Autumn Loot Box Glut Leads To Widespread Alarm

Autumn Loot Box Glut Leads To Widespread Alarm

Star Wars Battlefront II

Few things in video games are as addictive as the dopamine rush of randomised loot. And, when it’s tied to real money, few things make people as angry. As we enter the year’s busiest game season, it’s fair to wonder: Do we have a loot box epidemic?

It started with Shadow of War, which gave YouTubers two months worth of rage material when its developers announced in August that the game would let you pay real cash for in-game loot.

And this wasn’t just regular loot — Shadow of War would let you purchase loot boxes, the little slot machines that are most popular in “gacha” games like Fire Emblem Heroes and Final Fantasy Record Keeper.

In Shadow of War, these boxes would contain a random selection of gear and recruitable orcs. (Now that it’s out, our reviewer says you can play the game just fine without spending an extra cent.)

Next came Forza 7, which has been slammed for its own set of loot crates. (Microsoft has already reversed some of the controversial changes to that game’s VIP credit system.)

And, most recently, it became clear through last week’s Star Wars Battlefront II beta that EA’s next big game will have its own slot machine, in the form of randomised card packs that allow you to upgrade each of your character classes. Although EA has not confirmed that these card packs will cost money, it’s a safe assumption to make. (The beta menu shows three different types of currency, which is usually a sign that one of them costs real money.)

That’s at least three major games this season that cost $US60 ($77) but want you to spend more money gambling for loot boxes, which has led to anger all across the internet, from massive Reddit threads to YouTube videos with hundreds of thousands of views.

Other autumn games, like NBA 2K18, are so dominated by microtransactions that they make it tough to discuss much else. Even when these in-game transactions are completely optional, they linger over games like a bad stench, making everything feel a bit more suspicious.

The rage has even led OpenCritic, a review aggregation site, to start exploring a new model that will show each game’s microtransaction options. The site’s founder, Matthew Enthoven, told me in an email this afternoon that he plans to start adding tags like “Game progression accelerators unlocked via loot boxes” and “Multiplayer Maps and Modes unlocked via direct purchase” to games with add-ons.

“We feel that, even if a thing is available via normal gameplay, we should call out when it’s available for purchase,” Enthoven said. “In general, we think it’s very difficult to balance payers and non-payers with these types of features.”

It’s easy to see why this is happening. The meteoric rise of game costs coupled with unreasonable growth expectations have led to a world where $US60 ($77) games are just not enough for most big video game publishers.

As companies like EA and Warner Bros. chase service games, the traditional $US60 ($77) model is becoming obsolete.

To those guys, the only way for video games to justify their nine-digit budgets is for them to generate revenue on top of the sticker price. No number of angry YouTube videos is going to change that.


  • Time to call them what they are, gambling boxes, and/or visual representation of a link to a shopfront (VRLS?).

    It’s also time for the West to follow the Chinese example and force companies to publish the actual odds of getting any particular item from a chest, and ideally the average cost of buying enough chests to actually get a copy of said item as well.

  • This is going to end with publishers that go down this route being regulated like other betting companies, including age restrictions on sales.

    • Exactly. If these companies want to include gambling into their games, then let them be restricted the same way as other forms of gambling. Should be treated the same way as gambling web sites.

  • When micro-transactions are purely cosmetic its perfectly fine, give me those skins. But when its map packs that split the community there’s definitely cause for outrage.

    My 2c.

  • Kotaku, come on.

    Shadow of war can be played fine with out the loot boxes, yes. But where is the paragraph that states in order to see the true ending and even the credits (aka the end of the game) you would have to grind for hundreds of hours… Or buy those legendary orks for your army with real world money.

    I love you guys, read everyday without fail, but lately I feel like your quality and depth of reporting has been slipping 🙁

    • Every time this story gets repeated, the number of hours of grinding increases.

      This story started from Polygon, who rushed the story and then go to the end and wondered why they weren’t prepared. This is the same in a ton of games, if you rush a Final Fantasy game to the end you’re going to get smashed by the last boss.

      Other outlets have said that yes, there’s some grind in the final phase of the game, but it’s nowhere near as bad as people are making it out to be. Even the ones like RPS that are critical of the loot boxes existing acknowledge that they’re largely useless – you do not need them to play through or complete the game in a reasonable time frame.

      • It is pretty funny how even in the space of only a couple days, the comments on this very site went from ‘a dozen’ hours grinding, to ’40-50′, and now ‘hundreds’.

        • I’m expecting loot boxes to be literally Hitler and contain the remains of dead puppies by around this time tomorrow afternoon.

