Loot Boxes

Shoryuken.com asked me about loot boxes and published this article.

For anyone wanting more context, here is the complete set of questions they had about loot boxes in Fantasy Strike and beyond, and the answers I provided:

SRK Questions

  • Any idea when this feature will be implemented?
  • What can players expect to find? Costumes and cosmetics, right? Will there be more rare ones than others? Will there be things like victory poses, emotes, etc. ?
  • Anything that affects gameplay? Or any other effects such as XP boosts? For example, a boost for Arena Runs?
  • Will there be an option to use money to buy more loot boxes?
  • There's a lot of controversy lately in the games industry when it comes to the philosophy behind loot boxes. What are the thoughts on the ongoing discussions and will Fantasy Strike have any specific strategies to not alienate gamers?

Sirlin's Response

It’s unlikely that Fantasy Strike will have loot boxes simply because we now lack the budget to properly implement the feature and all the associated content. But to answer your questions…

Loot boxes were the plan since as long as I can remember. Our site went public in November 2016 and had all the same info then as it does now.

Loot boxes were to be ONLY cosmetic. Period. Costume colors, alternate animations for non-gameplay stuff like victory poses, etc. No gameplay-affecting things.

There has been controversy of loot boxes lately, yes. There is a wide range of implementation about what “loot box” means. I’d like to make it clear that at no point ever, not even for one millisecond, were we ever planning to implement any kind of pay-to-win thing. In my opinion, any supposedly competitive game that allows players to pay for power or grind for power is doing a great disservice to fairness in competition, which I think is an important value. I don’t play or support any such games. To me, THAT is what the real controversy should be, as it includes business models from big games out there, often not even using loot boxes, that ruin the concept of an even playfield in competition.

Back to loot boxes, we were planning (but may now not be able to implement) them in the vein of Overwatch. That is, cosmetic only, players would get them for free over time or could pay for me. It’s not like Overwatch invented this idea, but it’s a high profile example, and one I followed very closely. Blizzard also makes Heroes of the Storm, a game that sold cosmetics directly, often for $10 each (I’m aware they switched to the Overwatch system now). I wondered, at the time, what the player reaction would be to Overwatch’s different system. So I read everything I could from players. And I do mean quite literally that I read multiple thousands of comments directly from players. Every thread on every gaming site I could find, even some hundreds of pages long.

The reaction was quite clear. I found something like 3 posts that were upset, in total. And thousands all in favor. It really was that overwhelmingly one-sided. The reason is simple: in the Heroes of the Storm way, most players felt like they’d simply never own any of those cosmetics. In the Overwatch lootbox way, players get stuff for free. And they really really like that. Not only that, but they have the potential to get any (and all) of those cosmetics for free, meaning that there isn’t any class of items withheld from the boxes. So this is the spirit we were operating in, with our plans. The thing where we get to give away stuff for free and make a large number of people happy.

The positives don’t stop there. Another thing true of Overwatch’s system, which is like 100x more true for us than them, is that this ongoing revenue stream is something that raises all boats for the playerbase. Every player benefits because the ongoing revenue stream allows the developer to pay for continued development, more free features and free gameplay content for ALL players. In Overwatch’s case, it means you know that new characters, maps, and game modes can be released for free, and they have been. I think it’s incredible (in a good way!) that they were able to give all players access to all characters, even new characters, without having anyone pay for an expansion or pay for each new character. It’s a case where the theory really did work out in practice, in that everyone benefited by getting free gameplay-content in addition to the part where they got some free cosmetics too.

I said the above would be much more true for us than Blizzard. I don’t mean that Blizzard is somehow lying about the money involved. All I mean is that Overwatch in particular happened to be so wildly successful (half a billion dollars in revenue? Or a full billion by now?) that they could in theory decide to fund continued development anyway. Now, they might decide to really scale back on that if they didn’t have the ongoing revenue, but that’s a choice that would be up to them. It’s not a choice that’s up to us though. If we don’t have continued revenue from something like loot boxes, there is no way in the world we, as a struggling indie, can continue to pay for our team to develop new free gameplay for everyone. Like any normal company, we’d have to choose between no further content, or paid gameplay content.

I’ve mentioned the ways in which loot boxes are actually good for players (free cosmetics, and free gameplay stuff too for everyone) and developers (can afford to continue development of free stuff for everyone). The recent controversy of it wall was sparked by much worse business practices than this. The whole thing about $80 for a Star Wars game then you still have to grind 40 hours to get Darth Vader really made everyone mad, and rightfully so. And let’s imagine that this made lots of ongoing revenue for EA. Does anyone really believe that the result is going to be a bunch of free gameplay content like new characters and maps, the way Blizzard would do it? I don’t think so. That sounds very not-EA to me. I don’t have much specific insight into this situation with EA games, but my sense of it, and probably the sense of most gamers on the internet, is that EA really wants to stick it to you the maximum amount, period.

I think that even though both examples I’ve talked about are “loot boxes,” that there are really opposite mentalities behind them. One that is very much trying to help players. To give them some free cosmetics instead of none. And more importantly, to fund free gameplay content. Overwatch releases new characters that are completely free. As in, you instantly get them, no paying or grinding is involved. Can you imagine if Street Fighter did that? Or if Fantasy Strike did?

The opposite mentality is this kind of thing basically used for evil. I’ll ask again, “Can you imagine” if EA used the money raised from loot boxes to put out new free content like a new character? The notion is laughable--I’m actually laughing right now just thinking about it--because they already went as far as possible from making Darth Vader free. I think gamers really *get* that. They get that there’s something really cynical, cash-grabby, and directly contrary to their interests going on there. Yeah that’s probably true in EA’s case. But I think Overwatch has shown that a non-evil implementation is a huge boon for players. And that’s the type of thinking we had when considering loot boxes--the intention of using that revenue to fund further gameplay development that ALL our players would benefit from.