Aesthetics and Loot Box Culture

I am a big fan of unlocking new costumes for my favorite games and characters.  I remember playing Animal Crossing and visiting Tom Nook’s store everyday to take a look at some of the new clothing options that he had available.  In later installments of the series I would visit the Able Sisters and try to create my own patterns, but they were mediocre at best.  Animal Crossing was a special game because everything was about aesthetics, the way your house looked, the way your town appeared, and the way your character dressed.  It seems like game designers have figured out that players love unlocking new skins, and have now tied that idea to monetization and loot boxes.

I know, another article about loot boxes… But I want to analyze the discussion surrounding loot boxes and piece together some of the feelings surrounding the issue.  On yesterday’s podcast, Brian mentioned that he doesn’t mind cosmetics loot boxes in Overwatch, but would prefer a direct way to purchase the skins that he wants.  Ian has also mentioned similar themes throughout the podcasts.  This fellow internet citizen also agrees:

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My argument today is simple, cosmetics do have an impact on game play.  Players do place value, emphasis, and effort on obtaining new cosmetic options for their characters.  As social beings, we want to look good, especially when we know other people will be looking at us.  Nobody was looking at me in Animal Crossing, but I wanted my character and house to look good.  With persistent online worlds, the emphasis on looking good increases infinitely.  You want to wear the coolest skin to impress your friends and players that you are matched against online.

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Everyone wanted the Modern Set

In years past, video games relied on aesthetically pleasing items to enhance progression.  As you level up throughout The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, you get better and cooler looking weapons and armor. In South Park: The Fractured But Whole, you begin wearing some boring shirt and pants, but could end the game with crab claws, a pompadour, and a mad scientist cloak.  Most role playing games also offer this type of progression.

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Sweet costume bro

Overwatch is similar.  Progression is measured by the number of costumes that you have unlocked. Except the progression system is limited by the random nature of loot boxes.  Every time you level up, you receive a loot box which could contain a costume for your favorite character or a load of garbage.  I could play 100 games as my favorite character in Overwatch (Bastion) and not unlock a single costume or skin for that character.  Meanwhile another player could play 50 games as Mercy and unlock 5 different costumes for her.

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Nice Bastion skin

Even popular sequels to games are shifting the focus on cosmetic pieces of gear. In Destiny 1 cosmetics, such as shaders, ships, and sparrows, were unlocked through raids and endgame content.  In Destiny 2, those same cosmetics were locked behind the Eververse and Bright Engrams (loot boxes).

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I do not have a problem with randomization within in games.  The wares available in Animal Crossing were randomly generated everyday.  When discussing Diablo in his book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, Jason Schreier writes “every time you played [Diablo], you’d have a different experience.  There was something naturally addicting about finding a new item and hitting ‘identify,’ knowing you could wind up with pretty much anything.” (2017, pg 101).

However, game studios are now purposefully designing bad systems and mechanics, hoping that people will be willing to pay to get past poorly made parts of the service.  In an average 1-2 hour play session of Overwatch, you might unlock a single loot box.  Unlocking loot boxes is tedious, and as you increase in level the interval between loot boxes increases.  Destiny offers an experience level modifier that decreases the amount of experience you earn the longer you play.  And someone on the internet calculated that it would take 4,500 hours to unlock everything within Star Wars: Battlefront II.

These systems are tedious and designed to exploit players.  Opening loot boxes is fun, unlocking new costumes and cosmetic collectibles is valuable.  But the systems behind them drive players towards paying real money for digital goods that are already in the game.

Animal Crossing would not be fun if it contained loot boxes paid for with real money.  That aesthetic pleasure would be soiled if real money exchange was involved.  Maybe you think that loot boxes are okay as long as they are cosmetic.  Or it is okay to sell loot boxes in your favorite game as long as they don’t impact gameplay.  I believe that cosmetics are an important part of gameplay, because they help measure progression. But by locking them behind random loot boxes, developers are taking away the ability for players to experience fun progression unless they are willing to pay extra for something that is already in the game.

One comment on Kotaku.com read:

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In the end, even if loot boxes begin as cosmetic only, you can bet that game designers will find a way to sweeten the pot eventually.

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Next time you are playing your favorite game with loot boxes, consider how important the aesthetics are to you.  Do you care what your character looks like?  If so, understand that the best looking pieces of gear are probably hidden inside a loot box.  And the only way to increase your odds of getting the item you want is to pay extra.

Jake

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