      • I honestly wish that the addition of loot boxes did very noticeably affect the pacing/difficulty curve – it would finally silence that nagging voice in the back of my head that “this could be the one to push it too far” and might actually get people to take notice of what’s been steadily creeping into games over the past ten years.

        I don’t understand how people put up with it – people hate day one DLC and on-disc DLC, but have no problem getting 90% of a game to have the “optional” 10% marketed to them every time they start playing? Because “Oh, it’s only cosmetic upgrades.” Not a serious example, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if they started charging $10 “micro” transactions for 4K textures, god rays and higher resolution rendering – it’s only cosmetic, right? Or if they were in loot boxes – “buy this box for a chance to get a random graphical enhancement”. 😛

        • I’ve been watching the creep. My view though is that I have a line, that line hasn’t changed over the past few years, and that line hasn’t been crossed yet. If a game does cross that line, then I’ll decide not to buy it, but SoW isn’t that game. It may be closer to the line than games before it, but it’s not there yet, and I don’t plan to take action until it does. Hopefully that makes sense.

          • Yep, makes perfect sense – I think everyone has a line, though it’s in different places for different people. But I also have security cameras, laser grids, alarm systems and razor wire absolutely covering the fifty-or-so metres before that line, and I’m sick of those alarms getting tripped every time a triple-A release gets close to launch. I guess I just miss the days when I didn’t have to worry about whether a game was a product or a marketing platform. And I’m tired of seeing loot boxes shoved into games where it doesn’t make sense thematically… As soon as I heard the phrase “orcs in boxes” I cringed. Imagine if Saruman only lost the battle of Helm’s Deep because he ran up too much credit on his card and couldn’t buy more crates of random uruk-hai. It’s ridiculous.

          • I agree that loot crates in SoW are an unnecessary and immersion-breaking element. I’m happy to criticise them on those grounds, for sure. I’d feel that way regardless of how they’re obtained though honestly, whether RMT or in-game.

            I have a degree of sympathy for the developers, who almost certainly fought to try to keep this stuff out of the game. I’m convinced WB is the driving force behind this, and I really don’t want to see the developers punished for making what may be an otherwise excellent game because of one tacked on moneygrab from their corporate overlords.

            Some people will choose not to buy the game at all, and that’s fine. I personally feel that buying the game but never purchasing a crate fits the message I want to send better. I want the developers to know they made a good game by buying the game itself, but I want WB to know I don’t care in the least for their RMT by not buying any RMT items.

          • That’s the stance that a lot of people are taking – they want to support the developer despite the practices of publisher, which is admirable. But the publisher doesn’t lose money because someone doesn’t buy microtransactions – the term “whales” exists because it’s well established that 90%* of microtransaction revenue comes from the 5% of the playerbase willing to pay for them. And as long as people keep saying “I want to support the developer”, the publisher will still keep earning money on every game sale, with RMT revenue from those 5% of players on top of that. RMTs don’t incur much bad press (and if they do, it’s aimed at the publisher, not the developer), so including them doesn’t generally affect game sales, so real reason to not include them. You’re predisposed to not buy into the RMTs, so your position on the matter doesn’t enter into their decision to include them in the game; there are plenty out there who don’t have that strict no-RMTs-ever stance who are more susceptible to marketing.

            The message they hear from you is clear – you don’t care about their RMTs. They don’t hear “I will never buy RMTs,” they hear “I am not in your current RMT demographic.” Or, put another way, “your RMTs are insufficiently enticing to me.” So if they want to increase their profits, they’ll try to either increase their cost (Assassin’s Creed tried this a few times) or make them more enticing (ie. affect pacing and difficulty) in the future, until they reach the tipping point and inevitable backlash. I just want that tipping point to happen sooner rather than later, because once it’s over, they’re not going to backpedal very far.

            *NB: Clearly pulling numbers out of my arse for illustrative purposes.

          • I do understand the message isn’t clear on their side of it, but it’s the only choice that I’d be comfortable with taking in this particular circumstance.

            Whales don’t bother me, and I’m not going to judge how other people spend their money. My main concern is the integrity of the game in the absence of RMT.

    • Patricia wrote a story about exactly how the loot boxes impacts the end game – which is to say, it doesn’t. She goes into more detail though, so I won’t requote that here.

      Shadow of War might have a problem with how the difficulty scales – the end game has a spike that might throw you off if you’ve been more or less ignoring which warchiefs you deploy, because it’s so easy that it doesn’t matter – but you can happily ignore the loot boxes and just earn what you need to through regular gameplay.

