Posted on 25 Nov 2017 by Jay Shaw

Jay Talks: Loot Boxes and Assorted Industry BS

Disclaimer: This is my personal opinion, it will be a rant. There will be swearing and I will say things that will offend. If you don’t like that idea, don’t read it. It doesn’t necessarily reflect the standpoint of Pixel Judge as an entity and doesn’t impact our impartial coverage.

Loot boxes have recently become a big topic for a lot of people and it feels like everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. I had the idea to write about them around the time it was revealed they would be in Middle Earth: Shadow Of War but I held off because I wasn’t convinced the issue would escalate further – poor naïve me thought that the furore directed at Warner Bros would be a red flag and klaxon to the industry as a whole and loot boxes and predatory practices would slink back off to the dark side of the mobile games industry where we can pretend they don’t exist.

As the past month has passed it’s become glaringly obvious that the issue isn’t going away and isn’t going to get any better any time soon. I’ve always been very wary of the manipulative tactics used by companies that employ loot boxes and have never bought a single one because I personally don’t want to encourage that brand of bullshit from developers and publishers. At this point it’s getting out of hand and I feel like I can’t sit back and not speak my mind; this is an issue that affects everyone and everyone should stand up, raise their voice, and demand to be heard.

The earliest game I can remember having loot boxes was Team Fortress 2, when they were introduced Valve was still the industry golden boy and could do no wrong and I’m sure a minority spoke up but the rest of us, myself included, gave a collective shrug and decided that if we didn’t buy them it didn’t really bother us because we didn’t really understand the implications. Looking back now, Team Fortress 2‘s loot boxes are nothing different to the predatory nonsense we’re seeing from publishers like EA in recent weeks. You know what – I could analyse our ignorance a decade ago but it’s a moot point, we were young and dumb and we laid the foundations for our own fuckery factory. All the signs of psychological manipulation were there – boxes that dropped at random and keys that had to be bought, seeing other players running around with cool new items that often have special abilities to amp up the jealousy aspect and manipulate you into wanting those keys.

Also from Valve and Perfect World, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive jumped on the loot box bandwagon and promptly spawned one of the scummiest sub-divisions of the gaming industry that I’ve ever seen: gambling with skins. Some users crunched the numbers and calculated the odds on these from only a couple of months ago which is a part of what fuels the gambling industry – rarity equals value, which in place of an actual monetary value is what allows these sites, and more modern loot box infested games, to skirt around gambling laws the world over. Remember when these unrepentant ringworms were outed promoting their own gambling site? I do and it brings me a little tingle of joy in my happy place to know… No, I can’t say that with a straight face, they got their fifteen minutes of infamy and Valve promptly decided to not take a stand and unblocked them from their URL blocking service because taking a moral stand isn’t in the company’s interests when they’re making money hand over fist from the exploitation of children. I’m not even going to go into DOTA 2 because none of us have all day and I’ll run out of swear words before we even finish with Valve if I do.

According to Google, at least one person fell for their manipulation.

This brings us quite nicely to more recent loot box events – like some kind of Matryoshka doll where each layer somehow packs in exponentially more bullshit. The explosion of microtransactions has jumped the air-gap between the free to play mobile industry and has infected mainstream, full price gaming with the most virulent strain of fuckery known to man. This is the kind of fuckery so potent Kim Jong Un would pack it in a missile and shoot it right up his own arse to gain superpowers. It’s a festering, pus filled pit of manipulation and despair with no currently known bottom; and don’t be mistaken, publishers are digging, they’re blasting and strip mining and all the heavy earth moving machinery in the world wouldn’t be able to match their pace in the race to the bottom. They’ll dig until the floor falls out from under them and then turn right the fuck around and ream the fresh gaping hole with their flaccid, dollar bill wrapped dicks because the carcass of a once beloved industry doesn’t yet smell like their own foetid cum.

Make no mistake: this is nothing but pure greed. Let’s take a step back from being righteously incensed and be rational. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a company wanting to make money, ever since the invention of trade individuals and companies have tried to turn a profit. I want to repeat this because it’s important: there is nothing wrong with a company or individual making profit. Unfortunately for the purposes of our argument there’s a fine line between profit and greed; is it okay to add a 100% markup to an item in a shop? 400% if it’s the last one left? Different people will, naturally, have wildly different opinions on this practice and it’s such a complicated topic that we can’t really definitively say “this is fine, but this isn’t” with any kind of authority. Keep that in mind, I’d rather everyone draw their own line than to try and define one myself, make your own opinions.

