ninja Theory (Hellblade) and CD Projekt Red (The Witcher 3) beg to differ. Not sure about Hellblade as I've never played it yet, but Witcher 3 comes also with full voice acting in multiple languages which should drive costs even higher. Yet, still no lootboxes or even "normal" microtransactions in there. And several DLCs post-release, except those the size of expansions of days lost, are free. And CDPR got huge profit out of it. As it turns out, if you treat your customers like people as opposed to like walking wallets, they'll be more than glad to tell other people about the great game they've played or even buy multiple copies of it.

So no, the AAA games aren't too expensive to make, it's big publishers that got too greedy, That greed will be their undoing.

And seriously, are you going to quote Randy "let's move all the funds we got for Aliens: Colonial Marines into Borderlands and release an awful game that is still awful even with that fixing mod applied to meet contractual obligations" Pitchford? That Randy "Let's bill Bulletstorm customers the second time for the HD re-release of Bulletstorm and let's put there a character (Duke Nukem) that has no business to be there as a preorder bonus" Pitchford? This man has literally even less credibility than Peter Molyneux. Golden Petey at least made some good games and not some self-referential BS with poor randomizing mechanics and invisible walls everywhere.
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Jeremiah Moss Software Developer 28 days ago
There's clearly a tremendous gap in understanding how the industry works, and how much it costs to make games, and how the microtransactions/free-to-play model works.
So why the gap? Why are businesses reluctant to talk to the gaming community about their financial situation? Players want answers, and to be honest I think they are long overdue to get them.
This model exists because it apparently sells, and it sells despite the objections to it.
The purpose of a game is to have fun. I'm a bit tired of the whole ". . . but it sells . . ." thing. If the business model gets in the way of having fun, then maybe it's time to rethink the business model.

. . . and no, it's not a "generational" thing where one generation will die off and the next generation will gladly accept it.

It's really the result of young people moving from education into working. Once you start working for a living, the value of money becomes a lot more obvious, and the willingness to make regular payments towards a game goes down. Last I checked, "people moving from education to jobs" is not a one time generational thing - it's how society has worked for a very long time, and how it will work in the foreseeable future.
One way of thinking about this is this: do we really think the kids growing up today will be complaining about loot boxes and micro transactions - that have been an ingrained part of how they played games ever since they were born?
Yes.

And it's sad to see that the gaming industry is even entertaining the concept that they can basically brainwash the younger generation and rely on letting the older generation die to coerce things. This is exactly the attitude I do not want to see in the gaming industry. It's manipulative and hideous.
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Rogier Voet IT Consultant 27 days ago
It's so sad to see an activity which should be about having fun turn into a system which is constantly harassing you for money.

Do you know what most companies don't realize? That you poison the trust the people have in your product and company. If you always have to check if an item is something you can use or another door to an paywall or paid item, you will not feel relaxed (more like the opposite).

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rogier Voet on 21st November 2017 7:44am

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Show all comments (16)
Keldon Alleyne Developer, leader, writer, Avasopht Ltd27 days ago
This model exists because it apparently sells, and it sells despite the objections to it.
So do overpriced spare hoover parts. Of course it's going to sell. Doesn't mean overpriced spare hoover parts are more enjoyable than hoovers that do not do this.
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Andrei Streche Senior Online Multiplayer Programmer, Gameloft Romania27 days ago
@Jeremiah Moss:
It's really the result of young people moving from education into working. Once you start working for a living, the value of money becomes a lot more obvious, and the willingness to make regular payments towards a game goes down.
And that's probably a common pattern that developers should be aware of, but for me it was the other way around: as my disposable income grew, and there were more things competing over my limited free time, I started putting more money into games, when an IAP allowed me to skip hours of grind. Ten, or even five years ago, I would never have thought of paying additional money to game, beyond the initial price and maybe an expansion pack.
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the answer is pretty simple. We need two types of loot boxes. Random and fixed.
Fixed would allow people who dont like to gamble, buy exactly what they want and get it.
Random would by riskier but with risk can come reward.

