Loot Boxes: Who's To Blame?

By Mark Delaney, 1 year ago
Have you ever heard the story of the little boy and the rattlesnake? Often attributed to the Cherokee tribe, natives to North America told it as a sort of cautionary tale. The short version goes something like this:

A boy was walking down a dirt road when a rattlesnake stopped him. "Excuse me, do you think you could carry me up to the mountain?" asked the snake.

The little boy declined. "Sorry, but I can't. If I pick you up you'll bite me and I could die."

The rattlesnake tried to convince him. He assured the boy it wouldn't happen that way, that he was just looking to hitch a ride. He didn't mean any harm. He promised him.

After much deliberation, the boy ultimately gave in and agreed to bring the rattlesnake to the mountaintop where they were both headed. As they reached the top and overlooked the sprawling vista, the snake thanked the boy — and then promptly bit him, injecting venom into the boy's bloodstream.

Confused and furious, the boy pleaded, "Why did you do that? Now I will surely die! You promised me you wouldn't bite me!"

The snake looked toward the boy and reminded him of what he chose to ignore. "You knew what I was when you picked me up," said the rattlesnake, before slithering away, leaving the boy to die.

Whenever I hear about loot boxes, I come back to that rather morbid but poignant story. It seems a majority of gamers don't like the practice of studios and publishers putting loot boxes into games, but at the same time, we wouldn't see the growth and popularity of the in-game device if they weren't wildly successful. It begs the question: who is to blame here? Who is supporting this system that seems so universally disliked? If loot boxes are the snake, why do we keep picking them up?

In 2017, few multiplayer games launched without some sort of loot box system.In 2017, few multiplayer games launched without some sort of loot box system.

As someone who hardly ever plays multiplayer games, my first brush with loot boxes came when they were introduced to Rocket League last year. Psyonix employs a system much like that of many others we've seen over the last few years. Playing online will occasionally net you a crate for free. To open it, however, you need to purchase keys. Inside is one of a dozen or so different items per crate, but you won't know which until you've paid for a key and unlocked it. It could be a duplicate item. Chances are it's not going to be the extremely rare items everyone seeks. More likely it's a decal for a battle-car you may not use or a set of wheels you already own. That figurative pull of the lever is designed every step of the way to entice you to keep trying, and never stop apologizing for the game when it gives you something other than what you want. You knew the odds and you pulled that lever anyways. It trains you not to feel sorry for your bad luck, to keep trying instead.

With loot boxes saturating nearly all multiplayer experiences and even bleeding into some single player games, the topic has never been more vitriolic than it is this week, and yet, it's only going to get worse. Why? Because some portion of the people decrying their implementation are also the people buying them. It's tough to put a statistic on that sect of the gaming population, but however many there are you can safely call them hypocrites. Loot boxes are only the latest in a long line of manners by which the gaming market has become anti-consumer, and yet it happens so frequently, so successfully each time, that eventually we can only blame ourselves.

To be honest, I don't complain about loot boxes. I do buy keys in Rocket League so I feel I'm disqualified from logically protesting their inclusion in that and so many other games. I know people who do complain of them though, even as they buy them often. A lot of talk on this subject comes down to two opposing mantras. On one side, people will say "if you don't like them, don't buy them." Opposed to that, another side rebuts, insinuating that saying such a thing is a defeatist mentality. Count me among those in the former group. Loot boxes were an idea that many smart and manipulative minds came up with.

Modeled closely after gambling, the crates, keys, boxes, and randomized items are designed to appeal to our reward centers of our brains. Much like achievements, high scores, and skill trees, loot boxes are another form of knowing how the brain behaves and playing it like a fiddle. Is it our fault that they were designed this way? No. It's no one's fault as it's innate within us to be goal-oriented. When loot boxes offer some sort of end goal, maybe even as a means of shortcutting a lot of the work, humans reach for that.

Having said that, if we collectively opposed loot boxes from day one, they would've been undone quickly. There's no way around it; loot boxes exist today because we let them exist. Whether you count yourself among the big spending "whales" or someone who will only occasionally partake in making these microtransactions, we are all a part of the same problem.

If you truly don't involve yourself with buying loot boxes, class shortcuts, or other microtransactions then you are among an apparent minority that has the moral high ground to complain. That's a feat in itself, no doubt, but also consider just what loot boxes represent. They are hardly unfathomable. Since console gaming became truly mainstream and internet-connected, we've been hit with several strategies from creators looking to extend our time and money spent on their games. They've always been consumer unfriendly, so why are we so surprised and disappointed to see them doing it yet again?