With that said, we’re going to go back to greed. For years we’ve not had an issue with loot boxes in free to play games and though I personally hate the random aspect of them, it’s only fair that a company be compensated for their work and selling microtransactions or loot boxes or whatever they want to call them is a valid way of keeping the lights on and their people employed. The issue arises when developers and – let me stress this – publishers decide that they want more out of their already paying customers. Companies like EA, Ubisoft, and Warner Bros like to make the excuse that videogames are expensive to make, that the £40, £50, £60, whatever, entrance fee isn’t enough to cover their costs.

For a moment let’s believe that’s true. They’re trying to say they’re long-standing companies working in a growing industry where the cost of their products doesn’t cover the costs of making it. If that’s really the case then how are they still in business? How have their shareholders, partners, etc. not stepped in and called a vote of no confidence on those currently running the companies? How, for thirty-odd years before the advent of DLC and microtransactions, have these companies continued to operate in profit? How do they keep opening new offices and buying new studios (often just to gut them like a hunter coring a deer) without any money? Are the shareholders constantly buying more shares in a company that’s not turning a profit? Are investors shovelling money into what amounts to a financial funeral pyre? Are they all secretly backed by the mafia?

No, of course not, because like that last hypothetical question it’s absurd. Of course they’re making money hand over fist. If you don’t believe me, go take a look at EA, or Ubisoft‘s earning reports presented to investors each quarter. If you need a report that’s easier to digest check out this most recent report. They missed their projections but that’s $1.18 BILLION in revenue. It doesn’t matter what business you’re in, that is a Scrooge McDuck amount of money and yet, sadly not enough to choke these cockroaches with. The stock market and investments are pretty much purely motivated by profit and greed (again, that important distinction) which leads to companies having to answer to their shareholders every quarter, kowtowing to the already rich for fear that they’ll sell their stocks and tank their precious NASDAQ rating.

These people don’t care about the state of the industry. They’re out to line their own pockets by as large a margin as possible and will happily buttfuck an entire industry into an unrecognisable hellscape to do it. Don’t believe me? Just look at every single major release this season – Assassin’s Creed Origins, Call Of Duty WW2, Middle Earth Shadow Of War, Guild Wars 2 Path Of Fire. The list goes on and reads like a shit-caked strip of toilet paper stuck to the shoe of the industry as it leaves the disgusting out-house we helped build. Yes, we, the consumers – this is just as much our fault as it is the companies. Give any of these vulturine arseholes an inch and they’ll take a mile. Well I’ve got news for you, for years we’ve been giving them acres, we’ve given them so much leeway and second chances that land measurements no longer adequately describe the amount of piss they’ve taken right into our eager, gargling mouths.

Yes, those numbers are in millions of dollars.

For years those of us who have had enough of this bullshit have been calling for people to “vote with their wallets.” Don’t buy a company’s product and they’ll get the message that we’re not putting up with it. I’ve got sad news for you; it doesn’t work. There’s enough ignorant consumers out there that even if everyone who read the words “vote with your wallet” didn’t buy these pathetic excuses for games then it’d still be a tiny, tiny dent in the profits. We’re a gnat on the windscreen of big business, hit by a speeding 18-wheeler hauling an empty container of fucks. So should we give up? No. As the recent Star Wars Battlefront 2 debacle has proven fake internet points apparently speak louder than money.

Did we win? No, we most definitely did not. EA lowered the costs of the locked heroes but pay-to-win loot boxes are still in the game, they’re still exploitative, and EA still proved they deserve our scorn by trying to continue to manipulate their customers. They say the credits you earn for finishing Battlefront 2‘s campaign is meant to be enough to unlock Iden (the story’s protagonist) in multiplayer. But those credits are given to you in a unique loot box and can be “wasted” on something else. Why not just give us Iden for finishing the story? Why even lock your game’s main character anyway? Perhaps I’m being too cynical but it feels like this is an empty conflict being fought on an empty field between blind and toothless idiots who don’t even know which side they’re on. I’m happy, overjoyed even, that this shit is blowing up in their faces at last but we’ve had plenty of situations in the past to stand the fuck up and be heard and we’ve stuck our heads in the sand.

