I remember loot crates from back when they were called “booster packs”. £2.50 for 15 Magic: The Gathering cards. As an 11 year old (and for too many years beyond), this is where a lot of my money would go. To the point where the bottom drawer of my bedroom chest of drawers would open with the gentle “ssshhhh” of a shifting sea of discarded commons and uncommons. Not discarded, perhaps. “Filed”.
Sometimes I would venture inside, torch and trowel in hand, to dig through the strata. Layers of cards from different Magic expansions, clearly marking the passage of the years. The point is, I spent a lot of money on cards that I didn’t need or want, or those that I already had. Even more money when you factor in Pokemon cards – and they only came in packs of ten, for the same cost!
It’s true. Both Magic: The Gathering and the Pokemon Trading Card Game were pay-to-win, and they didn’t even have the basic decency to be free to play. Where were the Wizards of the Coast reps handing out starter decks on street corners? “Your first hit’s free, kid.”
Was I addicted? I don’t think so. I was just a stupid magpie, desperate to collect the rarest rares (I touched a Black Lotus and a Birds of Paradise once – and no, not one of those Xth Edition reprints) and fill a folder full of foil versions of cards that languished at the bottom of my bedroom drawer.
TOYS TO LIFE
Before even all of this, there were capsule machines. “Collect the set!”, it said. Sure, why not. At a quid a pop, I could have the whole cast of Looney Tunes for less than £15. Easy. Tell that to my five Bugs Bunnies and my empty wallet. Not that I had much of a wallet back then. A garish velcro contraption that seemed to constantly hold exactly one pound coing and one penny in change, plus whatever I was about to spend on Magic cards.
And let’s not forget Kinder eggs. Banned from even entering the United States of America, but not for fears of gambling, or addiction, or kids wasting money on its unknown contents. Instead because of (frankly unfounded) concerns that people might accidentally eat plastic toys. And yet, these decades-old desserts remain very similar to the video game loot crates that are being debated across the industry and which the government of Belgium is considering banning. Ironic really, since Belgians love chocolate.
As someone with an addictive personality there have been more than enough money-grabbing claws offering shiny things (or rather, the chance of shiny things) for small amounts of money. Nickel and diming, it used to be called. Now we just refer to it as microtransactions.
So I don’t really see any problem with loot boxes in video games, in theory. Magpies gonna magpie. We all know how expensive games are to make nowadays, and if people are happy to pay for randomised cosmetic gear and boost the game’s revenue (and possibility of a sequel and/or prevention of a studio closure) then great.
Buying any of the things I mentioned earlier never did me any harm. I always felt like I got my money’s worth. Yes, even when that Kinder Egg with the Lord of the Rings characters on the box opened to reveal a tiny basketball and hoop set. Or a tiny sodding car.
In the world of video games, outside of cosmetic gear, things get a bit murkier. Pay to win isn’t necessarily evil, as long as the game is designed around it and my narrative, story-driven experiences aren’t sequence-broken by the availability of high-level or game breaking equipment through microtransactions.
There are plenty of games that do loot boxes well. League of Legends has it nailed. Destiny has done a pretty decent job, too. In both games loot boxes are made available to players as they progress through the game. Rewards for continued play. And they never contain content that could offer an advantage to one player over another. Unless you count my super cool, rainbow-spewing Sparrow as an advantage. Sadly, looking awesome doesn’t make you a better shooter.
Once again the industry is experiencing a phase of experimentation. Testing the waters to see where the boundaries are. And once again, gamers are not being shy about giving their opinions on how certain companies are approaching these boundaries. There’s a lot of extreme opinion flying around and, as ever, somewhere in the middle there’s a happy medium that we’ll all eventually settle on.