Price these two accordingly. If the Fixed Price for say a silver item is 3 bucks. Then the random loot box should by 1.50. and with that comes the possibility of getting any item from say cooper/silver/gold/epic item.

more options is almost always the answer
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Tudor Nita Lead Programmer, Gameloft Romania27 days ago
"a tremendous gap in understanding how the industry works".
Besides consumers, business forums are awash of the same comments. We, who actually work in freemium are saying the same thing, basically. The only people that are, ever, well-served by freemium monetization are the stakeholders of said companies. Sometimes, not even them. Too bad this is one of the few ways to survive in a very crowded mobile ecosystem.

"Random and fixed. Fixed would allow people who dont like to gamble, buy exactly what they want and get it."
This is how freemium worked up until the gacha money bags started rolling in. The ROI for fixed purchases was entirely meh. Essentially, you need the same infrastructure, and actually more content, with a much reduced purchase rate.

Edited 4 times. Last edit by Tudor Nita on 21st November 2017 5:42pm

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Andrew Jakobs Lead Programmer 27 days ago
@Dariusz G. Jagielski: you're wrong as loot boxes were already available with the smaller developers, it's the larger companies that lag behind. BUT those larger companies are under much larger scrutiny than any of those small developers/publishers as ohhh those companies are baaaaddddd...
You're whole rant is clearly influenced by your close minded view of the bigger publishers.. And I in regard to The Witcher 3 I don't see $81mil as a small budget (yes these days it might seem like small for a game like That) but let's not forget it also had some extra expansion packs for which you needed to pay (yes one price per item instead of microtransactions), but let's see how The Witcher 4 will handle it, as the game has been released almost 2.5 years ago, just before the whole lootboxes crap and microtransactions getting it's way to the PC..
Also with Hellblade it was a small team that made the game, but it's also much smaller scope than most AAA games, and it's using an engine which they didn't really have to pay for (but are paying through royalties on the engine) which ofcourse is a significant cut in budget (EA still has to pay for development of the Frostbite engine), also the workflow and new advantages of the UE4 makes it a rather excellent engine to cut costs in other areas. But having said that, Ninja Theory did a hell of a job on Hellblade.
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Mark Kelly Games/Level Designers 27 days ago
@Andrei Streche:
there were more things competing over my limited free time ... IAP allowed me to skip hours of grind
So if we're accepting that some games have more grind than is acceptable- either because they are in excess of what is fun or, as in your case, in excess of how much you can fit into your limited free time- why is the answer to that not "Make games that aren't quite so reliant on grinding"?
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Dariusz G. Jagielski Game Developer 27 days ago
@Andrew Jakobs

Usually it's these huge company that gets so greedy to run even the best business model to the ground. I have no problem with mictrotransactions being in free to play games. Hell, I don't even have any problem with loot boxes being in a F2P games. As long as either doesn't give any sort of advantage and is cosmetics only.

But having such mechanics in a $60, full price game? HELL NO. I've already paid for your game, why should I do it again?

And yes, proper EXPANSIONS like in The Witcher 3's case ARE worth the price and shouldn't be treated as "horse armor DLC". And to answer your worries about CDPR's future games, they've already confirmed that Cyberpunk 2077 won't have any microtransaction/loot box BS in it. So there's that. The only reason I didn't include it in my original post is that I am not a psychic and can't see the future to know exactly how it will turn out. But what I know is that so far CDPR hasn't been greedy (they could easily make all free DLCs that were released for TW3 before first proper expansion cost money, yet they didn't do that. They could also put microtransactions in like that Two Worlds developer did, they haven't do that either) so I'd treat this as a good sign.

Such exploitive mechanics as loot boxes deserve a very painful death. They have no place in a fun industry such as games. And yes, loot boxes are a bad game design.

By letting player skip "grind" you essentially tell players "Hey, so this part of the game is not fun at all and we know it, so we'll let you skip it. For money."

There's fun grind (where grindy parts are so fun in itself that you really don't mind doing same stuff over and over) and there's awful, boring, mind-numbing grind where you are like "Do I really have too???"

