Sunday, June 5, 2016

Microtransactions: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Loathe the Gamble Box

Source: Blizzard Entertainment
Overwatch, Blizzard's latest game, has been out for nearly two weeks and it has filled up a considerable amount of my free time so far. The game is a fast-paced fusion of a MOBA (DOTA 2/League of Legends) and a class-based team shooter (Team Fortress 2). I'm a big fan of both genres so a fusion has felt perfectly natural. On the whole, Overwatch is my kind of game and I'd grade it highly if I was the type to rate game.

Unfortunately, no game is without its flaws.

Source: Blizzard Entertainment
Overwatch's progression system is entirely aesthetic and based upon so-called "loot boxes" or, as I prefer to call them, gamble boxes. The game rewards the player with a loot box every time they level up. Each box contains four random items that range from legendary skins that redesign the character, sprays, voice lines, emotes, and more.

The standard method of progression in Overwatch feels fine. I've accumulated approximately 1/5th of the items available in the game just through play. I have cool skins and fun poses for my favorite characters.

The problem with Overwatch's progression system arises because players are allowed to purchase loot boxes with real world currency. These purchasable boxes are identical to the boxes players receive for leveling up and, at their best value option, are priced at 80 cents a box.

Overwatch is a buy-to-play AAA game coming in at $40 on PC and $60 on consoles. It is not an unusually cheap or free game that needs to supplement its earnings via microtransactions. The game has already had over 7 million unique players (Polygon) and is, by all reasonable estimates, wildly successful. Not a terrible surprise given that it's a Blizzard game: Diablo 3 was one of the best selling PC games of all time despite its rocky start (Wikipedia). Still, despite the fact that Overwatch is very likely going to be a huge success with or without microtransactions, maybe they just want more money - they are a business after all.

All that said, what's the actual problem with having loot boxes?

Source: Telltale Games
Well, there are a lot of potential problems with microtransactions (Gamasutra), but Overwatch dodges the supremacy problem by making it so the items in loot boxes offer no gameplay benefit. Beyond that, there is no trading system in Overwatch so getting exceptionally lucky doesn't offer players real world benefit (except personal satisfaction).

The real problem is having a system in place that can take players' real world money in exchange for random virtual goods. Some might call this a form of gambling or, perhaps more aptly, worthless gambling. The upside is purely psychological. Mike Rose wrote an excellent article about how a gambling addiction can manifest through video game microtransactions (Gamasutra).

Source: Rockstar Games
Overwatch hardly deserves all of the blame for the surge of microtransactions in video games over the past few years. Microtransactions got huge thanks to mobile gaming and naturally leaked over into traditional gaming platforms. Just last year there was a brief controversy when Rockstar Games had a "sale" on GTA V that was, in essence, just the game at the standard $60 price with a bonus free microtransaction package thrown in (Rock Paper Shotgun).

Source: ArenaNet
Overwatch isn't the first game to feature gamble boxes or even the first big, AAA game to have them. Mike Rose's article focuses in on Team Fortress 2's loot crates. ArenaNet's Guild Wars 2 has been primarily fueled by box sales and microtransactions involving gamble boxes. Carbine Studios' WildStar was recently turned into a free-to-play game and received a system that is, at the end of the day, just a convoluted gamble box.

My main issue with gamble boxes is one of ethics. Seemingly no matter what the boxes offer there will always be some percentage of the playerbase that gets trapped by the thrill of buying and opening far too many of them. Gambling laws exist for a good reason. Buying a bunch of gamble boxes in Overwatch or whichever game isn't precisely the same as sitting down at a table in Vegas and blowing your week's earnings on blackjack, but there are some alarming similarities. The idea of witnessing the success of other players and receiving societal pressure to keep pressing your luck rings true through both real world gambling and gamble boxes.

Addiction is a real thing and it can take many forms. Video game addiction has been a continuous discussion since they first hit the mainstream. However, the idea of becoming addicted to something else within a video game besides the game itself is relatively new. It's also a dangerous territory: players getting addicted to gamble boxes are players getting addicted to microtransactions which are, in turn, feeding directly into the game company's bottom line. Put another way, it's a good thing for developers and publishers alike to have addicts playing their games.

For my money, the inclusion of gamble boxes that can be purchased with real world currency in video games is a line that should probably not be crossed. If it is, it should only be done with serious ethical consideration.

Thousands of keys to boxes and gamble boxes change hands every day on the Steam Community Market.
Any real problem worth considering has multiple sides to it. It would be easy to just cry ethics and tear down big game companies as heartless corporations, but that's not particularly fair. Video game prices have gone down over time and development costs have skyrocketed (Ars Technica). Of course, more people buy games now than they used to which helps mitigate some of the burden. Still, it seems inevitable that the price of games would either need to go up or creators would have to find news way to extract revenue from them. Microtransactions have proven to be their answer of choice.

Microtransactions are indeed the answer, at least for now, but not all microtransactions have to be gamble boxes. In fact, none of them have to be. Microtransactions can take many forms from League of Legends' champion skins to Oblivion's horse armor to GTA Online cash.

Source: Blizzard Entertainment
Blizzard's own Heroes of the Storm circumvents gamble boxes by just letting players purchase skins and other cosmetic items directly. Why doesn't Overwatch operate like this? Two different reasons seem likely: one is the idea of that randomness is good for the bottom line and the other is that Blizzard likes to experiment with different ways to make money.

The idea is that someone who really wants a skin in a game like Overwatch will likely want to buy a lot of boxes. Roughly 10% of boxes in Overwatch contain a legendary skin and that's likely what most players really want. However, the odds of getting a specific legendary are considerably lower given that there are 21 heroes and each hero has 4 legendary skins. A player seeking a specific Legendary will have to get quite lucky, purchase or earn dozens or even hundreds of boxes, or wait until they accumulate 1000 in-game currency (it takes a bit: I've earned approximately ~1500 in-game currency in 2 weeks with a lot of play time).

What it really comes down to is that the average value of an Overwatch legendary skin is likely much higher than the $5-10 they could get away with charging for them if they sold them directly. This idea is an important part of why gamble boxes work as microtransactions at all. Each box is worth less than an individual item would be, but players are hunting specific items that take a considerable amount of time to get.

The same principle is used in Team Fortress 2, but taken to the next extreme. Players can purchase specific skins directly from Valve for $5-10, but "cool" things like Strange and Unusual items can never be purchased directly and require spinning the wheel of the gamble box.

Here's the step-by-step:

  1. Games probably don't cost enough to justify their enormous budget today and directly increasing the price of the game is likely to incite potential customers
  2. Developers and publishers come up with plans to use microtransactions to offset costs and make money 
  3. They want to maximize their bottom line and so use gamble boxes as their microtransaction of choice
This is a logical chain from a business perspective, but it is certainly an unfortunate one for those among us who have addictive personalities. I don't have a good solution and I'm not going to offer one. It seems simple to just say "ban gamble boxes", but the logistics behind that are complex and is it actually fair for games that already rely upon gamble boxes to be forced into submitting to new laws? 

If this ethical quandary is going to be solved, customers are most likely going to foot the bill: higher game prices, more microtransactions, or some new method. But, despite that, the existence of gamble boxes and the potential psychological threat they pose is still an issue that demands our attention as both creators and consumers.

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