When Star Wars fans bought the latest video game in the franchise, many hoped to immerse themselves in discovering events across the saga’s eras — perhaps particularly between the original film trilogy and the latest instalment, Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Star Wars Battlefront II, the newest game, has sparked a heated debate among players and industry, but not because of the storylines, fast-paced action, cutting-edge graphics or online play that enables people to pit their skills online against dozens of friends and strangers at a time.
Instead, many are questioning the methods through which game publishers make money from their players by selling features and upgrades to games. The debate is likely to have repercussions throughout the video game industry and beyond.
As academics who research and teach video game design and economics, respectively, we are already seeing a significant impact on the experience of playing video games. Perhaps more importantly, we foresee this debate — particularly the strong push-back from players — sparking a shift in game revenue generation and the value placed on players’ time.
At the centre of the Star Wars Battlefront II debate are so-called “loot boxes,” a substantial revenue generator for game publishers. They give players a different set of incentives than traditional downloadable content (DLC), such as new game levels or missions for standalone and subscription-based games. They also enable publishers to make money, especially on major productions whose costs can rival those of Hollywood blockbuster movies like those in the Star Wars series.
Advantages and style
Loot-box rewards typically fall into two categories: In-game advantages or strictly cosmetic upgrades. In the case of advantages, players pay to improve character abilities, speed up tedious tasks or unlock advanced features or items that are designed to propel them ahead of players who don’t buy in.
Cosmetic upgrades, in contrast, let players pay to customize visuals that have no impact on play or game outcomes, but often act as a status marker of their commitment to the game, such as the colour, design or style of their character’s clothes, vehicles and other possessions.
The network economy of massively multi-player games — online video games that connect hundreds of thousands of people in a shared digital world — drives competition between individuals and teams.
At the same time, the relatively low cost of loot boxes compared to traditional DLC enables more players from a broad range of economic circumstances to buy and benefit from them.
What has made loot boxes controversial is their element of randomness — they’re digital grab-bags whose specific contents are unknown until opened. Rather than paying for a guaranteed item, players are buying an inexpensive chance to receive a reward, which may turn out to be a desired item, an undesired one or one they already own.
Recognizing that this method of delivery can lead to frustration — particularly when paid loot boxes produce undesired items — many games include a limited number of loot boxes or other progression methods that don’t require paying real-world money.
Players who don’t pay extra can collect the same items, but typically over a much longer period of time, often through a process called “grinding” — racking up rewards through repetitive, tedious game play.
Revenue generators and enjoyment
Overwatch, a team-based “first-person shooter” with over 35 million players, offers two loot boxes containing cosmetic items for US$1.99. Rocket League, a hybrid game akin to soccer with bumper cars that has more than 33 million players, offers cosmetic item loot boxes for free within the game, but sells the keys required to open them for $1.49 each. Both games offer discounts for multiple purchases.
In another approach, Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes, a tactics-based role-playing game for mobile devices, does not offer cosmetic items. Instead, they offer their own version of loot boxes, called “data cards,” which contain partial or fully unlocked characters and upgrades starting from $5.
Unlike Overwatch and Rocket League, Galaxy of Heroes offers players the option to purchase guaranteed items — as opposed to surprise random items — at a much higher price of $10 to $100.
Pricing is sensitive to participants in the market, and every game has different types of players. The publisher of Star Wars Battlefront II, EA recognizes this explicitly in their official response to the uproar, saying “some players have more time than money, and some people have more money than time.”
Unfortunately, Battlefront II’s original economic and progression systems met the needs of neither group. While it implemented loot box-based player progression, the system was largely seen as overly convoluted and confusing to players.
In particular, it was unclear how cash transactions related to the in-game economy could unlock coveted characters such as Darth Vader.
Also, to speed up the seemingly excessive time required to grind for characters, a substantial cash investment, as well as significant luck, was required on top of the game’s initial retail purchase price of $80 to $100.
Another game, Destiny 2, has also been heavily criticized by players and industry critics for adopting a loot-box pricing structure that works well for free-to-play (F2P) games like Galaxy of Heroes, which have little or no initial cost.
Both games are sequels to popular and successful games where player progression was incorporated into more traditional game play. Players of the previous titles were likely expecting a similar experience. However, the introduction of loot-box economies has fundamentally changed the experience for many.
Changing the game
Clearly, the decision to rely heavily on loot boxes and micro-transactions to motivate players is not universally effective. The backlash has had a negative impact on sales and publisher stock prices.
EA has removed Star Wars Battlefront II’s loot system temporarily, cut play time required to unlock new characters and offered new content for free. Similarly, Destiny 2‘s developers, Bungie, are considering changes to address balance and player experience, and have offered some in-game items as compensation.
The cloud over loot boxes is affecting other games as well, including EA’s Need for Speed: Payback which recently underwent a loot box overhaul to make them more generous.
Governments’ concerns are based on the fundamental design of the loot boxes themselves. Animations, sound cues and inconsistent payouts all resemble gambling systems such as slot machines and promote gambling behaviour, some allege. New Zealand has said loot boxes are not gambling.
Given that many games with loot boxes are marketed towards minors, this poses a concern that extends well beyond player frustration with game play progression.
It’s unclear how developers and publishers will respond to player, critic and governmental pressure.
What is clear is that the discussion surrounding loot-box economies is just getting started.