While we’re in the middle of writing this they also did a Reddit AMA and only answered the softball questions, much to the dismay of anyone thinking DICE and EA were actually going to stop cock slapping us with their mouldy man-meat for five minutes. But wait, what’s this new development? Do they expect us to believe they developed a game like this in an echo chamber? Did not a single person working on this gigantic multi-million dollar project? Did the designers, play-testers, or anyone who doesn’t own a Jaguar or Porche ever say “hey, this is a pay to win system that people hate.” Sadly this isn’t the first time the boundaries have been pushed and there’s not been enough kickback to delay the inevitable gross violation of our hobby. Remember when live, updated advertisements started popping up on in-game billboards? Remember when that was bullshit that free to play mobile games did? Pepperidge Farm remembers. Particularly sickening about this latest move from EA is that it seems to be working – early responses seem to be that people are backing down from their anger and happily gobbling up the big steaming bowl of cougar jizz they’re being handed. It’s the circle of life.

Personally; I’m done with this cycle of manipulation, betrayal, and inevitable forgiveness because it’s an endless, vicious loop that only serves to help bore that hole I talked about earlier. Boycotting one game or one feature isn’t enough. We need to boycott whole publishers and hard – we need to say “no more” and mean it. No more buying from a company that releases consistently sub-par and broken ports. No more forgiveness for those unpatched travesties. Stop blindly defending those who would happily fleece you for your coat in the arctic if they thought someone else would buy it because, despite their inane bleating, they sure as hell don’t give a single solitary shit about you, your enjoyment of the game, or the integrity of their products.

Only a small slice of the shit pie that is the full statement.

And while we’ve got Overwatch directly in our sights, let’s call out the rest of their recent hypocrisy. How about the fact that their mouthpiece pretty much admitted it’s an environment that doesn’t even give a shit about their developers or families?

Since the day we have launched, we’ve only increased our efforts and dedication. Overwatch is a 24/7, 365 days a year affair for us. Overwatch doesn’t stop because it’s 5 o’clock on a Friday evening. Overwatch doesn’t stop because it’s our kids’ birthday.”

That’s Jeff Kaplan on their official forums, supposedly reinforcing their commitment to their product but it reads more like a cry for help. By the way, this is the official forums that they’re apparently too busy pissing their pants in fear to use:

And if you’ll allow me to speak openly for a moment — it’s scary. Overall, the community is awesome to us. But there are some pretty mean people out there. All of our developers are free to post on these forums. Very few of us actually do because it’s extremely intimidating and/or time consuming. It’s very easy to post the wrong thing and make a “promise” to the community that no one intended to make. Once we say we’re working on something, we’re not allowed to “take it back”. It’s set in stone.”

No wonder these companies aren’t turning a profit on their full-price sales. They’re too busy buying wipes to mop up all the liquid bullshit constantly spraying out of every orifice. Ride that fart rocket to the moon, because in the vacuum of space you can’t hear us laughing and maybe the Clangers will be gullible enough to keep falling for your constant and blatant horse shit. So in closing on Overwatch – no I don’t think you should be excluded from the new loot box maelstrom. Yes, you are the closest to doing loot boxes properly, but they’re still loot boxes and they’re still terrible and you should be ashamed of yourselves for gnawing at jealousy and addictive/completionist tendencies with a real money component. This isn’t a game of black and white, just because your system is a slightly lighter shade of stain doesn’t make you in the right. Ryuuga wagateki go-fuck-yourselves.

As we’ve previously discussed; loot boxes and their ilk have been accepted in the free to play sphere for years because that’s just what you do with those games. I don’t agree with that sentiment. Neither did Phoenix Labs, developers of Dauntless. Their game is still in development and when they added loot boxes years ago they didn’t give it any thought because that’s a “de facto choice” for a free to play game. Recently however, when this whole clusterfuck was just starting to detonate, Phoenix Labs removed loot boxes from their free to play game. Yes, you read that right; a company in the gaming industry has done something right. Admittedly their game was barely on my radar, but I will absolutely give these guys some money down the line because it’s not just about punishing the wicked but also rewarding the worthy. This is my personal endorsement (not for the game because I haven’t played it) for a good deed well done. Thank you Phoenix Labs for taking that first brave step and putting your customers first.

Feel free to put the sad trombone sound on repeat for eternity.

Three and a half pages and we still haven’t gotten to the core of the issue yet. Why are loot boxes such a bad thing? Time to get our educating hats on and break open a dictionary to define one of the core arguments at the centre of the issue: are loot boxes gambling? Let’s start with “gambling” what does it mean? If you were brave enough to click that last link to you can skip the next few words, well done:

1. the activity or practice of playing at a game of chance for money or other stakes.

2. the act or practice of risking the loss of something important by taking a chance or acting recklessly”

Well fuck me gently with a pool noodle. I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if that doesn’t sound familiar to the subject at hand. Another definition, from that same page, is “a venture in a game of chance for stakes. It’s at this point that it’s important to point out that the dictionary definition of gambling and the legal definition are entirely different beasts. Thanks to the UK Gambling Commission we’ve got the layman’s legal definition and here’s where we can start to see how these loot boxes are skirting the law thanks to a grey area that simply wasn’t provisioned for in 2005 because the world was a better place 12 years ago – ask your parents, there were hills of gold and unicorns gambolled playfully through fields free of worry. Wait, no, that’s my internal happy place. Anyway…

Laws vary from place to place but basically the issue is that we’re giving away our money for what amounts to a spin of an invisible slot machine. There’s no monetary value to any of the “prizes” and no way of not getting “something” back so technically it’s not gambling in the eyes of the law. The UK Gambling Commission even weighed in on this thanks to an online petition. You can read their response here and a PDF going into further detail here. The pertinent bit we’re looking for is this:

Where in-game items can be traded or exchanged for money or money’s worth outside a video game, they acquire a monetary value and are themselves considered money or money’s worth.”

Ram another pool noodle in there, sideways this time, because that’s legalese for “you can’t trade them so they have no value.” Oh snap! That’s the UK Gambling Commission saying two things; that in-game items that can’t be traded have no monetary value, and by extension, in-game items have no value. From our perspective that’s the kind of eloquent hammer blow we wish we’d delivered ourselves. Sadly it also means that because these items are worthless, the law doesn’t apply. When you buy a loot box or in-game item for real money you are literally giving away money for nothing. It’s basically a donation – for lack of a better word that isn’t “highway robbery”.

A couple of points down in that PDF we’ve also got this gem:

In response to our discussion paper, representatives of the video game industry have explained that in-game items are provided in a ‘closed loop’ fashion, meaning they are not intended to be exchanged for cash, either with the games providers, with other players or with third parties. The networks via which games are accessed, are not designed to have open functionality to facilitate users trading in-game items with each other for money. This approach is underpinned by the terms and conditions governing the use of the networks.”

Well, if the videogame industry (that’s making more money than an entire country of Pablo Escobars off these things) says it’s okay, then it’s okay right? Nothing to see here. It was all a misunderstanding and we can go home and sleep soundly in our beds secure in the warm, fuzzy embrace of our significant others, happy that the misunderstanding has been cleared up and there’s absolutely nothing wrong. Wait, no. It’s the opposite of that. We can go fuck ourselves because they said we can right to a government agency, presumably while twirling a Dick Dastardly moustache and fingering a wad of dollars that bought valueless in-game items.

Naturally, there’s a lot of people rightfully pissed off over this turn of events. We’ve turned to the authorities for help and they’ve turned to the industry we’re seeking protection from and given us a shrug and sad trombone. The Belgian Gambling Commission and Dutch Gaming Authority are also looking into the issue too; the Belgians are focusing on Battlefront 2 and Overwatch specifically while the Dutch are taking a broader view. Their investigations are still in the research phase at the moment. During writing the Belgians, Australians, and Hawaii have released statements and begun proceedings to declare loot boxes as predatory gambling practices. Hats off those three!

There’s lots of smaller scale fuckery involved too. How long until dynamic pricing makes the jump from mobile games to everything else? Turning players into payers indeed. Drop us a line if you managed to watch that whole video without vomiting a little in your mouth because we’d like to conduct a clinical study on someone incapable of being disgusted by heinous shit.

