Overwatch loot boxes and their counterparts in other games have come under fire lately. Many new games on the market include some form of randomized item crate, including Call of Duty: WW II and Shadow of War. But do players have the same issue with Overwatch loot boxes as they do with the crates in other games?
In this Play of the Fortnight, we talk about Overwatch loot boxes and the potential gambling implications they might have.
The Loot Box Controversy
This whole conversation started because games like Shadow of War started including “chests” that players can open to unlock content. These chests, or loot boxes, could be purchased for real money. This is weird because, up until very recently, microtransactions were mostly confined to online multiplayer games and in particular MMOs. Now that we’re starting to see loot boxes becoming a thing in single-player games, the gaming community is pretty concerned.
As the game gets more difficult, the temptation to buy chests for loot and followers increases. There’s a certain pressure there, and it gives single-player games a bit of a pay-to-win feel. Or, alternatively, makes you feel like if you don’t make the purchase you’ll fall behind.
How do Overwatch loot boxes fit in?
Overwatch loot boxes are a little different. They contain only cosmetic items; there’s no such thing as XP boosts or, worse still, things that increase your power in-game. However, a lot of players have started to ask questions about the gambling nature of loot boxes. With the items being random, and each loot box having a chance to drop something ultra rare, it can be hard to resist the temptation to buy another box…and another one. The fact that you can earn loot boxes by just investing some time doesn’t help. You begin to wonder, should I just keep grinding until I level and get a loot box? Or should I spend a few bucks to get a bunch of them right now?
Despite all of this, Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime doesn’t think Overwatch loot boxes are a problem. In an interview with GameInformer, Morhaime says, “I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with crates that give you randomized items.”
He goes on to talk about avoiding adding what the interviewer calls “pay-for-power,” and this seems to make Overwatch loot boxes okay in his eyes. But is that attitude a little out of touch? Certainly, Overwatch loot boxes avoid the trap of players being able to gain some advantage over their opponents (unless you consider a flashy skin an advantage!). However, the gambling aspect still exists, regardless of what kind of items you can obtain.
How are loot boxes like gambling?
No one is forced to buy loot boxes, especially in a game like Overwatch where the items are purely cosmetic and fun. You don’t feel like you fall behind your friends because they were able to buy boosts and power that you couldn’t afford. However, there are a lot of ways that games like Overwatch get players hooked on spending money.
For a start, you can’t avoid loot boxes. You receive one for free every time you level up. That loot box contains four items, some of which might be quite rare. This feels like a reward of sorts, and the psychology of reward and gambling are not unknown. You receive a cool reward once and you want to get more. You could spend a ton of time getting them for free — Overwatch’s Arcade system is a great way to do this now — or you could just spend some money and get a bunch of them all at once.
IGN talked about the psychology behind “pay-to-loot” systems. They discussed with psychologist Jamie Madigan how even the randomness of loot boxes contributes to an increased desire to spend money. Mystery boxes are always exciting. In the interview, Madigan stated, “I think that excitement persists, and it would go away if you could simply buy what you wanted.” He goes on to say, “A lot of research shows that fixed rewards are not as effective for getting people to change behaviors, learn a new behavior, or form a habit as random rewards are.”
Why is this a problem?
You might be wondering why any of this is an issue. You might be thinking, “If you don’t like loot boxes, simply don’t buy them.” However, gambling addiction is a real thing, and loot boxes can quickly become just another addiction. Worse still, children and young teenagers are exposed to this loot box mechanic, which has the same core psychology as any other kind of gambling.
When an event with time-limited items comes around, it’s obviously exacerbated. You only have a few weeks to get all the exclusive content, so people are more likely to pick up a few loot boxes here or there. Then players fall into the trap: they didn’t get what they wanted in the first batch of 10, maybe they’ll buy another 10. And so on.
Aside from that, the gaming community is concerned that loot boxes are becoming the new norm. Games are starting to include them almost as a requirement rather than an additional feature. That could mean the future of gaming looks a lot different to what it does now.
Does that mean Overwatch loot boxes are bad?
