E3: Loot boxes on the way out, developers say, as games like Fortnite show new way to monetise
Bioware’s Mark Darrah (far right) answers a fan question about loot boxes at EA’s E3 press conference. (Supplied: EA)
“No loot boxes. No ability to pay for power.”
That such a response was featured on stage at publisher EA’s press conference at E3 — the world’s largest video game expo — shows just how much of a backflip the company has made in the past year.
Mark Darrah, the executive producer for Bioware’s highly anticipated new game Anthem, was answering a fan question that was projected up onto the big screen: “Monetization. How? When? Lootbox?”
There would be “no ability to spend money on gameplay advantages at all in Anthem”, Mr Darrah added.
EA itself started the controversy among gamers last year with developer DICE’s Star Wars Battlefront 2.
Players could use real money to buy in-game loot boxes known as crates that gave random rewards like character skins, voices and emotes — with some of the gear having a high rarity, and some being practically worthless.
For a long time, gamers have seen loot boxes as a form of gambling.
But the main problem among gamers was that some of Battlefront 2’s items weren’t just cosmetic — some provided power-ups for abilities in this multiplayer-focused title.
This gave players who shelled out money for more crates an advantage — a tactic known as ‘pay to win’.
Battlefront 2 was critically panned for its monetisation and went through some changes post-release that stripped out these mechanics.
At this year’s EA press conference DICE had changed its tune when showing off its next title, Battlefield V. “No loot boxes,” the developer announced to cheers.
@Battlefield tweet: No loot boxes. No Premium Pass. All players have access to the same maps and modes in #Battlefield V. Keep your squad together, no matter the front.
The design director for Battlefront 2, Dennis Brannvall, was also there to admit they got it wrong.
“We launched our game in November of last year and clearly we didn’t get it quite right,” he said.
Marcus Carter, lecturer in digital cultures at the University of Sydney, said consumer uproar, regulatory pressure and negative press in mainstream media had forced many developers to rethink “predatory” loot boxes.
“The developers have moved away from this slippery slope of freemium gambling-like mechanics in games,” Dr Carter said.
The issue is not just one for EA — loot boxes have been an industry-wide trend.
Rival publisher Activision’s Call of Duty series and WB Games’ Middle-earth: Shadow of War were also heavily criticised in the past year for their loot box monetisation schemes.
So if loot boxes are out, what’s in?
Fortnite’s purchasable Battle Pass ditches all randomised loot — letting you earn specific cosmetic rewards by playing the game. (Supplied: Epic Games)
The big method of monetisation that’s hot right now is the one that’s available in Epic Games’ massively successful online battle royale game Fortnite.
Instead of buying a box with a random reward, players can buy in-game currency, known as V-bucks, and use that to directly buy the item that they want — a new outfit for their character or a new skin for their weapon.
You can also buy what Epic call a Battle Pass — which is a progression ladder that rewards you with set cosmetic items or V-bucks for playing the game and completing missions.
If you’re not skilled enough to earn the skin you want through the Battle Pass, you can buy it directly with V-bucks. There’s no element of randomisation.
In Fortnite you can earn or buy V-bucks that let you directly purchase a new look for your character. (Epic Games)
“I think they’ve done it really well,” Dr Carter said.
“The purchases relate almost entirely to aesthetic choices that have no bearing on your ability to compete in the game’s competition.
“That clearly is a really big deal for players of these kind of competitive games.”
EA’s new game Anthem has already confirmed it will allow you to buy items directly, rather than rely on the luck of loot boxes.
“We will have purchasable vanity [items] but you will see what you get before you buy,” Mr Darrah tweeted.
Battlefield V will also let you purchase cosmetic items, but anything that can affect gameplay can only be earned in-game, developer DICE announced.
Loot boxes are dying, but not dead
While some companies at E3 were eager to point out they were dropping loot boxes from future titles, there are still many popular games that include them.
Games like Overwatch, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Destiny 2 and Rocket League all feature crates or boxes you can buy containing random rewards.
Some European Union countries like Belgium and the Netherlands are pushing to kill off loot boxes by labelling them as gambling.
Several US states have also proposed legislative bills.
Gambling regulators in Australian states and territories told triple j’s Hack earlier this year that there had been no determination made on whether loot boxes were considered gambling, but they were aware of the issue.
“I think loot boxes look a lot like gambling. You can quibble over the strictest definition of the term, but they are very predatory in design,” Dr Carter said.
“It’s definitely problematic the way they are introducing kids to gambling mechanics at quite a young age.”
Dr Carter believes any move to shut down the practice of loot boxes in Europe would have “a big effect” worldwide because gaming is a global marketplace.
He said gaming had undergone a significant shift over the past 10 years, with mobile games and freemium titles taking off and trying to compete with each other.
Developers big and small were still trying to figure out the best way to monetise games, he said.
“They are constantly exploring new ways to monetise games and the perfect ways to implement that.”
EA and gambling regulators in NSW, Victoria and Queensland have been contacted for comment.