The words “loot boxes” are something that you’ve likely heard a lot these days. The business practice of letting players pay real money for boxes that may contain random items of varying value has been in the spotlight negatively for a while, but it wasn’t until “Star Wars: Battlefront II” came out and revealed just how predatory that business practice actually was that people began to really take notice. The game requires you to spend thousands of dollars – or hours – in order to unlock everything it had to offer, which should have been free in the first place. EA’s obviously fraudulent response (that they designed the system that way to give players “a sense of pride and accomplishment”) because the most downvoted post in the history of Reddit.
While the company reduced the requirements for unlocking characters, weapons, vehicles and other items, the damage was done. Gamers are now viewing loot boxes in general as nothing more than glorified slot machines that would feel right at home on http://slots.info/, with talk of certain states and governments downright banning the practice. And that’s, honestly, a bit of a shame, because a lot of multiplayer games rely on loot boxes to survive at all, and may be forced to change their business model (and thus design) significantly to stay afloat. So instead of outright banning loot boxes, why don’t we examine some ways in which they can be improved, so that they don’t prey on players while still providing a profit for developers. For example…
1. They Should Only Contain Non-Essential Items
The fact of the matter is that you can’t really hide anything that’s going to seriously impact your game in a loot box. If someone buys a Star Wars game that advertises Darth Vader, then that person should be able to play as Darth Vader right from the moment they put the disc in. Anything that affects the gameplay, be it characters, or weapons, or even stat boosting items, should be kept out of boxes and provided to the player through other means. On the other hand, there are plenty of items that players would want to buy, but don’t impact the game whatsoever, such as additional outfits for characters, alternate looks for weapons, taunts and sprays that people can use to troll their opponents, music you can play in the background, decorations… The only limits, beyond those defined by the game and its mechanics, are bound to the developers’ creativity. Unlocking Darth Vader through loot boxes is a terrible idea, but using them to unlock a costume for Darth Vader that shows what he would’ve looked like if he had never fallen into the lava sounds amazing!
2. They Should Have No Duplicate Items
There’s nothing quite as frustrating as spending real money on loot boxes and finding out that you already own every single item you gained. It’s a waste of money! Blizzard’s “Overwatch” is a particularly bad example, with its creative director Jeff Kaplan openly stating that you’d need “an infinite amount of content” to avoid having duplicate items, which is objectively untrue. Of course, when you look at it on a surface level, his statement makes sense – what items would a player get out of a loot box once they’ve gained absolutely everything? The solution is simple, and it involves merely refusing to sell any more loot boxes to players who have unlocked absolutely everything until you add more content for them to buy. Let’s face it, if it costs, say, $100,000 to unlock every single skin, taunt and whatever else you’ve got in the loot boxes at launch, the overwhelming majority of people won’t hit that limit within the few months it takes for you to add new content. 99.999% of players won’t ever reach that limit, so worrying about it is a bit of a non-issue.
3. They Should Be Easily Available For Free
Loot boxes should never, ever be “premium-only”, they should be fully unlockable just through gameplay. And, to their credit, most developers do just that – for example, the aforementioned “Overwatch” gives you one box per level. But this should be taken a step further. Mobile free to play games have perfected that business model, and the fact that the biggest ones rake in millions of dollars every single month proves that it works. The idea is that, if a player gets roughly one loot box per hour of play (measured in matches played, or kills scored, or a similar metric), that’s pretty great! But then they can get five for only a dollar, and 30 for a fiver! While the single loot box per hour is fantastic and just enough to keep players who can’t afford further investment going, who wouldn’t want to get 30 instantly when they’re about the cost of a decent Starbucks coffee? The whales will be spending thousands to unlock as much as they can, and most of your players will be paying a couple of bucks per month. With a decent enough install base, that’s a whole lot of cash raked in even with all of the boxes that you give out for free!