The Design Failure Of The Loot Box
Microtransactions make a great game worse. The concept of small (or not so small) real-money transactions rubs a lot of people the wrong way, but increasingly, the business move is shrugged away by both creators and consumers as an inevitability of the times. The way that game publishers and developers make money is a complex issue, and I’m certainly not ready to wholesale condemn a business for trying to find a route to solvency. But with the increasing rise in the practice, especially in triple-A games that already have a hefty price tag attached, I find myself returning to the biggest reason these money exchanges frustrate me: Building in a money-making scheme in the midst of an otherwise great game design weakens the entire experience, harms immersion, and diminishes the broader meaning and strength of in-game reward systems.
Much of the conversation around in-game microtransactions in recent months has moved toward whether something is “pay-to-win” or not, or dissolves into a defense of the unfortunate gamer with too little time who just wants a chance to keep up with his friends. I think those arguments fail an important litmus test of whether these systems make a given game experience better or worse.
Imagine going to a movie theater, watching part of a film, and then having the film paused to ask if you’d like to pay an additional three dollars to see the main characters in their coolest outfits. Would you like to shell out some cash to see Luke Skywalker level up his Jedi skills a little faster? What if Wonder Woman could add a cool new flourish to her sword attacks for the low price of a cup of coffee? For most of us, entertainment is an opportunity to escape into a world that immerses us in its wonders, and it’s only when that experience is over that we step back into the real world. In-game stores break that immersion, and remind us that our fantasy only carries us to another trip into our wallets.
The more subtle and more significant problem is the way microtransactions subvert smart design and progression dynamics. Whether you consider it on a conscious level or not, most games are built on reward loops inherent to our psychology. The best game designers capitalize on that human desire for improvement and the benefits of success. Beat a boss? Receive a powerful new toy that excites you, but one that also often helps to carry you forward to subsequent victories. The desire for mastery and recompense for mastery is deeply coded into us, and games do a better job than any other entertainment medium of providing that structure.
In-game money purchases disrupt that dynamic, taking what are often some of the most desired rewards and hiding them behind a paywall. Suddenly, the illusion of merit-based improvement breaks down, and even the other in-game rewards are diminished in comparison. Perhaps the developer defends the practice, building in a way to earn those same loot boxes or drops in-game, but at a glacial pace that they would never have introduced if that was meant to be the preferred method for acquisition.
Those same spoils and improvements could instead by layered into the in -game systems. How much more exciting would the end of an Overwatch match be if there was a regular chance of a new skin for your current hero, rather than a blind box drop? What if Destiny 2 built all those tasty new ships, vehicles, and other rewards into its mission-end rewards, rather than tied to the in-game Eververse? Would Middle-earth: Shadow of War be better or worse if the coolest and rarest weapons were fully and exclusively integrated into the completion of story moments, rather than obtainable by spending a few extra dollars? I pick on these games in particular because they are such big and successful franchises with talented development teams behind them. I’d love to see the games those studios would release, unmarred by the interruption of in-game money-making schemes. I want a game’s balance, pacing, and rewards to offer a pure and unadulterated vision of the developer’s intent.
Game developers are under tremendous strain to be profitable, whether they’re a smaller studio trying to stay afloat, or a 500-person team working for a publisher with stockholders that demand a return. But I’d encourage the hard-working people who make our favorite games to consider alternatives to disruptive in-game real-money systems, not just for their players, but also for the deep commitment they’ve poured into those projects. Many players might be willing to pay more upfront, but then enter a game universe in which we could leave the vicissitudes of life and money behind at the door. We like to visit a world where our rewards and improvements come from merit, and remind us of our accomplishments. Let us pay the price of admission, and then get lost in the thrill of the ride.
A variation of this article first appeared in Game Informer Magazine, issue #295