Much digital ink has been spilled over the past week on the alarming state of loot boxes in general, but more specifically, for games like Star Wars: Battlefront II, for which EA has locked the entirety of the game’s progression behind the much-maligned feature. But are things as bad as they would appear? Not necessarily.
To be clear, I’m generally not a fan of loot boxes and I’m not sure anyone else is, either. It’s easy to feel like the publisher is openly acknowledging that it thinks its customers are suckers to be easily fleeced by the introduction of such a system. It’s transparently anti-consumer. Even if I agree that I’m OK with giving you money for whatever it is you’re trying to sell me, why do I need to roll for a chance at it? Why can’t I just buy it directly? Both the customer and the business intuitively know the answer: because in all likelihood, you’ll have to give them more money this way.
With that said, how the heck can I support loot boxes the way they’re set up in Star Wars: Battlefront II? The answer is context. For a game like Battlefront or Battlefield, I consider this sort of RNG based progression to be an acceptable tradeoff for not having to deal with the community destroying effect of a season pass.
Multiplayer shooters have been struggling with add-on content for a long time now. Back before the days of DLC, expansion packs were still a regular thing, even for Battlefield. While DLC and expansions make business sense to produce, they never made sense for the health of a game’s community. What often results is the fragmentation of the game’s community and thus a harder time finding games for everyone. When EA announced it would finally address this issue for its own games beginning with Titanfall 2 by foregoing a season pass in favor of (cosmetic) loot boxes, gamers rejoiced. This was a reasonable compromise. Players hoped to see this continue in EA’s other shooters, and all signs pointed to this being the case, especially when it was announced that Star Wars: Battlefront II would also skip a season pass in favor of loot boxes. Where things got a bit off the rails is when gamers realized that it wouldn’t just be cosmetics this time around, but progression, too.
The thing is, EA’s been selling Battlefield progression shortcuts for years now. Battlefield 4 has for pay Battlepacks, which aren’t necessary, but can allow you to acquire things like attachments without having to put in the work, too. Sure, it’s all RNG this time around, but people have been able to pay to advance in these games for a long time, including in ways that maybe aren’t so obvious, which leads me to my next point.
If you want to talk about real “Pay-to-Win,” the season pass isn’t only problematic in terms of how it fragments communities. What’s more Pay-to-Win than DLC that gives you access to gadgets and weapons that other players cannot unlock unless they also buy the DLC? One can make the argument that DICE's designers always strive to make unlocks sidegrades over straight upgrades (which is the approach I would’ve preferred to see in SWBF2), but while DICE is a talented studio, its designers aren’t infallible. Sometimes new toys end up stronger than the old ones (EE-4, anyone?), and with paid DLC if you're not ready to pony up the cash to unlock them, you're out of luck.
This is why I can deal with the loot box system of progression specifically within the context of a shooter like Battlefield or Battlefront. Would I prefer these loot boxes to be in-game currency only? Absolutely. But if the option to pay for them means I get to have others subsidize free DLC for me and keep the community together, I’ll take it. If it's done well, I won't feel the pressure to buy them. It’s easy to lament RNG, but RNG is a double-edged sword. It can screw you, but it can also reward you. I pulled two legendaries out of a single chest in Overwatch just the other day. With loot boxes, I don’t necessarily have to grind for hours gated by levels or frustrating assignments in order to get something I want. By the very nature of their randomness, I can potentially get what I need soon after starting. If my luck isn’t so hot, I can use crafting parts as a backup to unlock what I'm looking for.
Recently, it was leaked that there may even be class specific crates. Since this was a leak it may not show up in the final game, but if it does (and it should!), that would go a long way towards allowing players to limit the impact of RNG if they’re looking to pull upgrades for a specific class. This would have the bonus of flexibility on how I gain my points, too. It doesn't matter which mode or class I play, I'd be able to use the credits earned on progressing wherever I want. Maybe I just want to play some Heroes vs. Villains for a while, but I normally play the Assault class in Galactic Assault and I want to get some new cards for that. I don't have to stop progressing the Assault just because I decide to do something else right now.
Of course, like anything else, it all comes down to the implementation. How the system feels to players hinges on how generous EA is about credits earned per match, crafting part drop rates from crates, how it handles duplicates, and so on. The devil’s in the details. But the details aren’t locked in yet, and if implemented well, I feel this can work out OK for everyone. Given all the uproar recently, something tells me EA may end up with an implementation at launch that’s a bit more generous than it may have originally intended. Ultimately, I’ll never have to worry about feeling pressured to pick up DLC I don’t care about for weapons or unlocks I might need to compete. I won't have an issue finding matches for new maps due to splits in the community. These are positives to me. It’s not an ideal system, but I prefer the simplicity over the bloated progression systems we’ve seen in DICE games over the years.
Personally, I’d like to see duplicate cards upgrade the rank of the card until its maxed and then give out crafting parts. I’d also like to see the ability to scrap items in my collection for parts. Basically, if you’re going to design your progression after a digital CCG like Hearthstone, then also give me the same flexibility features something like Hearthstone offers me. I feel decoupling card slot unlocks from your collection is probably a good idea, too. Perhaps just have a simple credit cost for each slot and let players choose when to unlock it based on how many cards they accrue. I don't need three slots before I have three cards I want to run, but once I do, I should be able to make the conscious decision to spend some credits (or some other non-lootbox dependent method) to open them up.
If you’re still worried about getting stomped on launch day by people who blow absurd amounts of money on crates, I’d suggest taking some reassurance in the fact that most people don't monetize at all. Those who do monetize tend to spend a lot, sure. But the impact of those who do spend a ton will also only narrow over time as players catch up. There are only so many upgrades to get and players are likely to figure out which ones are must haves pretty early and make a beeline for them through crafting, if necessary. I may sound overly optimistic here, and maybe I am, but all eyes are on EA right now, and I don’t think the company wants SWBF2 to end up being the poster child for the worst implementation of loot boxes in gaming, especially when it’s got what's shaping up to be an otherwise fantastic game underneath all the controversy.