We want to make it clear that Overwatch loot boxes are not by any means a bad feature. Personally, I buy a few loot boxes on occasion, and every time there’s an event I get caught up in the hype and pick up maybe 10. Sometimes I’ll get a second batch of 10 closer to the end of the event as well. I really love getting cosmetic items in games.
However, it’s definitely an area that could use a bit more research. Thankfully, we know Blizzard takes loot boxes seriously and is always looking for ways to improve them. While Morhaime may think they’re not a problem, the company still tries to make positive changes. Blizzard has already made the drop rates for loot public. They’ve also made changes to how duplicates work, meaning players are less likely to receive the same item twice. We know they talk about loot boxes, and we think this conversation is important.
One of the main things is that other games are jumping on the bandwagon. And they may not be as fair with their drop rates or the content they include in loot boxes. While that’s not Blizzard’s responsibility, all game developers could stand to remain vigilant and listen to their communities and the greater gaming sphere.
So does Overwatch belong in this discussion?
Morhaime said in the interview we linked earlier, “Whatever the controversy is, I don’t think Overwatch belongs in that controversy.” And in one way, he’s right. The biggest concern right now is that single-player games are adding loot boxes that players feel they have to buy to complete the game. The difficulty of the end-game of Shadow of War ramps up so intensely that loot boxes start to look mighty tempting. While it is possible to continue without making any microtransaction purchases, it can still feel like a cheap trick. Will this make future single-player games follow suit? Will we soon be finding end bosses so difficult to fight because we didn’t spend extra money buying randomized loot boxes to try and get better gear?
In a game like Overwatch, with loot boxes containing only cosmetic items, this is never going to be a problem. However, we do still think they belong in the discussion, even if they aren’t contributing directly to the worrisome problem plaguing the games industry.
If loot boxes become the new norm, the discussion needs to be had. We don’t want to see Blizzard moving in the direction of adding power items and boosts to their loot boxes, just because it’s how everyone else does things.
What could Blizzard do to improve their loot boxes?
There are a few things that could change to improve the way loot boxes work and prevent the gambling aspects we’ve talked about. For example, allowing players to have some amount of choice in the items they receive would be great. Removing some of the randomness would reduce the addictive nature of loot boxes. It’d be a shame to lose all of the randomness, as it does contribute to the fun factor, but there could be ways to allow players to select specific items to work towards.
One way this could work would be allowing people to actually purchase specific items such as skins for a larger price. You could still choose to pay less to get a loot box, or you could spend a set price to buy the skin you wanted on its own. We don’t know how realistic this is — obviously Blizzard benefits a lot from the amount of money invested in randomized loot boxes — but it’s something many members of the community have suggested.
Ultimately, the biggest thing we want is for Blizzard to continue discussing this topic. The changes have all been made based on player feedback. If Blizzard remains vigilant and continues listening to its community, this will go a long way.
Upcoming positive things Blizzard is already doing
As we mentioned above, Blizzard has already made changes to loot boxes in the past. They’ve released the drop rates publicly, and dramatically reduced the amount of duplicates players receive. They’ve also changed event loot to be purchasable for credits, and brought back past event loot during the following year’s event. They accept that they’re not always right first time and are willing to hear their community and make changes as needed.
However, it’s also worth mentioning that the Blizzard World map, announced at Blizzcon 2017, is coming out soon. There’s a bunch of really awesome themed content from other Blizzard games. The great thing about this is that those skins will all be released at the same time and added to normal loot boxes, meaning there’s no time limit to obtain them. We can assume this means that players can purchase them with credits, just like other normal skins, all year round.
Overwatch loot boxes aren’t really the same kind of beast as the loot crates you find in newer games. They contain only cosmetic items, for a start. However, it is still worth keeping them in mind as we watch the games industry and attitudes evolve. We hope that Blizzard will continue to keep its mind open, and that we will continue to see improvements made to the way loot boxes are handled.
What are your thoughts on loot boxes and the ongoing controversy? Would you like to see changes made to the way Overwatch loot boxes are handled? Let us know in the comments below!Related: Column, Loot Boxes, Overwatch, Play of the Fortnight
Related: Blizzard Entertainment