I’m about to take another chance on the summon screen. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been here before thinking the exact same thing I’m thinking right now. It’s not worked out for me so far but maybe, just maybe, it will this time. I bite my tongue and go for it. The animations play out, the hero is revealed… and it’s a two star duplicate. Great.
This was the typical experience I had playing Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius, but really, I could have substituted that for any other free-to-play mobile game because sadly, that seems to be the norm nowadays. Our cultural obsession for free things has cultivated a space where mobile game developers are turning to alternative and devious methods to extract as much profit as possible from their players, and I for one am not having it.
I of course refer to the practice of randomised rewards within gaming, popularised by games such as FIFA and mobile titles, a practice that has spread itself out over a number of years like an infection. What began as an additional way of obtaining items within the game has since become twisted in a way I feel we need to take a real look at.
I looked at a number of games over the course of 2017, two of which were Star Wars: Battlefront II and Need For Speed: Payback. Both these games got scathing reviews from critics and the public, myself included, because of the way they handled progression in the form of loot box rewards. EA, who made both titles, were forced to backtrack almost immediately, issuing statements of apology and, perhaps embarrassingly, lauded the fact at the following E3 that their upcoming games would not feature loot boxes, to a wave of sarcastic applause and wry smiles.
Not that all the blame lies with EA. Browse the top grossing free-to-play mobile titles on your App Store of choice, and you will likely see them filled with hero collectors (or gacha games), tower defence games or puzzle games. The former rely on loot boxes and the player’s addiction to obtain the best heroes and items, which of course are extremely hard to get.
I’m not advocating for the complete ban of them, however. When they are handled correctly, i.e. not blocking player progression and instead being limited to cosmetic items only (like Blizzard has done with Overwatch), I feel like they have a place. However, it’s a big ask for corporations to hold back on squeezing every penny out of players just for a bit of good karma.
Because when it comes down to it, loot box mechanics are almost like gambling. It made me laugh hearing a senior executive from EA recently describing them as “surprise mechanics”, seeing as the “surprise” in question is actually getting the result you want. Just like a trip to the casino, the odds of you coming out with exactly what you want are so stacked against you, you might as well not try. But that hope, that ‘one more try’ mentality, is the primary hook of these things, and that painful feeling of hope is exactly what the developers are wanting from you. “Try again”, they say. “Try again and you might just get what you want.”
An argument I have seen that differs loot boxes from gambling is the fact that with loot boxes, you will always get something from it, whereas gambling can leave you empty handed. My retort is that every time the player goes to meet Lady Luck, getting an insignificant item results in the same feeling as getting nothing. The fact is, we often go in there with a desired result; anything other than that is a failure. What use is a costume for a character I will never use in Overwatch, or a terrible player in FIFA that will never see the bench, let alone the first team?
Another argument is the distinction between virtual currency and microtransactions. In FIFA’s Ultimate Team mode for example, you can buy player packs for coins, which are earned through playing the game, and ‘FIFA points’ which are what players can buy with real-world money. My problem with this is that it seems like the earning of in-game VC is adjusted in a way that it often feels like it would be more convenient to instead buy some VC through microtransactions.
We are seeing a big reaction from the gaming community in response to this, as evident by the reduction in intrusive loot box mechanics in recent titles. Whether they go away for good remains to be seen, as FIFA’s Ultimate Team remains the headline mode to many gamers, and the cosmetic-only approach has been adopted by many, but for now, we seem to have finally started getting the results we want.