Story, community, and consistency mean more to me than loot boxes ever will
Like a large portion of my fellow gamers and game industry members, I have had loot boxes on my brain a lot as of late, and, unfortunately for the growing number of publishers and developers who have been utilizing loot box systems for their games, it’s not for good reasons. As much as big publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision may claim that randomized loot boxes are fair and fun, the hard truth is that they’re also predatory and ultimately dissatisfying, serving as little more than a thinly-veiled attempt to sucker more money out of us.
I don’t begrudge these developers and publishers for going with what is apparently a working strategy, but I also like to think that it won’t be a working strategy forever, and that eventually those same developers and publishers will be forced (as mean as that sounds) to focus on the elements of a good game that first enraptured me so many years ago: good storytelling, a sense of communal bonding, and a consistent feeling of having new experiences to look forward to.
Building Up A Tolerance
I will happily admit that I haven’t been completely immune to the randomized loot box phenomenon, and I even recently argued how loot boxes themselves can be implemented in more ideal ways since their presence is likely to linger for the next couple of years at least.
As I mentioned in my previous loot boxes article, Electronic Arts and BioWare got me hook, line, and sinker when they introduced a random loot box system to Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer component (one of the first of its kind in modern AAA gaming). My overwhelming desire to possess the characters and weapons I really wanted led me to grind and grind and when the grinding got to be too much, I spent 10 dollars here, 20 dollars there, and all this during a time when I really shouldn’t have been frivolously spending so much money (I was a mostly broke teenager who was supposed to be saving up for college).
More recently, I have also spent money on randomized microtransactions for games like Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Gears of War 4, and even Mass Effect: Andromeda, all because of that mysterious allure of getting something really cool, the same allure which game publishers undoubtedly hope will ensnare gamers with much deeper pockets than mine. But here’s the thing, that dopamine rush you get from opening loot boxes loses its luster over time. Looking back, I absolutely regret having spent so much money on items which I coveted for maybe a few weeks at most (and oftentimes much less time than that) and then promptly forgot about.
Randomized loot boxes may be able to sustain AAA game development for the time being, but I hope that those same publishers and developers who are leaning so heavily on them are looking towards the future, a future where quality will hopefully once again take precedent over quantity. I know it’s a bit of a pipe dream at this point, especially since narrative-focused single-player games appear to be going the way of the dodo bird, but there are ways to implement concepts of story, community, and consistency which can ideally appeal to both gamers and game publishers.
I’ve made peace with the fact that randomized loot boxes may never fully go away, but if game publishers want to keep the loot boxes while also regaining the goodwill of the gamers who are outraged by the mere presence of loot boxes, there are steps they can take by working with the developers under their purview.
Now, granted, much of what I’m about to outline is based off my own personal opinions and gaming tastes, but I like to think they could appeal to many other gamers as well.
First off, multiplayer games (i.e. games which are most likely to have randomized loot boxes) can’t exist in a narrative vacuum, even if they have an accompanying story campaign component. One of the reasons why I felt so invested in Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer (besides the fact that it was entirely cooperative in nature) was because of the strong ties it had to the game’s larger story, ties which even manifested in a somewhat controversial gameplay system that allowed players to enhance the outcome of their single-player story (to a degree) by performing well in the multiplayer.
Now, I’m not saying every multiplayer game needs to have direct ties to its single-player campaign (though that certainly doesn’t hurt), but if I have a strong narrative reason to get me invested in the multiplayer beyond just shooting other players (or AI enemies) so I can get more loot and repeat the cycle, that will keep me engaged for much longer than any randomized loot system ever could (and heck, it might even inspire me to invest a little in said loot system, as my time with Mass Effect 3 proved).
Segueing into my point on community, I will also admit I’m not the most social gamer, but I love feeling like I’m part of a larger community and, more specifically, that I’m helping that community work towards a common goal. In the past, I have played games that incorporated communal multiplayer events like Gears of War 4, Black Ops III, and yes, Mass Effect 3, but usually those events are only held during a very specific time period and only on semi-rare occasions throughout the year. I understand that just having constant ever-lasting community events wouldn’t do much good since they’d eventually become stale, which actually segues nicely into my third and final point: consistency.
This is something I have discussed in the past, but I’m really not a big fan of how often big game developers and publishers will reveal upcoming content additions for their games without specifying when exactly players can expect those content additions to arrive. Granted, it’s not as prevalent as it once was, and some studios have gotten better about giving players timelines (even if they’re pretty rough) of when to expect new content, but as far as those studios have come, consistency needs to become more and more prevalent, not just in terms of new content releases, but also when players can expect other major happenings like in-game events and the like.
I understand that the common strategy of revealing a new in-game event or content addition shortly before the actual release of said event or content addition is just game developers and publishers playing it safe in case something goes wrong, but I’d also argue that the “playing it safe” strategy wouldn’t be as necessary if developers and publishers got more proactive about keeping fans in the loop regarding these upcoming additions. Sure, teases and surprises can be great, but as Blizzard learned the hard way with the long “content droughts” that World of Warcraft suffered in the past, you can’t have players going months at a time without hearing about or receiving any new content and expect them to just sit around patiently.
I know the above paragraph ends a little harshly, but that’s sadly the reality we live in these days. Gamers can enjoy what they have for a little while, but it’s usually not long before they start asking “what’s next?” and a consistent and clear schedule of new stuff can not only keep them excited, it can inspire them to stick around even when there’s not actually anything new to participate in. I understand that every developer and publisher has their own way of doing things, but if you expect your players to keep blindly buying boxes of random loot, the least you can do in return is tell them “this is what we’re working on and here is when you can expect to play it.”
The Future Is Now
Obviously I don’t expect the gaming industry to immediately adopt the above strategies I have outlined, especially since the whole random loot box phenomenon is still working out rather well for them (or I at least assume it is), but I would hope it’s at least food for thought that they’ll take under consideration. I may not know how viable random loot box systems are now or how viable they will be in the future, but I do know that they definitely don’t appeal to me as much as they used to, and I’d rather game developers focused more on the aspects of long-term gameplay that do appeal to me.