Loot must be cratesy! – Thoughts on the current Loot Crate furore.

Loot crates: possibly the most divisive concept in modern gaming.

The move forward of financial recoupment models in gaming has made loot-crates and their ilk more and more commonplace, ubiquitous even, and until recently games like CSGO and Overwatch have bumbled along without causing too much upset by allowing players to purchase skins or earn them with grinding in game.

It is VERY important here to separate Devs from producers because the producers are oftentimes the ones making the framework of how the game translates to recoupment and Devs are the ones that then have to incorporate their game design to suit that model, and this is where the recent uproar about Star Wars Battlefront II’s loot crate system caused such a sea change in EA’s approach.

The problem for EA is that they have chosen to pursue the idea of “Live services” essentially meaning that a game continues to receive ongoing content that is supported by microtransactions (MTX) with in that game, thus reducing the need to keep churning out new games every year.  In fact Andrew Wilson credits this idea for the record company profits for the fiscal year 16/17.

Whilst this concept is not necessarily a bad thing (because it largely keeps the player base intact, something very important to the community at large, by removing paywalls for DLC amongst others) the problem for the SWBFII gaming community seems to be the inability of EA to marry a reasonable expectation of return on their behalf with the acceptable levels of spend by their player base.  In all that it also worth remembering, specifically for SWBFII, the need to support the Live Service brings a hugely gilded cage in terms of content.

There seems to be a consensus in the gaming community that cosmetic items are fine, but this is precisely the problem EA have faced.  In Battlefield 1, EA have relative autonomy in creating and offering cosmetic items for guns and allowing players to create their own emblems.  In Star Wars they have little to zero ability to control anything to the same level because they are producing it under licence and Disney are not the most accommodating of companies when it comes to their IP.  One can only imagine the litigious nature of adding anything to the game, indeed DICE have often remarked just how much is involved in getting the game to where it is now, and there is probably zero ability to alter things beyond the established Star Wars design.

Thus EA, under the need to satisfy their live service for SWBFII, had to look at a different mechanic and sought it by creating what the community so rejected; a woefully misguided structure with a hugely disparate grind to pay-to win ratio.  At the time of writing, the backlash has been so noticeable (with the most downvoted post of all time on reddit) that DICE announced they are making dormant the ability to buy loot crates with IRL money (although you can still grind for them with in game currency).

This has been seen as a victory by the gaming community.  But there are ramifications here that could provide a seismic shift in the way games are sold, how much they cost, and the way MTX’s presented.

EA have committed to the live service idea and their profits have shown it to be a successful one.  A major talking point in the community is how £60 (or whatever) should buy you a full game and that a producer shouldn’t need the money because they have so much and so on and so forth.  Yet there is a clear conflict as well because the majority seem content with paying for cosmetic items.  This also ignores the fact that the purpose of a business is to make money and retain share health, not to mention that EA will have a massive amount of overheads.  Basically, being static in terms of earnings is just not a position any business wants to be in.  This really isn’t a defence of the decision, more just a rebuttal of the “they have enough money anyway” argument which has been blanketed across MTX, but has been exacerbated by this recent situation.  The biggest issue here is the pay-to-win element of MTX and that the community feel there should be no way to “accelerate the experience” by unlocking weapons or boosting cards through IRL money.

Furthermore, some countries are now sitting up and taking notice of loot crates as an earning genre.  Belgium’s gambling commission is considering whether loot crates come under the banner of gambling because, according to commission chairman Peter Naessens, you can’t see what you are going to get before you purchase the crate with your IRL money.  The obvious ramification here is that either a company will have to gain a licence for each country it sells in (hugely expensive and litigious) or restrict its loot crate system entirely to in-game earned currency.

Interestingly PEGI (Pan European Game Information) seems to have a different remit and viewpoint to its US counterpart ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) on whether loot crates constitute gambling.  PEGI seems to defer to each member country’s own gambling commission to determine what constitutes gambling.  However, ESRB seem to have the ability to determine whether they constitute gambling or not, even though each state assuredly has a commission for that purpose.  Whichever way one looks at this, there are potentially huge and expensive ramifications for a major earning power for most game producers with loot boxes, but especially for EA who have pinned their live service colours to the mast.

Finally, compounding all this, is the average gamer’s perception of value.  Most gamers perceive there to be less content for more money, often expressed by saying “What happened to buying a complete game”.  It could be argued that viewpoint is now irrelevant in the way that producers are moving to the live service concept.  In addition, content is a tricky concept to put in a neat package.  Where do you draw the lines on content?  Do you simply put it down to customisable elements such as Characters/weapons/vehicles and their skins, or do you include the stuff that goes into the making of the game such as the graphics (including said skins), the code, the animations, the IP licences, the effects and so on?

It’s unlikely anyone realistically expects games to cost the same as 15 years ago and when you consider that because of inflation the £30 BF1942 cost in 2002 is now worth about £44, it doesn’t seem so bad to be paying £15 more for what are indubitably better games with infinitely more back-room work.

All the above mean we are heading toward a few possible permutations of how EA particularly sells its games and how MTX are packaged in game.  The most obvious and easy to implement is that Loot crates will become redefined as bundles or you will be able to buy single items.  You will see exactly what you are paying for, with no element of chance (as in Rainbow Six skins etc) but clearly the most important to the gaming community is there will be no question of “accelerated achievement/experience”.

This may also mean that some vehicles or guns, unlockable with Rank/XP progression, could be purchasable with in game currency but the difference in their stats would be marginal for each level or upgradable as you progress.

Thus, there are some either/or outcomes:

  1. The price of games will increase to a number that reflects the average gamer spend on MTX to allow the removal of MTX.  All DLC will be free and all content to be unlocked solely by in game grinding. Incentives will remain in place to spend more money on “deluxe” versions.
  2. The price of games will remain the same, MTX will vanish, and all DLC will be locked behind a paywall.  Incentives will remain in place to spend more on “deluxe” game versions.
  3. The price of games will remain the largely the same, MTX will subsist entirely of transparent purchases (i.e. no element of chance dictating what you get) and only of cosmetics.  All items will be unlocked by grind.
  4. Nothing will change from this other than the size of the grind/pay-to win gap.

I reiterate that Devs have to implement a structure into a game to suit the producer’s recoupment need, but as freelance Dev, @ZenofDesign, (whilst, rightly, saying a “£60 box price is insufficient”) points out in his insightful twitter thread, the default position of a gamer is NOT to spend money.  Thus, the moment the gamer feels that they are being cajoled into it, then the rebellion starts.

It’s why @scannerbarkly wrote in the penultimate paragraph his excellent article on tldrgames.com:

“…..for those gamers who are slipping out of the system, it may come as a sudden shock that they are simply not as valuable, and as valued, by the publishers they have engaged with as they thought they were.”

Gamers aren’t happy and are lashing out.  Which also brings to bear the point that the community reaction to that P2W gap was why Disney spoke to EA and why it was removed.  Too many have said it was Disney that forced the change, and whilst likely true, it happened because Disney saw the community reaction.

Whilst this whole situation has been created by EA and SWBFII, it is important to remember that this is a recoupment model of many producers.  For their part, and in their defence, DICE community managers are doing their best to separate the wheat from the chaff, and deal with a vitriolic herd mentality.  I can honestly say, having met Dan Mitre and Jeff Braddock, that they are genuinely nice guys and sincerely engaged in improving the community’s experience with DICE games.

What we can take away from this is that gamers are being listened to.  The pace of change, like a turtle, is slow, but sure.  If not rebellion, certainly revolution is coming.

The turtle moves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *