Thanks to the recent envelope-pushing efforts of Star Wars: Battlefront II and Middle Earth: Shadow of War, loot boxes are finally getting the level of heat they deserve. Most of the conversation so far has been centered upon their parallels to gambling and how the games employing them keep toeing that pay-to-win line. They’re important conversations to have, but they’re not the only ones. These manipulative RNG events we call loot boxes are only the latest, most effective, evolution of random loot; something that’s been steadily worming its way into the heart of multiplayer gaming for years now. I’ve touched on its influence on the games it comes in contact with before, but it’s also important to recognize how random loot is slowly twisting us too. It’s warped our expectations and contorted our motivations into almost unrecognizable states. The scariest part is that, like a goomba taken-over by Cappy, we didn’t even notice it was happening.
It’s frightening just how quickly we’ve grown accustomed to random loot as a means of progression. It’s been around in one form or another since the early days of MMORPGs, but it didn’t become the driving force of a mainstream multiplayer shooter until the launch of Destiny in 2014. In a nutshell, the entire game revolved around acquiring loot. Of course, the vast majority of that loot was awarded on a random basis so those seeking something specific often had to wade through quite a bit of grind before they got it, if they even got it at all. Destiny demanded a large time investment for its rewards, thereby ensuring said rewards would almost always be at the center of the game’s relationship with its players. This would cause Destiny trouble for its entire lifespan though as fan outrage would erupt whenever the loot pool grew stale. The actual fun-factor of the content and gameplay did not matter. This was Destiny and in Destiny, obtaining loot was (and still is) all-important. Perhaps that’s okay for an entirely loot-based shooter, but what about games that should whose cores are not comprised of random loot?
The next mainstream multiplayer game to jump into the random loot pool was Halo 5: Guardians in October of 2017. Instead of Halo’s traditional conventions of progression, players were beaten over the head with the game’s new “REQ” system. It warped the game’s multiplayer, and shifted its players’ motivations from enjoying a fun sci-fi shooter to the efficient accumulation of random loot. Just over six months later, Overwatch launched with its flashy take on MOBA-style gameplay and its progression system based entirely around random loot boxes. Instead of allowing or even supporting their natural motivation of simply enjoying and becoming better at it, Overwatch’s players had yet another game telling them their focus should instead be on acquiring more random loot. Both of these games, among many others, push the idea that acquiring random loot, that being tangibly rewarded, is the most important part of playing them and they absolutely want their players to think the same way. It’s in their best and most lucrative interest after all.
It’s critical that we, as gamers, fight back against this conditioning. The first step to doing so is remembering that this is absolutely not how games, multiplayer games especially, used to be. It was only one generation ago that players were still motivated by their own goals and love for their games rather than manufactured avarice.The games were even designed to support such reasons. They offered fully featured experiences with multiple distinct modes of play that enabled players to find and define their own niches that would help them excel. Online ranks were permanent badges of honor rather than monthly ratings devoid of any long-term meaning. Cosmetics and other true unlockables were earned through dedicated effort, not won with a virtual roll of the dice. They not only respected the time and energy of their players, but also worked with them to maximize our fun. We were free to enjoy them for what they were: fun games with satisfying depth and little bonuses to work towards if we so desired.
So please, take a moment to think back. Think back to why it was fun to play online in the first place. Think back to what their focus was, what your focus was. Wasn’t it because playing the games was fun in and of itself? Wasn’t it because they had depth, had variety, supported multiple distinct styles of play and yes, even featured little extras to strive for? Sure, the multiplayer games of the past weren’t perfect, but they treated their players as valued and intelligent guests whose time was precious, not simple-minded cash cows to be manipulated and milked. Can any modern, random loot-laden, multiplayer game honestly make the same claim?
Random loot has not only infected our games, but us as well. Our expectations for our games and our motivations for playing them are slowly being corrupted into something more easily appeased and exploited. The industry is currently feeling the heat for this right now, but only because a couple of developers/publishers pushed it just a little bit too far. They’ll backpedal just enough to make this heat die down and will try again if we let them. We don’t have to let them, though. We just need to remember that multiplayer games used to offer so much more than shallow experiences and virtual slot machines. Remember that, refuse to be further manipulated and be willing to push back against even the smallest of their attempts to try it again, even if it means sitting out of games that otherwise look good. Just because AAA development has become more expensive doesn’t mean we have to shoulder the whole burden let ourselves be compromised.