Like a slow child eating lead paint chips, we’ve also got Ubisoft drooling away in the corner with Assassin’s Creed Origins. Take a moment to remember that time Ubisoft said DRM doesn’t stop piracy. That’s really sunk in? Good. Now learn that Origins uses several layers of DRM. If bought via Steam you’ve got Steam, Uplay, Denuvo, and VMProtect. Ubi also says this doesn’t affect the game’s performance because it’s designed to use the “full extent” of your CPU by design, for the purposes of staying on-target we’ll ignore why that’s an incredibly stupid thing to do on PC. To tally the score – that’s a dual-layer account-based DRM (requiring two clients running) and a DRM (sorry, “software protection” in air quotes made by giant foam middle fingers) being protected by code virtualization. We’re basically emulating our DRM while we game and I don’t know about you but I find that shit both hilarious and super shitty when it affects game performance. Oh, and the game has motherfucking loot boxes but they can only be bought with in-game currency that you earn by playing.

No, Ubisoft realised the obvious pitfall and instead decided to dig a second hole, this one stocked entirely by a familiar old shit sandwich. Just to clarify, we just linked to two store pages – don’t buy that stuff, it’s nasty and you should be ashamed if the thought even crossed your mind. That’s right – pay NOT to play! If that was it we’d stop here, it’s bad yes, but at least you’re just buying something specific. So what could possibly make this bad? What loads a worthless DLC onto the Space Shittle and blasts it into fucking orbit where it can leer over humanity for all eternity as a grim reminder of our hubris? Proprietary currency. Not content to just take your money, we’ve got fucking Helix Credits. An additional manipulative layer in this whole shit sundae – because you know damn well that you can’t use up ALL of your points, so you’ve either wasted some of your purchase or you have to buy more and more until the purchases round out to zero and you’ve learned the true meaning of self loathing.

To Ubisoft’s credit, they’re not the first to have done this. Microsoft got away with it for years with their Microsoft Points. There’s also Bioware Points (and the associated fuckery of their decommissioning). Gold is also a common choice, with everything that falls under the “freemium” banner often opting for this generic term, sometimes with the barest amount of effort to make it their own (e.g. War Thunder’s insanely priced Golden Eagles). This is yet another example of one of those things we didn’t push back against hard enough when it first started happening – we gamers as a whole should’ve whipped up a devastating storm of dick kicking against every single one of these examples and yet we rolled right over like a nervous dog that’s left a steamer on the rug.

Current media darling Destiny 2 has also run afoul of this fuckery. I’m going to pretend to be a bingo caller, just shout out “Bullshit!” when you fill out your card: Proprietary currency for real-world money. Loot boxes. Loot boxes with potential to change gameplay balance. Expensive loot boxes. Gameplay features reworked to serve microtransactions. Said reworked feature (shaders) coming in packs of one-less than you need to colour your gear. Congratulations! Everyone’s a loser! Except for the money grubbing cunts who made those decisions. Just a moment – I’m being told those cunts are infact Activision and we should mention their other recent malodorous wank mitten of a game, Call Of Duty: WW2.

Just imagine the Se7en box scene. Except it's a dick in the box instead.

You know the drill by now, it has loot boxes. Loot boxes are bad. If it stopped there we’d have left it with a snarky comment and let it be on its way but Activision have been very naughty boys and girls when it comes to the sly, insidious manipulation of human behaviour that are their latest patents. That first linked patent is meant to create a literal losing>jealousy/frustration>paying>winning loop where players can get beaten in-game by someone with a paid-for item and then be presented a chance to buy it. If they do they’re put in a match where they’ll do well with their new toy. If they don’t their account is flagged as a non-buyer and they’re thrown back into the cloudy waters of pond skinflint. That’s some of the skeeviest shit we’ve ever heard but Activision aren’t ones to only go half way on their plans (unless it’s single player campaigns). A second patent that basically amounts to shoving advertisements/harassment to buy in-game items into gameplay streams. Apparently neither of these technologies are in use yet but we need to be realistic here: a large company, especially one headed by a corporate morlock and previously proven to be greedy scumbags with the integrity of a starving hyena, does not develop technologies like these (and file patents) if they have no intention of using them in the future. Mark my words – we’ll be revisiting this topic in a year or two when this Turdusa (Turd Medusa) rears its head again.

