Alright, I've had enough. Games industry, you and I need to have a chat about freakin' loot boxes.
It's hard to pin down which game exactly started the trend, but it's easy to see where the idea came from: trading card packs, like Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon, are basically real-life loot boxes, and in Japan there are gacha machines, which give you a random small toy stuck in an obtuse plastic egg so no one can see what they're getting until it's cracked open. The question of who started the trend of doing it digitally is harder to answer, though: according to some research I've done, the first game to try it was Maplestory, followed quickly by a dozen or so mobile games and cheap Asian P2W MMOs, until it was finally adopted by Team Fortress 2 in 2010, which is probably when it first really came to the mainstream.
It seems since those early days, the Loot Box has become the go-to monetization tool for triple-A publishers: it's enough to make you miss the days of Dead Space 3, where you may have been paying for in-game content but at least you could CHOOSE what you purchased. But no, we have Loot Boxes: everything from For Honor, Orcs Must Die Unchained, Overwatch, Diablo 3 (if you considered making use of the real-money auction house), League of Legends, Hearthstone (at least that one makes sense), freaking Middle Earth: Shadow of War, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Rocket League, Payday 2, Heroes of the Storm, Guild Wars 2, Gears of War 4, and countless other games have embraced this once innovative monetization tool and turned it into something that's enough to make even the most jaded fans roll their eyes and sigh.
And look, games industry. I get it. There's a psychological thrill to opening loot boxes that keeps players engaged, we all know it. It's nice that this explosion of loot boxes has led to what could most broadly be considered an increase in free content since most of these boxes can be both earned and unlocked completely in-game. It's nice that, in theory, you can unlock a 20-dollar skin for just three measly bucks if you get really lucky, the same way it's nice if you can actually make money playing at a casino, assuming you have the brains to walk away afterwards.
But all those benefits are small fry compared to the giant middle finger each loot box hoists up in the face of gamers who are just sick of it. I'll tell you what, and I never thought I'd say this, I'd sooner deal with 5 dollar horse armor DLC packs than more of these freakin' loot boxes. I'm willing to meet you halfway on this, games industry - you just need to be able to give me what I want, when I want it. No more of this gambling business.
Because for all the thrills we get when opening a loot box, and all the possibilities there are to get really cool expensive content for free, we're forgetting that Loot Boxes are just an even worse version of what's already a bad system of chopping up complete games and selling us only the skeleton (at full price) so they can dish out everything else in microtransactions. A loot box is that except you don't get to choose what chopped-up bit of content you're unlocking when you pay that buck-and-a-half for each box.
Remember that? What a novel idea that is? Buying the things you want, and getting them, without any other crap you don't care about? Why is that suddenly something that's so exciting?
Well obviously because these companies want the random element. It's not just about getting those endorphins pumping by giving you a random treat, like gambling, it's also about making sure the specific content you want is out of your reach unless you're willing to pay for as many loot boxes as it takes to unlock it. And that's the funny mental trick right there because even if you can buy individual pieces of content, and there's a loot box system, you might be afraid to do that because, hey, you never know: maybe you'll get it for free in your next loot box!!!
God, I'm mad. I know I've missed this debate by like a year, as it was really entering the forum of the gaming world back when Overwatch announced their loot box system (but it's okay because it's only cosmetics, guys!) but thanks to Shadow of War and its bafflingly annoying (but smart - never say it's not smart) decision to have loot boxes in its single-player story-focused game, it's at least appropriate to bring it up now. But I'll be honest, folks, for as much as Warner Brothers and Shadow of War pisses me off with this decision, they're not actually the reason I'm rallying against Loot Boxes right now. There was a game I mentioned above that you probably didn't even know existed until you skimmed over it above, and that's the game that's really laid bare to me how stupid and annoying this loot box system is because I think it's the worst example in the lot.
Orcs Must Die Unchained.
I'm not a proud man, people. I will admit readily that I play that game damn near every day. I'll even admit I spent some money on it, since I liked Orcs Must Die 1 and 2 and I wanted to show my support to the developers. But if I had internalized just how bad their loot box mania was when I first started, I would have saved my ten bucks and contributed it to something that matters, like Climate Change funding or the Holocaust Museum or Kickstarting a fidget spinner drone or some other bull.
So here's how it works: Orcs Must Die is a tower defense style game where you have to use traps and weapons and such to keep a swarm of enemies away from a rift. Fine. In games past, you would complete levels, earn skulls, use those skulls to buy and upgrade new traps and soldiers, and use them to beat more levels, get more skulls, etc. It was a great system. No problems. Exactly the way video games should function.
But Orcs Must Die Unchained is a free multiplayer version of that. And since it's free, that means there are loot chests! You can earn up to two loot crates per level based on your performance, and you can also complete quests (ranging from the easy, like kill 300 orcs to the difficult, Kill this specific boss) to get up to two more each day. You can also buy loot chests with real money.
The problem with these loot chests is that they're how you unlock and, more vitally, upgrade your traps. You get anything from three to five items per loot chest, and since you can't control which items you get, you could be getting upgrades for traps you don't like or don't want to use, while the traps you do like go un-upgraded and weak. And since you can only earn two chests per level, you'll have to go on to harder levels to get more chests, but with weaker traps you won't do as well, so it'll be harder to get the new chests you'll need to upgrade the traps you do like, putting you in a death spiral!
But wait, that's not all! There are also skulls - the in-game currency! You earn a trifling amount of skulls, something around 150, for each match you win, with a bonus if it's your first time doing a map especially well. The problem is to upgrade your traps, you'll not only need the right upgrades, but you ALSO need to pay skulls: 500 for the first level, going up with each subsequent level. But since skulls are also how you unlock new heroes, which are necessary to keep earning chests, and specific traps which rotate on a daily sale, you'll find yourself critically low on skulls all the time without the skulls you need to upgrade your traps to get more skulls!
And that's frustrating, folks. Because behind this giant wall of steaming bull there's a genuinely fun and strategic game. No one plays it anymore, because it's a greedy pile of dung, but it could have been so much better if it had just been a bit less frugal: if they just made it so you got around 300 skulls per win rather than 130, then you'd have a playable game where you really feel like an investment of time could be just as good as paying money. But they don't have that. They're trying to pinch every penny they can out of you, and every other loot box game is exactly the same, so don't fool yourself!
Even if it's not pay-to-win, the way Orcs Must Die Unchained is, it's a system designed from the start to rip off players.
And it needs to stop.