In the week since I ranted about the increasingly poisonous practice of loot boxes appearing in retail-priced video games, more big-ticket titles have shown up to the loot box party. Apparently, we’re not the only folks fed up with the trend, which combines slot-machine psychology with unclear real-money economies in games. On Monday, the review-aggregation site OpenCritic announced the first major game-review initiative to combat the practice.
“We’re going to take a stand against loot boxes,” the site announced on its Twitter feed. “We’re looking into ways to add business model information to OpenCritic.”
OpenCritic says it’s currently testing a number of flags that can be applied to a given game’s review page. The simplest ones would clarify whether a game has a “loot box” system that randomizes your progress in a game, as opposed to an experience-driven or store-driven system that lets players freely choose any changes or upgrades. OpenCritic would also judge a loot box system’s “buying power” to clarify whether a game’s randomly generated loot boxes contain anything beyond a “cosmetic” tweak.
Other sorting suggestions from OpenCritic at this time include whether any loot boxes are exclusively paid, whether the game ever prompts players within the game to buy loot boxes, and the estimated total time it takes to “100 percent” a game with no payment.
Other games tell Forza 7 to hold their loot-box beer
The last metric appears to be a veiled criticism of Middle-earth: Shadow of War, which launches Tuesday, October 10, on Windows PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. Multiple pre-release reviews of the game have confirmed that its “100 percent” completion state is locked behind an end-game mode called Shadow Wars, which hinges largely on players’ ability to recruit “more powerful” allies in the game. To do this, players must use the game’s loot-box recruitment system, and reviews indicate that this is tied to a random number generator. Your probability of unlocking a worthy ally, therefore, goes up as you open more loot boxes. Doing so by simply using in-game credits takes a lot longer than opening up your wallet.
OpenCritic’s page for Shadow of War currently doesn’t mention this, and any game-review sites that weigh games based on numeric scores have to simply factor in a loot-box practice into their final verdict. Shadow of War has reviewed well, in terms of factors like presentation and combat, but many reviews have dedicated full paragraphs to breaking down the game’s loot-box system.
(Ars Technica did not receive a Shadow of War review code during this pre-release review period. Our last communique with the game’s PR handlers ahead of the code-request period hinged on an interview request over the game’s loot box system, which was announced well after hands-on preview events we attended. The game’s reps did not respond to that interview request.)
Star Wars Battlefront II isn’t out yet, but it had its own loot box reveal this past weekend in the form of its multiplayer beta. EA didn’t hide the loot box process in the test period, and it was glaring enough to earn a conspicuous “pay to win” tag from Eurogamer upon review.
In short: every ability, character, and stat-bonus unlock in the multiplayer-focused game can either be randomly unlocked in loot boxes or paid for using in-game credits. (These unlocks exist alongside wholly cosmetic ones, also unlockable via the same loot boxes.) Currently, the in-game credit cost for those gameplay-related unlocks is quite high because those in-game credits only appear when players recycle any duplicate items found in later loot boxes. Meaning, they take quite a while to accumulate.
Various “tiers” of the game’s characters are ultimately determined by how many specific cards for a certain character or class are randomly gifted in loot boxes. In the game’s beta state, this could, for example, swing a damage reduction during the use of a special move from 50 percent to 100 percent.
Since these were impressions of a beta, EA still has time to modify this system, which currently appears to favor luck and real-world payment over player skill in terms of unlock progress.
As more fully priced games experiment with loot boxes—and stick impactful gameplay contents into their randomly generated, costs-real-money boxes—more critics and review outlets will have to figure out how to convey those economies to potential users. For one, loot boxes are both similar to and different from long-standing “paid DLC” add-ons, and the gambling-styled, psychology-preying power of loot boxes may require its own pre-written disclaimer, as opposed to being described at length in every review. (That’s part of why we gave my own rant about Forza 7’s use of “mods,” which had existed in prior Forza games in a different form, its own dedicated article.)
What’s more, many game publishers disable real-world microtransactions during review periods, usually owing to storefronts like Xbox Live and PlayStation Network having the games in question “closed” to the public before their official launch. Aggregators and critics alike will have to be vigilant to update reviews as costs are added (and, after fans complain, hopefully changed).