On top of all that we’ve got “social points” which is in speech marks to indicate it should be said in the most degrading, weasley voice imaginable because what sounds innocent on the surface is actually a very unwanted round of Kancho trying to hide those smelly fingers behind a facade of another progression system. Basically, by participating in social activities in the game you receive “social points” and one of the ways you earn these is by watching other people open loot boxes in the game’s Headquarters social space. Okay, so that’s majorly shitty but if it ended there we’d just be quietly disgusted and leave it alone but those leaf village fingers just couldn’t stay away from the brown star: “social points” also earn you better rewards when you open loot boxes yourself! I’d like to point you back to my previous comment about the jealousy cycle and Activision being greedy scumbags.

But wait! While writing we’ve got breaking news today about a new round of fuckery from Bungie and Activision! For a while players in Destiny 2 have suspected that their XP rewards were being throttled by an invisible algorithm and that XP bar readouts weren’t accurate. User EnergiserX over on Reddit decided to do the hard work of looking into this issue and admittedly his methods are a bit convoluted but the data doesn’t lie – even with a margin of error the proof is indisputable. If one man’s research isn’t enough for you how about the statement from Bungie admitting to it? Perhaps in another game, from a publisher that’s less of a greedy scumbag, I’d be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt and say it was just a poor design choice meant to keep people playing for longer. But it’s not from a better publisher, and these cumpuffins have readily shown us over and over again just how underhanded they’re willing to be to make an easy buck. You see, in Destiny 2 you earn Bright Engrams for leveling up past level 20. These engrams usually hold cosmetic items like shaders (which we’ve already discussed a few paragraphs up) but, crucially, they’re also sold for real world money. Let’s do a little math: Real world money purchasable item; plus greed; plus engrams not dropping enough shaders to colour all your gear set; plus artificially, stealthily inflated grind that was only disclosed once found out; equals manipulation.

That 40 quid will get you 30 loot boxes.

Bet you thought we’d forgotten all about Middle Earth: Shadow Of War huh? Oh no, the progenitor of this finger destroying article isn’t getting off so lightly. We’ve already explored many of the issues revolving around loot boxes and time-saver DLC but we’ve yet to talk about how these things affect game balance in a single player game. Need For Speed Payback is also guilty of this because EA can’t keep their cum drenched cockholsters away from any pus dripping orifice. Admittedly, the evidence for this is technically light on the ground – there’s no evidence (unless you count the finished games) that these games were modified to increase grind and thus encourage purchases of resource boosting microtransactions. But I’ve played Shadow Of War and the late-game grind is real; manipulating the nemesis system via deliberately challenging orcs, dying, promoting them, and finally turning them to your side, is a serious investment of time just to get a single orc. It takes so much time infact that after four days I still hadn’t achieved the army strength required to make a push for the end-game and gave up entirely because I’d sooner shoot a rivet gun into my urethra than buy into/be defeated by their manipulation. However, I also remember when EA pulled the Dungeon Keeper stunt. Go ahead and click that link to learn whose opinions to derisively snort at.

I swear when I started this I didn’t intend to talk about EA much, instead they’re like hyper aggressive form of neurosyphilis eating away at our weary core. I feel like I’ve picked on them, entirely fairly, but I want to reiterate that I have not singled them out by any measure. In my opinion every single one of these companies I’ve named don’t deserve to do business, they don’t deserve their fans, defenders, or profits. I know there are innocent people working for them who don’t have any say in this stuff, and who are just trying to feed their families but I’m all out of sympathy – I don’t want to see them get fired, or go hungry but I still think anyone involved with these cockwombles should feel ashamed that they’re helping perpetrate this kind of treatment of their customers. I stand by my opinions above and will no longer buy anything from any of the developers or publishers whose bullshit I’ve called out in this opinion piece. My only regret is that there won’t be enough people reading this to create a “fuck you” directed at these practices energetic enough to stave off thermodynamic equilibrium. Actually, I take that back – bring on the entropy! At least in the heat death of the universe there’ll be no usable energy for publishers to turn into loot boxes.


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