Welcome to last week’s iteration of Right Click to Zoom, the more in-depth article side of this blog. Today, I’ll be looking at one of the more insidious trends that’s been creeping into video games of late, and explain why you should try to avoid them: loot boxes.
As the years have progressed, the cost of game development has increased dramatically for the top end companies. The quality of sound, music, animation and general graphical fidelity required for a game to keep up with modern technological trends is staggering when you compare what was ground breaking previously, and none of this comes cheap.
Each console generation sees the hardware release at a higher price than the last, and while there’s usually initial grumbling and outcry, it quiets down and is accepted by the time the next one rolls around. Individual new game releases started growing in price over time to match, and while that has since become more constant, publishers are starting to find new ways to get an extra dollar.
There’s a lot of ways this has gone about, and some are considerably less acceptable than others. I personally feel, however, that the loot boxes fad that has started to creep into numerous undeserving games since the success of Overwatch is quite possibly the worst for consumers to be subject to. But why is this? And how are other forms of this more acceptable?
The Internet, DLC and You
The year 2006 saw the release of a little game you might have heard about called The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. As much as the game receives a fair bit of playful mockery for shaky dialogue and ugly character models nowadays, Oblivion was a massive success at the time. What was not as successful was the public reception to one particular system: DLC.
Let’s go back a bit earlier for context. The early years of the new millenium saw the Internet go from relatively niche, to widespread but not powerful, all the way to increasingly available and fast. Trying to download even a single megabyte on a 56k modem could take quite some time, so regular patches to games were once upon a time distributed on discs (if they existed at all). As such, making further additions to already released games was relegated to large content batches in the form of expansion packs and sold as separate pieces of software.
While Oblivion would ultimately get an expansion pack of its own before the end of its lifespan, that was not the first addition that was shown off. Instead, Bethesda produced one of the first noteworthy DLC offerings: Horse Armour. For a nominal fee, you would be able to… well, give your horse armour, as the name suggests.
This announcement was not reacted to well by the general populace. Bethesda was charging for cosmetic upgrades that added almost nothing to the game! Why was this addition not just part of the base game? Shouldn’t it be something you unlock through play, as most cosmetic appearances were at the time? This and many more arguments were made, and the discussion was bandied back and forth across the gaming community.
Whatever the general argument for Oblivion may have stood, history made its choice clear. Fast forward to modern days, where download speeds and sizes are much less of a limiting factor. A game not having some form of DLC is arguably more an exception than the norm in modern times. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a game that is well received to have DLC requested of its developers, just so that there’s more to play.
While a lot of this DLC is still cosmetic or fairly minor, it can also include a wide range of additions to the game’s content. Traditionally sized expansion packs have become increasingly rare, as the availability of smaller pieces of content generally supersedes the need for a larger addition unless the game calls for it.
As a whole, the system generally works. Those who wish to pay extra for more content in a game they like can do so, and while it’s always nicer if optional cosmetics are accessible in the game without payment, it’s up to the player to decide if they want it. There are certainly valid complaints to be made, such as when DLC is included in a game on launch day rather than being part of the package, or if the content has clearly been removed or left unfinished during development solely to resell for extra later.
Overall though, many of the vocal criticisms of DLC have at least quietened down. It’s here to stay, in some form or another. But unfortunately, the gradual acceptance of what was originally seen as a horrible addition to the industry has set a precedent that other devs and publishers are attempting to capitalise on. I can’t completely fault them for this — it’s a business’ job to make money, after all — but the methods in which they are doing so come at the expense of the consumer.