      Zombie mentioned it below, but there’s two elements here. One is that the messaging around the loot crates was mixed, and not instantly clear from the outset. On top of that, some mixed reporting has just fanned the fires and led to a lot of confusion and inaccuracy.

    • As @zombiejeus said the grind is way overstated.
      According to the Kotaku review without loot boxes you should be able to knock it over on a dedicated weekend. The aspect that isn’t being reported is how much quicker it would be even with loot boxes.
      Sounds like the end game is a grind, that is the actual gameplay. Constant attacks and you need to survive enough of them to get to the ending. So while loot boxes can help that it will still take time, because that is what the gameplay is.

      • Valid points you have made but here is the logic flaw for me.

        The grind is their because that’s the gameplay right? Or is the grind their to make it the gameplay to sell the loot boxes.

        What would the gameplay be without the loot boxes? Less grind? More fun?

        • My reading of it (without having played the game) is that it is there as end game content to get more hours out of the game.
          It seems like the grind isn’t there in the main game so you can avoid this aspect of the game and play through the story. Then the end game content is about micro management and training troops rather than the main 3rd person action game.
          If people want more play time, and that seems to be why this mode is here, then adding repetitive grind is a hell of a lot easier to implement than extending the full game.

          To me is sounds like the right balance. More grind doesn’t mean it is worse, not many people think that removing all grind from a jrpg would make a better game.
          Was it added to sell loot boxes? Maybe.
          Was it added because people use a BS gameplay time to dollar cost ratio to determine if something is buying? Maybe

  • You could be right, I can’t say your wrong as I will never buy a full priced game that uses this style of loot box. Which sucks shadow of mordor was an awesome game!

    I think Overwatch’s loot crate system is barely tolerable. But what we are being served at the moment by these companies makes me mad and sad.

    • I respect anyone’s choice not to buy a game because of something in it they don’t like, as long as they respect that other people may thoroughly enjoy that same game because they don’t have the same issue with it. I’m not directing that at you, just in general.

    • Interested why you think the Overwatch crate system is barely tolerable? Doesn’t impact the game in any way. At all. Ever.

      • For me, I dislike the fact that you pay only for more rolls of the die, instead of what you actually want.

        • Its easy to see why though, my friend really loves collecting skins for his favourite characters and because you cant just buy the 3 that you want, instead of spending maybe 20 dollars for 3 skins (which is still outrageous) he ended up spending hundreds of dollars and even more than that when they “give back” to the community with skins that you can only get during timed events.

          • Exactly my point, if you want to sell me skins. Just sell me skins.

            Special events are fine, but when you can’t just buy the skins you want and need to roll for them. It just feels like a company creating an artificial pressure to spend more money

  • I’m voting with my wallet. You want to try and milk me with micro transactions I won’t even buy your game in the first place. There are still publishers making quality games without that BS and they will get my money. If everyone did this then EA and their ilk would either have to conform or fold.

  • It started with Shadow of War

    No it didn’t. It’s been going on for years, dating back to the first digital CCG adaptations (and it was accepted, because “that’s how CCGs worked”), then into sports games, then into mobile games, then it crept into triple-A releases under the guise of “cosmetic-only” loot boxes – SoW and BF2 are just the straw that has (hopefully, finally) broken the camel’s back and brought the issue into the spotlight. It’s not in any way new, but hopefully people will actually take note and realise what’s happening this time, and (with any luck) cause enough of a stir to tell publishers that this is not okay in full-price retail releases.

    Maybe if we (well, not us, it’d have to be the ESRB or PEGI – Australia’s way too small a market to actually make a difference, realistically speaking) require a game’s rating to be bumped to at least 15+ if it contains this sort of real money gambling – maybe legally excluding a huge portion of their target demographic will be enough to push publishers away from this crap.

    • It’s pretty much at the point in the mobile space where I’d suggest that games that do gambling boxes dramatically outnumbers the games which don’t. It’s more the norm than anything else.

      Of course, in the mobile space, at least, most games are also technically ‘Free to Play’ (but not enjoy) in order to actually get people to even install the thing in the first place, in a sea of exploitative ‘free’. Having a box price AND whale/gambling addict-targeting exploitation is insult to injury.

      • F2P mobile games with RMT are cancer, there’s no doubt about that. But for now at least, the difference between those and PC is that mobile games are designed as an RMT system first with a game wrapped around it for colour, while games like SoW are games first with RMT tacked on almost as an afterthought.

