When it comes to the Games Industry, there are two things I’m sick of: Battle Royales, and Loot boxes.
The former is more exhausted apathy than genuine dislike. There are just a lot of battle royale games coming out, and with Epic Games making billions of dollars per year on their particular battle royale experience, that’s not looking to change anytime soon. It doesn’t matter how much competition they chew up and spit out, there are always going to be studios who are more than happy to throw their time and effort into making games to rush into Fortnite’s carnivorous maw, like an angler fish luring unwitting, mesmerized prey with a distant, golden light. Kind of like what World of Warcraft was doing for years and years and years before finally they weren’t so much “defeated” as they were made such a staple of the genre that people stopped talking about it.
The latter, however, is a genuine epidemic of evil in the industry. A waning one, now that the gamers of the world seem to have finally put their foot down and governments in Europe and beyond seem to be clamping down on the practices, but it’s still here, and it’s still not going away any time soon. And why would they? They combine the addictive qualities of gambling with the uncertainty and collectivity of card packs to create a brutal one-two punch of manipulation, getting people to pour way more money than they should into trying to get the exact skin, emote, or character they think they need to be happy. It’s brutal, it’s unfair, it’s abusive, and it’s extremely lucrative: why would they stop unless they had to?
But why do I bring these two things up?
Well, anyone who knows me better than they should would know I’m something of a MOBA fiend. I play League of Legends (which has loot boxes), as well as Battlerite (who ALSO has loot boxes, but is way worse about it), the latter of which recently came out with an early access version of something called Battlerite royale, which is exactly what it sounds like. I haven’t played it myself, because I have standards and screw Stunlock studios, but a friend of mine has played it, and frankly, he kind of hates it. He complains about how cheap some of the characters how, how fixed the meta is, how he’s never won a game, how the loot system is kind of crap… the nicest thing he’s said about it so far is that it’s nice you can bring your Battlerite cosmetics over to the Battle Royale game.
And yet, despite complaining about it, he plays it all the time. A day hasn’t passed since it launched where I haven’t caught him playing a round or two or seven. He just keeps going, trying really hard to finally, one day, claim a victory over 29 fallen foes. It’s almost as if… he’s addicted.
And that sort of got me thinking: are battle royale games the loot boxes of the gaming world?
The more I thought about it, the more the comparison made sense. Let’s break it down:
A loot box is an item you get for reaching an in-game milestone, or more preferably as far as the game designer is concerned, purchased from an in-game store. You already have a rough idea of what’s inside the loot box, but you know for sure there’s going to be things in there that you would prefer over other things. Some of those things you’d prefer will likely be rarer, which means it’s even less likely to show up than, say, a new avatar. Because you’ve spent time or money on merely the opportunity to get what you want, and it’s not guaranteed, there’s a shot of excitement and hope when you click the loot box to actually open it, which is basically where the ties to gambling come in. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get the item you’ve been hankering for (or another ultra-rare item), but it’s more likely you’ll either get a box full of stuff you don’t want, or you’ll get a few semi-decent things that you’re happy with even if they don’t scratch the itch that made you get the loot box in the first place. And if you didn’t get what you wanted (which, again, will be the case most of the time), the only thing you can really do is get another loot box.
Meanwhile, a battle royale game is something you boot up, either free-to-play or purchased, but even if you’re not spending money on it, you are spending time, which is every bit (if not more so) important. You already have a rough idea of how the game is going to play, and you obviously want to win, but there are many factors you can’t control and you’ll have to either play around or deal with the consequences of. When the game actually starts, everyone starts at the exact same level going the exact same way, and you can use knowledge of the map to choose where to drop, but once you land, much of your fate is determined by chance. You can’t know, nor can you control, where essential items and supplies spawn. Nor can you control where your enemies land. Did some dude land closer to heavy armor and a powerful weapon than you did? Then you’re in serious danger. Did no ammunition spawn in the area you dropped in? You’re on thin ice. Are you on the wrong side of the map when the circle appears? Rough start.
But say you land in a place with great loot. Or with few people. Or you’re dead nuts in the circle. Or you catch someone with their pants down. You managed to luck your way into a good situation. And you feel good.
Now, the chances of you winning, which is the outcome you ultimately want? Very slim. While skill and talent and awareness will certainly help, and can make the difference between first and second place, equally (if not more) important is the loot you receive through the match, which, again, is completely random. It’s possible you can get by with just a pick until your final rounds, but you probably won’t do very well against the behemoth who’s decked out with guns and armor for days. So on top of everything else… you need luck.
And I think you can see where I’m going with this. If you’re really lucky and at least sort of skilled, you’ll get in first place and get throttled with the most amazing high in the world. But it’s far more likely you’ll die, and the time/money you sunk into the game to get that far have been more-or-less wasted. And just like loot boxes, you can’t “buy” the ending you want: all you can do is try again.
Both systems are luck-reliant, where the odds are stacked against you but the reward for "winning" is euphorically good. Both ask you to invest something for the chance to win. Both will typically make it impossible to get what you want through other means, forcing you to try, try again.
Put in this light, the explosive popularity of the battle royale genre suddenly make sense. The addictive thrill of gambling, where you don’t so much have ‘fun’ as you push through waves of misery and monotony for the chance of an explosive high, is so prevalent in this game that it’s only natural it would hook the kind of people that gambling laws were designed to protect, children and people with addictive personalities. Think about it: what other genre of game exists where 99% of the people who play are guaranteed to lose?
Now, look. I don’t want to say that battle royale games are evil, or that they should be regulated by the government: frankly I’m not even sure loot boxes should be regulated, as happy as I am that studios are scared of the possibility. All I want to do is raise a little bit of awareness at how similar these systems are, because if you recall, I said earlier that loot boxes prey on gamblers, addictive-types, and other at-risk types. And while Fortnite isn’t exactly an expensive hobby in terms of money (since it can be played for free), the lingering danger of video game addiction still looms heavy over it, and I wouldn’t want people to confuse “loving a game” with “being addicted to it”.
For a very long time, after all, I was “addicted” to World of Warcraft. And it took me a lot of work and time to eventually get away from it. But there was no getting the time I had spent in it back: that was gone forever, and nothing I did could return it to me.
And the older you get, the more that kind of thing weighs on your mind. So I hope that if anyone out there is spending a little too much time chasing that elusive 1st place high, please consider the odds: a life well-lived is better than a single moment of bliss.
Even if it a pretty awesome moment.