With all the controversy surrounding Star Wars: Battlefront II, much of the discussion has centered around its Star Card system and whether it makes the game pay-to-win. However, I think that there’s a bigger problem at play here, and it has to do with how the Star Cards are packaged.
Loot boxes. Popularized in titles like Mass Effect 3 and Overwatch, they’ve become the new hot-button topic in the industry, with some calling them “glorified gambling systems” and accusing companies of marketing gambling to children. While I agree that the psychological similarities to slot machines and the like are present (regardless of the technical definition of gambling), I find that loot boxes only serve to unnecessarily dilute games thanks to their random nature. Sure, the excitement of opening a box and wondering what you’ll get is exciting, but when that’s the only way to get what you want, it quickly loses its appeal.
Take systems like League of Legends’: while there are exceptions such as skins that can only be obtained from gemstones found in loot chests, most chests simply contain champions and skins that can be purchased at any time. If you desperately want a particular skin, you can go to the store and shell out the money for it; likewise if you want a specific champion. Even the legacy skins and whatnot that are included in chests frequently return to the store for special events, giving players a chance to pick them up for a limited time. In effect, the loot chest system becomes a randomized bonus on top of whatever else you put into the game; even if you get a bunch of champions or skins that you don’t care about, you can disenchant them for currency that can be put towards other items.
Compare this to a system like Overwatch’s, where, despite “it just being cosmetic”, you know what you’re looking for when you buy a chest. If the Halloween event is on, chances are you’re crossing your fingers to get a spooky skin every time you open a crate. Plus, since these are timed events, you must get whatever you want within a particular time frame, further manipulating players into throwing large sums of money into Blizzard’s pockets.
As for systems like Star Wars: Battlefront II’s, they basically turn the acquisition of power into a roll of the dice. While much has been made about the inability of Star Cards to completely unbalance the game, the fact of the matter is that, in a match between two players of equal skill, two things will be the deciding factors: how lucky they were with their box openings, and the sizes of their wallets.
Whatever happened to the days of regular progression systems? I remember avidly playing Halo 4’s multiplayer, because I knew that once I got to a particular level, I’d unlock a super awesome piece of armor for my Spartan. Sure, I didn’t stare at my television with bated breath, awaiting what lay inside each level-up crate, but that thrill was matched by the rush I felt when the “New Armor Unlocked” notification came up and I could finally equip it to my avatar. With many loot boxes now, I could get everything I care about in the game by level 10, or get absolute trash all the way to level 80. Incidentally, this also spills over into single-player games. Maybe I’m just a more calculating gamer, but I like to be able to plan my progress through a game; I want to know that my Pikachu will learn Thunderbolt at level 42, not leave it up to RNG. (Also, please never put loot-box-esque systems in Pokémon, Nintendo. Please!)
One solution that I’ve seen to some of these issues is to mitigate the drawbacks of duplicate items; League of Legends and Paladins both give bonus currency for duplicates, while Danganronpa lets you make a larger initial payment into its slot machine to increase your chances of getting something new. However, I have to ask: what’s the point? If I’m just getting a bunch of currency every time I open a crate, why not just give me the currency as a reward instead of building me up to the possibility of getting something better? If I can reduce the chances of duplicates by throwing more money in the machine, why not just dole out rewards more frequently with some sort of progression system? Evidently, the element of randomness isn’t critical to the experience; otherwise, why give an opportunity for the player to circumvent it?
I remember the days of jumping into a multiplayer match, seeing someone with a badass piece of armor, and thinking, “Wow, how long did they have to play to get that?” Cool cosmetics, powerful abilities...these used to be hallmarks of passion and dedication to a game, whether that involved daily grinding in multiplayer matches or regular gaming nights with friends. These days, I only have one thought towards players who seem to have it all: “How much did they have to spend to get that?”