        For me, it’s the integrity of the game that matters first and foremost. By most accounts SoW is a great game with or without the RMT element, whereas most F2P mobile games are just terrible games overall.

        Naturally I appreciate different people have different views, just thought I’d shed a little extra light on mine.

        • When you’ve been exposed to enough of them, all the smoke and mirrors stop working and all you see is monetization schemes. Now-traditional techniques – multiple currencies, timers, limited-time events, leaderboards, rewards for being on top, continuous injections over permanent unlocks, randomization/lottery/gambling, daily objectives to qualify for premium rewards, rewards for unbroken login chain habits, first-taste-free entry-level povo gambling that allows progress to theoretically be made within that structure so that you can design ENTIRELY around it…

          When you start seeing the signs, it’s like seeing the code in the Matrix. And yes. It’s basically digital cancer, taking root and growing maliciously until you excise it.

          • Even something as simple as the psychological design of slot machines, and compare it to how MMOs and a lot of online games indicate loot drops or level-ups… even such simple design choices can be seen in a malicious light. Diablo 3’s legendary drops have a distinct colour and notification sound, and when you level up, you literally explode in light and sound. Destiny 2’s level ups cover the screen with a “You earned a bright engram” notification, notifies everyone in the instance that you earned a bright engram, and (I’ve not decided if this is the worryingly egregious or just the devs taking the piss) showers nearby players with sparks from the glow of your level-up radiance, to the point of rumbling their controller.

            Yea, the patterns are clear for all to see, once they know what to look for. And once you see it once, every time you see that pattern again, you can’t help but wonder if/when it’ll try to make a grab for your wallet.

          • Careful, that’s bordering on a specious line of argument. Rewards are a fundamental nature of games throughout history, and chance is a property of the vast majority of them. Making a player feel good for getting a lucky reward isn’t malicious by any means, and it’s only manipulative in the benign sense that all games are, by designing systems that encourage continued play.

            That the gambling industry also makes use of the reward response in our brains isn’t a condemnation of rewards altogether, just the acknowledgement that reward is a tool and like any tool can be used for a spectrum of purposes from benign to malicious.

          • I have no problem with reward systems in games. Just saying that the increasing prevalence of microtransactions and real-value-obfuscated virtual currencies is making me extremely aware of every method that games can/do use to keep us invested. Maybe I’ve just been seeing too many parallels between what happened to the mobile market and what’s happening to triple-A games, combined with video games going mainstream over the past 10-15 years, and overreacting.

            In all likelihood, my previous statement is more the “if” and less the “when” – when a game oversteps, it won’t be through those audiovisual reward systems – we’ve already seen how that went down with Payday2, iirc. But games keep trying to push the boundaries (the fact that this issue has been discussed nearly every time a triple-A release announces microtransactions says a lot), so the nagging voice in the back of my mind keeps wondering when it’ll happen again.

    • Agree completely, but pretty sure he was just referring to the start of the autumn loot box glut, not the start of lootboxes generally.

      15+ is a good start, but I reckon that if the game has a 3rd party marketplace or any way to convert winnings into real money, it should be 18+ like regular gambling. They’re pretty much just slot machines at that point.

      • I’m pretty sure there already are regulations (both gambling and money laundering) that cover games that can exchange currency both directions. It’s why a lot of MMOs have been willing to sell in-game currency or tradeable time cards, but have for the most part never allowed that money to be cashed back out again.

        • Ah cool, that’s handy. I’m guessing that wouldn’t extend to games that utilise a 3rd party marketplace though? even if they’re obviously setting up their game rewards to facilitate such transactions (CS:GO springs to mind).

          • It’s unlikely. Even if it’s set up for trades, it’s still the responsibility of the operators of those secondary markets to comply with laws. Steam’s side of it is (for the most part) clean, what others do with it is dirty.

  • 10 years ago I couldnt compete in the World of Warcraft Arena competitions cause Australias online gambling and competition laws said its the same as online poker gambling.

    Those laws havent changed that much, but at least it was updated to recognise esports as a skill of competition.

    The laws didnt change that much to obfiscate that a game of pure chance online in any form is still considered gambling. The issue is the authorities are either not aware of this growing issue or dont care to investigate.

    Until there are a truck tonne of complaints to consumer protection and gambling authorities this will continue under the oblivious eyes of the law.

    Take CSGO lottery, they broke Australias online gambling laws for operating a lottery without permits to Australia citizens… but since no victimns came forward and since they were being prosecuted inside USA already (for unrelated laws) they never got busted, they should of been curb marched to Las Vegas gambling commission or an antigambling US state imo.

