With the whole Battlefront 2 debacle, “lootbox” has become something akin to a dirty word among the gaming community. But how does Overwatch, the first major AAA to introduce the system, factor into this?
Can there be such a thing as a good lootbox system, and if so, is the one used by Overwatch an example of this? Blizzard’s popular shooter hasn’t gotten a lot of flak because of its economy, and there are a few reasons why.
The problem posed by the lootboxes in Battlefront 2 is one that isn’t present in Overwatch, and not only due to the way the former’s lootboxes work, but how the game works.
To understand these relations, we need to step away from in-game monetization and microtransactions entirely, and look at game design instead.
The adoption of a progression system in multiplayer shooters is a relatively new phenomenon, as all the great classics of old gave newbies and hardened veterans the same choice of weapons, power-ups and so on.
The system where, the more someone plays, the better they perform and the further they progress they are rewarded by better equipment is new, widespread, and fundamentally flawed.
These progression systems are today present in basically all big-name AAA shooters. All your Battlefield and Call of Duty titles have XP systems and in-game economies where you earn better and better guns. If you play well, you unlock these rewards more quickly. Basically, the better you are, the better you get.
While this is a great form of incentivization, it also jacks accessibility in a major way.
Familiarity with the game, practice, and skill usually matter more than stats, which is why progression-free multiplayer shooters in the past had good players and bad players. But when stats are thrown into the picture, new players are at even more of a disadvantage.
Not only does your opponent have 50 hours of experience on top of you, intricate knowledge of the game’s systems and quirks, but they also have a gun that has ridiculous damage output at a high rate of fire with a wide explosive yield…
That is an easy way to push away newbie players. Matchmaking, in theory, poses a simple solution to this issue, but it never ever works as intended.
In Overwatch, you can’t upgrade your heroes, your weapons or your abilities.
Everyone always has access to the same heroes, with the same loadouts and the same skills. And yet, is isn’t boring, it doesn’t get old, it isn’t trite, and players still have a “sense of accomplishment”.
The only gap separating players is skill, and skill can’t be bought, only earned through practice.
Battlefront 2 and its ilk made a huge misstep when they tried to monetize the progression of the typical modern FPS.
In the past, you had to play to get that stupidly OP gun. Then microtransactions and DLC came along, allowing you to buy that gun for $5. This was already a horribly broken and greedy system. But then came the lootboxes.
Now, you no longer know what you’ll get for that $5. Maybe that gun you want. Maybe a completely different gun. Maybe a character skin that doesn’t help you at all, but instead broadcasts to all other players in the world that you wasted $5 on lootboxes.
In Overwatch, lootboxes only ever give you cosmetic items, meaning someone dumping tons of cash into the microtransactions won’t become untouchably OP, they’ll just have flashy clothes and neat emotes.
And then, you also get currency which can be used to outright buy the thing you want instead of getting a blind-box that’s potentially full of trash you don’t need.
In Battlefront 2, if you roll duplicates, you melt them for credits. There is no credit store in the game, you can only use those credits to buy more lootboxes. In Overwatch, if you get a dupe skin, it becomes credits with which you can pick which skin to buy.
Another important factor is pricing.
In order to incentivize buying microtransactions, companies tweak the system so that the amount of currency you earn by playing is extremely small in relation to the prices of the lootboxes, making earning them a dreaded grindfest.
You can play 4 hours to scrounge together enough credits to then maybe get what you want, but probably not, or you can just drop $5 repeatedly until the thing you want drops out. Game economies are skewed towards making you want to buy stuff.
In Overwatch, you earn lootboxes each time you level up, which should happen, on average, every 2-3 hours of gameplay. Additionally, you earn currency at a fair rate as well, allowing you to buy the cosmetic items you want with reasonable pace.
Overwatch proves that there indeed exists a “good” lootbox system, and demonstrates first hand how to do it. It’s also really lucrative, so why other companies insist on milking even more cash is beyond us, since it was pretty predictable that the masses would not stand for this.
Unfortunately, the controversy around Battlefront 2 has turned the eyes of state commissions to Overwatch as well, but it’s also true that even a “good” lootbox system is worse than a system without lootboxes. So let’s hope whatever comes out of this little fiasco will be a better in-game economy for upcoming AAA titles.