To sum up gaming journalism in 2017, the words on everyone’s lips were ‘loot boxes’.
These ‘lucky dips’ were previously found mostly in online or mobile games, so when the single-player blockbuster Middle Earth: Shadow of War joined the party – the internet was up in arms. Accusations ran rampant of unethical and exploitative game design: these items enhanced power instead of aesthetic and a conspicuous amount of grinding was required to get achieve the ‘true ending’. The community felt this structure was intended to funnel players towards these purchases, with a complete storytelling experience being the carrot on the stick.
Only a few months later in the year, in came the infamous Star Wars Battlefront II fiasco. This same loot box mechanic was used in online multiplayer and created a literal pay-to-win environment to which children had direct access. The broad issue was not just that loot boxes prey upon gambling tendencies with undisclosed drop rates, but that the items were no longer ‘just cosmetic’ and were actively advertised to other players mid-battle.
Most recently, MMO-shooter Destiny 2 stole the spotlight for a variety of mechanics that were similarly accused of manipulating players into purchasing more content than they actually want. In 2018 loot boxes appear to be on the way out, but the challenge for consumers will be recognising alternative methods developers can and have used to achieve the same ends. While DLC isn’t inherently evil, there are more methods than loot boxes that can make it exploitative. Nintendo is one example of a company who despite not yet using loot boxes in console games, has still benefited from some questionable practices.
Fire Emblem Fates
2013’s Fire Emblem Awakening was the first 3DS game to use DLC, but its sequel Fates took things to the next level by seperating its plot into 3 paths. As per the Pokemon method, two of these story paths were sold at retail as entirely separate games. This was excusable when considering that these games only overlap for the first quarter of playtime, later branching out into entirely separate storylines as extensive as any other Fire Emblem game.
The problem here stems from the third pathway, marketed at release as the ‘true ending’. This game was not available at retail, nor even as a standalone download – you would need to have purchased one of the above two games, or the $119.95 (AUD) collectors edition containing all three pathways. While this all amounts to alot of content, the argument stands that you’re effectively forced to buy a ‘what-if’ scenario before being able to buy the actual canon story of the game. It’s not loot boxes, but players were still goaded through paywalls to access what most actually wanted: a definitive ending.
Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon
Directors cut editions of games are nothing new: year on and year out developers repackage games to include all DLC released in that calendar year. The difference with Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon is that all the bonus features added to 2016’s Sun and Moon are tied exclusively to buying these full re-releases at $59.95 (AUD). Want to buy the handful of new Pokemon added but don’t care about the Battle Agency? Bad luck – you’re required to repurchase the same game you already own in order to access this.
It’s a model Nintendo had gotten away with for years with Pokemon prior to the rise of DLC. In fact, they seemed to be moving away with this when Pokemon Black 2 and White 2 launched back in 2012 – taking the directors cut model into more ‘sequel’ territory. However it’s undeniable that Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are the same experience as Sun and Moon with a series of minor enhancements. In 2018 it seems backwards and exploitative to not have an ‘upgrade’ option available to those who already own these base games.
While season passes are usually a discounted deal to ensure you get all content added to a game in a set period, Nintendo has a rather unique route of doing it. Arguably the biggest Switch release, Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s DLC came clustered in two separate waves. The problem is that these waves were never made available seperately – it’s season pass or bust. For those wanting the motorbike and story pack but less concerned with the Trial of the Sword, the only option is to pay for all of it anyway. It’s a similar practice being seen in games Nintendo has less control over that fall under their licenses – such as Pokken Tournament DX and Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. As with the above cases, there’s no accident in this choice of sale method – the hope is that players interested in one part of the bundle will take it all instead.
The above three cases are only a few examples from just one company. The idea here is that loot boxes were not the first and won’t be the last method of selling us content we may not actually want. Although there isn’t the same gambling connection, it’s something we should be paying attention to in 2018 as developers reshape their business models after 2017’s loot box apocalypse.