    People need to complain, and a lot to Australian authorities citing Australian gambling laws before RNG loot boxes become illegal or regulated.

    Kotaku Au. Have you asked ACCC and Federal / State gambling authorities on their opinion on rising number of gambling styles prizes for cash payments in computer games and mobile phones marketed to children and young adults?

  • If you want to see a worst case scenario look at Fortnite, not the Battle Royale but the PvE mode. Paid early access at $60, with loot pinatas being the only method of acquiring meaningful gear. You have to either grind for a week to acquire 1 pinata, or drop $10 on one.

    Entire playstyles within the game were locked behind an RNG paywall, want to play soldier or constructor? Better hope one drops, want a legendary version so you can be actually viable in endgame? Well they dont drop from regular pinatas, you have to wait until a special pinata is available for a 24hr window and cost $20.

    A lot of reviews in the past said yeah its a little bit pay to win but it is by far one of the worst examples of this practise I’ve seen, I wont even play the Battle Royale out of principle in spite of how fun it looks.

  • I’m kind of sick of hearing, ‘you don’t need lootboxes to finish the game’, as if that’s the entirety of the complaint.

  • The issue is if the loot boxes make the game easier in anyway… were the developers asked to put in mechanics to increase difficulty or otherwise on-sell loot boxes to you.

    If a game has paid exp boosters, would you expect the leveling curved to be scaled to encourage people to buy them?

    Imagine if Dark Souls kept telling you to buy a loot box on every death screen… would you say dark souls is hard by design, or hard to sell you loot boxes???

    Candy Crush business model is solely easy game mechanics then once your playing a while huge difficulty spike!

    The biggest issue I have is their is no peer review or market testing on microtransactions in the recent titles… no way a group of gamers were shown a loot box and told would yoou pay for this.

    Blizzard market tested their loot boxes in betas and still had to fine tune it to be fairer.

  • Like a lot of others, and with gaming companies screwing us on everything, even so called preorder bonuses, which turn into a paid DLC for a few dollars for those who didnt pay 100 bucks for the game before its released, I just dont buy these games anymore, even if I was interested initially, I just drop it. The problem is there is fukwits that spend a lot of cash on this bullshit (though ill spend cash on cosmetics) so gaming companies just keep punching the same model out (and pricing).

    Good example is For Honor

    When peeps bitched about the pricing of their microtransactions, initially EA justified the pricing by doing direct comparisons to the pricings in other games (so a complete rip off), Then most peeps were like, fuk u and basically pulled out of the game, then there was a big shift in the in game rewards and pricing, EA folded because the masses decided

    but I wont play their game out of principle now

    If everyone, said no to this shit, and just didnt buy games pushing these models, pricing would atleast become more modest and P2W wouldnt exist

    You are to blame too

    btw, overwatch loot system is awesome, every level I get a free loot box, and what does it take to level, an hour ? Shame the game is just an unbalanced POS

    Fuk AAA

  • Yeah, I hate the whole Loot Box thing. I won’t buy them. If you do, then that’s cool.

    With the way the internet works though, people will grow tired of the conversation and just declare the whole thing a waste of time, regardless of the intention or merits.

    So I’d love to see more coverage of games that ARE doing it right. Games that respect your time and money should have bright floodlights shone on them – some positivity to balance the negativity. They won’t get the same amount of clicks, but well, seems like the right thing to do, y’know?

  • Seriously, do NOT go down the path of “game development has become so expensive that developers and publishers have NO CHOICE but the be exploitative, greedy little shitmonkeys to avoid going out of business”. That’s a line of bullshit. They’ve deliberately overblown development costs on their own with stupid amounts of feature creep that nobody asked for and individually rendering every hair on a character’s head that nobody will notice to the point that a game can sell MILLIONS OF COPIES and be considered a “financial failure”, so you know what? That’s on THEM! Do not defend them trying to make US suffer for THEIR incompetence, especially when Ninja Theory showed with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice that (no matter what you think of the game) it’s perfectly possible to make a AAA-looking experience on a modest budget and sell it at a very reasonable price WITHOUT overloading it with disgusting “AAA industry” bullshit. Basically, the big publishers are ruining the games they make and then trying to make us pay for it. Stop excusing them.

  • Black ops 2 was the last game i enjoyed before rng. Extra class slots boom done, camos boom done. Black ops 3 however… want 20 new exciting weapons that you cant get through any other means, step right up and roll the dice btw there are over 1000 meaningless items all commons that youre going to get hundreds of times over before you get a weapon

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