Guess which kind is usually implemented in the loot box-powered games.
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Belgium & State of Hawaii have ruled on this and the verdict is, the current format of mechanics are both predatory and gambling, and thus under 21s cannot purchase or play such games
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T. Elliot Cannon Creative Director, Booz Allen Hamilton26 days ago
This seems to be a normal evolution point. Publisher takes a step back when communities complain about something that's been a monetization/progression-related standard for about ten years. Responding to customers is not necessarily a dreadful thing, not evolving is. Bigger news with bigger fish. It's certainly the age of twitter-speed change.

Loot boxes revolve around excitement and investment because it's fun - and completely optional. When progression-related items lock into that arena, it might as well become raid drops. There is a thrill to gambling in any form and it circumvents forced group play.

Perhaps the player outcry, highlighted by web journalist, is a sign of a shifting gamer generation. They want a complete progression cycle in four weeks so they can move on to the next lollipop? Is it time to design for a youthful audience as opposed to clutching to your memories of a cool universe from 1977 and relishing in the nostalgia of long-term achievement? Depends on whether you want a Q4 revenue spike or a player base that sticks with you for 20 years. Let's not kid ourselves. Big business likes spikes :)
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 26 days ago
We are talking about the same industry which when faced with their game design fostering Chinese slave labor (grind for cash) went down the path of inventing ways of getting that money for themselves. A number of court cases against bot manufactures should have made it abundantly clear that the grind is not there for the lolz, it is there to foster the bottom line of the company.

If you pay money for a loot box, it is awesome. If somebody cheats (cheating these days meaning not paying the developer) toxic behavior within the community is welcome and remains mostly unmoderated in forums.

There is a word for that, but it is not spiking, it is stripmining.
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the issue really comes back to the new generation of bean counters. I saw this coming decades ago as i worked toward my MBA in Business, I kid you not I had more than one shouting match with the Profs because of what they were teaching, A year in half in, I left the program due to it. And what has been taught has come to full fruition. It worked it ways through other industries first but has come to the shores of gaming as well. What was and is being taught,? its Money Extraction.
Customers are to be treated not as friendly customers, no they are to be treated as "marks". Its all about extracting as much money from them while you have your hooks into them. Treating customers like family? bah so naive you'll never get a yacht doing that.
It's this short term money extraction mentality that is screwing all our businesses. Its why almost anyone with a conscious working for a Corporation needs to have a drink every night when they get home.
This loot boxing nonsense, its all the logical outcome of these MBAs who come in with the greedy fucking ideas. For us gamemakers to think, "hey I'll make a good game and sell if for a fair price" is now considered poor business. Unless you squeeze and manipulate your customers in order to extract every last dollar, then buddy you aint doing it right, or so goes the thinking of what is taught these days.
Its why we cant have anything nice, greed has ruined everything

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 22nd November 2017 6:45pm

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Richard Browne Partner & Head of Interactive, Many Rivers Productions26 days ago
They make a good game and they sell it for a fair price. Already happens. Then you move to now I need to support this game, build more content, add more features for the next two years. OK, so now we're beyond "build a good game and sell it" ; we're onto services. So there are multiple ways of paying for this. DLC is one way, downside it splits the player base between those who have and those who don't. Subscription is another way, though on the most part this has been largely scorned upon for some time now it might make sense to bring it back again, but again it can split the player base. IAP is the third way. Now you can definitely argue that DICE's implementation of IAP in Star Wars is really bad. To be honest I think they're stuck between a rock and a hard place because of the IP and the consumer wanting access to everything in that World, and customization being a pretty low appeal because of the iconic characters. So there's definitely design faults in BF2, without question, but questioning the need to monetize and keep the team running can't be questioned.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Richard Browne on 22nd November 2017 9:17pm

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Keldon Alleyne Developer, leader, writer, Avasopht Ltd21 days ago
but questioning the need to monetize and keep the team running can't be questioned
The issue isn't merely about the need to monetize but with the device being used.
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