Loot boxes are just the latest face of an industry that has been nickel-and-diming its consumers for years.Loot boxes are just the latest face of an industry that has been nickel-and-diming its consumers for years.

Downloadable content was once a rare expansion for a small handful of games. I recall playing the DLC for Mass Effect years later and laughed when I noticed it wasn't even called DLC yet. The word is now ubiquitous, but there was once a time when we were still testing different terms for the idea of downloaded add-ons. It's hard to think of any AAA game that doesn't offer some form of DLC. Some times even on-disc DLC was available for purchase and unlocking. There's no doubt some devs have employed this tactic of cutting out parts of their games and selling them as extra content. We've seen it a few times for sure and could reasonably assume it's happened other times that aren't immediately obvious.

Pre-order bonuses are similarly bad for business. They ultimately don't reward anyone but the retailer from which you buy the game. That's all it is, stores hoping to get you to pay in advance, because any moment where you haven't invested in their store increases the likelihood that you'll invest in a different store. When was the last time a pre-order bonus amounted to anything that was both truly exclusive and worthwhile? It's so rare, I can't even give an example personally.

Online passes were next. Remember those? To combat used sales, publishers began instituting an additional fee for those buying the game secondhand. Buying it new came with a one-time use code to enable the multiplayer modes. Buying it used meant it was very likely that code was gone, meaning playing online would cost you an extra $10 from the in-game store. It didn't take long before single player games started doing this too. Most famously, Batman: Arkham City charged used players to access the several Catwoman levels of the game. It went so far as to remove story content to ensure people either bought new or still paid up to the creators themselves rather than the used game retailers like GameStop or Amazon. There is a solid argument to be had that used games hurt the creators because a used game sale doesn't get back to the companies that made the game. However, a world that offers used game sales, even if anti-creator, is certainly pro-consumer. And "pro-consumer" is not something the game industry likes to be.

Season passes are a newer but now firmly entrenched strategy too. It wasn't enough for game companies to entice us to pre-order the games themselves. Now we are supposed to pre-order the DLC, sometimes long before we even know what is included. How many times have you seen a season pass advertised with something like "...and three more story expansions to be announced"? That much uncertainty sounds terrible, and yet it works. That's why it keeps happening. Rather appallingly, people don't often mind paying for content they know nothing about. Its continued existence is proof of its success. Just like loot boxes. Just like pre-orders.

We see it even still in the manner through which companies release their games in often two or three different versions. So called "Ultimate Editions" of games now offer a handful of bonuses and even a few days of early access to anyone willing to spend enough. These companies know the average gamer's attention span toward any one game is shorter than its story campaign, so if they can get as much money from you in advance and make it appear as though they're rewarding you, they're going to do that every time. The only strategy as of late that disappeared seems to be online passes, and that's likely in part because used game sales didn't slow down. The consumers didn't cave to the companies, so it was the companies that needed to adjust.

The furor over loot boxes has never been louder, partly because the huge fall lineup is beginning to hit shelves and with it comes news of how each game's microtransactions, loot boxes, crates and keys, and the rest of the nickel-and-diming will behave. Assuming you aren't among those that buy these things, you're in the right to complain. Stubbornly refusing to partake in this market is the only way to get them to go away. That's why when people say "if you don't like them, don't buy them" I wholeheartedly agree. That is the only way to remove them from your games. We're already seeing some games, like Star Wars Battlefront II, promise to continue hearing and reading the feedback from players to ensure the loot boxes don't disrupt the balance of their games. This will keep happening too, for as long as we, the consumers, make all this noise. Quiet down, or worse, buy loot boxes, and you'll never get what you want if what you want is these shady tactics to disappear.

Pressuring game creators to balance their loot box implementation can work. Even better is to avoid them entirely.Pressuring game creators to balance their loot box implementation can work. Even better is to avoid them entirely.

The history of the industrial world and more closely the gaming industry tells us that most companies will do whatever they can to appear consumer-friendly in ways that ultimately reap tremendous rewards for the companies themselves. If you're acting surprised or offended by the latest trend in gaming, don't. There should be nothing surprising about the publishers' latest attempts to extract a few or more extra dollars from us. It's worked before. It's working now. If you want it to stop working, that's up to only us. Complain, boycott, and object. Anything short of that doesn't get through to faceless megacorporations. If you're waiting on them to fix this themselves, you'll die waiting. They aren't going to turn down money because it may appear anti-consumer. They would've done this decades ago if the internet and gaming's popularity allowed it. It is the nature of a company to make as much money as it can. It is the job of the consumer to make informed buying decisions. They have no qualms about biting us, and we know that. That makes it on you, me, all of us, to have the resolve not to pick up this snake.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.