The Death Of The Loot Box
Maximum PC|October 2019
Could the reign of random-rewards terror finally be coming to an end?
Christian Guyton

Ah, the loot box. Truly, the antithesis of genuine fun or any sense of real progression in games. Call them what you like—loot crates, booster packs, lock boxes, whatever—the principle is the same: Crack it open and receive in-game loot of varying rarity, typically falling at the common end of the scale. Most games let you steadily earn loot boxes through normal gameplay, but there’s always that option—come to the market, buy a whole bunch, and open them all at once! You know you want to.

Loot boxes tap into what psychologists call a “compulsion loop,” a repeated activity that triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, granting mental satisfaction upon acquiring virtual rewards. Many games, by their very nature, utilize compulsion loops. If you’ve played any MMORPG, you’ll be familiar with the system: Killing monsters and completing quests grants you superior gear, which enables you to kill stronger monsters and complete harder quests. Loot boxes cut out all that annoying “gameplay” nonsense, letting you buy rewards. You still earned them, the publishers cry out. You worked hard for that money in the real world. We hope you feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.

But are these pricey digital grab bags on the way out? Loot boxes do represent a huge revenue stream in the games industry, but all is not well. With arguments being made about the ties between loot boxes and gambling, some countries taking steps to ban or limit them, and goodwill from gamers rapidly in decline, it’s not looking good for the loot box….

WHILE LOOT boxes have featured in games for some time, they’ve only recently been pushed into the limelight, due in part to the huge popularity of certain games. Blizzard’s Overwatch was released in 2016, with loot boxes included at launch, and the huge financial success of the hero-based shooter spurred other developers to focus on the potential profits waiting inside those loot-filled containers. Within a year, the majority of triple-A multiplayer releases had followed suit and shoehorned loot boxes into their games, with the one notable outlier being the infamous Fortnite: Battle Royale.

The driving principle behind loot boxes is simple enough: As the games industry became more lucrative, driving investments in long-running franchises and broadening the audience for games, developers and publishers were encouraged to seek greater profits from their increasingly expensive projects. 2018 was the biggest year ever for the industry, with the global software market passing a staggering $137bn, 10 percent up from the previous year, and predicted to grow further.

Loot boxes represent a low-effort but high-return input for games. Previously, the sole profit from designing and producing a game came in the form of initial sales revenue; producing a sustainable income stream demanded the release of sequels or spin-offs. Then came the expansion pack, bringing additional content to beloved titles at a lower price than that of the base game. People began to make their own content; map packs, mods, and more became available to download as gaming entered the online age, and it didn’t take long for developers to start capitalizing on that. Downloadable content (DLC) slowly became a staple of games, starting with titles such as Cavedog Entertainment’s 1997 game Total Annihilation, which allowed players to download small new additions each month.

MICRO MANAGING

Total Annihilation’s content was very small, and free to download. One of these two characteristics would survive as the predominant feature of much DLC. Can you guess which? If you guessed “free to download,” we suggest you relocate your house out from underneath that rock. Yes, many developers have included small pieces of bonus content after release, but it’s far from the norm—despite unilaterally positive responses from gamers. When CD Projekt Red’s award-winning The Witcher III: Wild Hunt was released, fans were drip-fed numerous small add-ons with no price tag, leading up to a pair of high-quality paid expansions, and gamers rejoiced.

So, smaller is better. When the Xbox 360 was released in 2005, Microsoft reasoned that gamers were more likely to spend between one and five dollars on a small piece of content for a game they enjoyed than commit $25 to a larger expansion. This proved to be a successful strategy, with the Xbox Live Marketplace producing huge profits for Microsoft. Thus was born the microtransaction. Developers could sell bite-sized pieces of content for their games, which took less time and money to create, but reached a potentially wider audience than larger, more expensive DLC.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine