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'.
"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."