A few days ago, the ESA announced a collaborative effort with major publishers and platform holders surrounding loot boxes. The new plan looks to disclose item odds for paid loot boxes in future games and updates. This announcement shows a willingness to look at the reward system and improve it. However, it’s unlikely to force the monetization method out of the industry.
Here comes the money
Activision Blizzard is one of the industry’s largest loot box users. Call of Duty and Overwatch are two of the biggest multiplayer shooters on the market today. Both heavily feature microtransaction systems that revolve around loot boxes. Some Call of Duty entries like Black Ops 4 contain direct purchases as well. The company appears to be transitioning from focusing on unit sales to a deeper look at player engagement and overall revenues. While this shift may be attributed to CoD’s decline, we also have to look at another side. Microtransactions make a ridiculous amount of money.
In a recent earnings call with Activision, the company stated that it had earned $800 million from in-game “items”. This huge number is only in the last three months. The publisher also said that “engagement” was up on last year’s Call of Duty; WWII. This is likely due to Black Ops 4’s less generous DLC system. Direct purchases, battle pass content and loot boxes all feature in Black Ops 4 and the company seem keen to double down on these efforts. The issue with that trajectory is a disconnect with loyal fans. Activision has said that players are “embracing the new in-game content” which may be true from their stats. Having said that, it certainly isn’t from most hardcore player’s feedback.
Roll the dice
At this point in the loot box game, most of us accept that the odds are not in our favour. Legendary items are usually extremely rare, and whilst some games do it better than others, we never open a loot box expecting something good, right? If platform holders force publishers to display odds, they will likely just reaffirm our thoughts on the chances of getting anything worthwhile. Clearly, the low success rate isn’t currently stopping people from spending huge amounts of money on in-game purchases. As of yet, we’ve also not learnt how this new legislation will be implemented. I’m not expecting a huge “THIS LOOT BOX HAS A 1% CHANCE OF BEING DECENT” message plastered across the menu, and would think a subtle message buried somewhere in the options is more likely.
Using Black Ops 4 as an example yet again, the game launched with a different approach. Direct purchases were included for the first time since Ghosts, likely due to the success of Fortnite’s store. The game launched with a much stronger focus on the battle pass-style system with reserve cases being saved for unlocks. This transparent method was clearly not providing enough income for Activision, and just four months after launch, the game introduced purchasable reserve cases. Whilst the direct purchases in Black Ops 4 aren’t cheap, I’m all for a system that doesn’t feature random rewards. In previous current generation CoD titles, supply drops were the only form of microtransaction method, which left everything to chance. But of course, Activision wanted to have their cake and eat it, by allowing you to purchase cases. Loot boxes aren’t going away, and disclosing their odds won’t change that.
Will it all blow over?
Adding microtransaction systems after launch is becoming an all too often occurrence. Similarly, being sly about their inclusion in the first place is becoming a worrying industry trend. Not only Black Ops 4 but recently Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled has also added the option for paid content after launch. Wolfenstein: Youngblood also just came out, and Bethesda didn’t speak much of its included skins and paid customization options. At least until it was in the hands of consumers. Adding these systems post-launch is a way to avoid negative press and get players engaged in a game’s eco-system before extracting more money from them. At least the ESA’s upcoming plans include updates as well as games on release.
When it comes to platform holders more specifically, unfortunately, Microsoft has been the most active in all things loot boxes. As stated in my news piece, Xbox’s major franchises have all featured loot boxes recently. Gears 5 looks to remove paid loot boxes which does take away paying for a chance. However, it will likely feature random rewards as part of in-game progression. The legislation as it stands only covers paid loot boxes, so if Gears 5 is the example, then future Microsoft titles may not be affected by the ESA changes. Of course, you can buy them in games like Call of Duty, Overwatch and Apex Legends, so those franchises will have to adhere to the new laws.
In the end
Consumer spending on microtransactions and loot boxes means players are willing to pay out for this content. An industry shift toward live services and “player engagement” has been an ongoing theme this generation, and the revenues this is providing means things are unlikely to change. Whether they’re added after launch, hidden away in menus or have their odds disclosed, sadly, it looks like loot boxes are here to stay.