You won’t find a better indicator of industry trends than E3. The annual mega-conference is essentially one giant vein on which you can place your thumb and take the pulse of gamers and the companies who serve them. Looking back at it, the one way to ensure applause was to shout, in some forum of another, “no loot boxes!” It was the ceremony’s rallying cry.
Somewhere I’m sure, Blizzard reps applauded nervously – like an incumbent president at their replacement’s inauguration. Why? Because, like it or not, loot boxes are synonymous with Blizzard’s Overwatch. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and google image search “loot boxes,” with no other context and count how many images are not from Overwatch. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Now that you’ve seen dozens and dozens of pictures of Overwatch’s loot boxes, you can agree that saying “no” to loot boxes is the same as saying no to Overwatch. Even now, going back to playing Blizzard’s wildly popular shooter feels a little gauche. Their aggressive loot box selling comes off less as playfully interactive and more as a tacky and antiquated. With loot boxes on their way out, Overwatch’s model needs to evolve to stay relevant. Here are five ways Overwatch needs to change their loot box model before it’s too late.
Stop Making Event Skins Cost 3x More Credits
Part of the reason loot boxes got so out of hand was due to the failure of the games press to properly criticize Overwatch’s model in its earliest stages (although, I can’t share the credit for that), and one of the aspects with which we never should have let Blizzard get away is tripling the cost for event skins.
In the two-plus years of Overwatch’s existence, they have added new base skins (ones that aren’t just available in event loot boxes) all of one time. That means that the majority of the new skins Overwatch receives are event skins, available in event loot boxes only, and, while skins are available for purchase with in-game credits, instead of 1000 credits for base Legendary Skins, it’s 3000 credits.
The only conceivable reason for this price increase is to make them more difficult to get without loot boxes. Consider this: not counting skins you can’t get in loot boxes (Blizzcon Skins, Mercy’s Pink Skin, etcetera), there are 85 legendary event skins and only 32 non-legendary event skins. That’s the different between 750 in-game credits and 3000 in-game credits, and Blizzard clearly prefers the latter. Remember, too, that the only way to get in-game credits is through loot boxes, and, while Blizzard did up the credit in-take in loot boxes, that’s all they did.
Make Skins Individually Purchasable
A lot of people say “they’re just cosmetics, so it doesn’t matter – no one is forcing you to buy loot boxes.” That’s true, and, to Overwatch’s credit, it isn’t the game that pushed the industry over the edge. That dubious honor has to go to the terrible twosome of Battlefront II and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, both of which included loot boxes that contain in-game progression, and both of which removed their microtransactions entirely.
Overwatch isn’t nearly on that level, but their model still puts the onus on the consumer to purchase more loot boxes if they want better skins. That’s because you can’t purchase, with real money, individual skins. If you could, Overwatch’s extra sales would plummet, because people who really wanted that new McCree skin would simply buy it and be done. Right now, people have to buy a loot box, and another loot box, and another loot box and so on until maybe someday the RNG gods smile down upon them and reward them that desired skin. If they don’t want to go the Battle Pass model, do what Dota 2 used to do – make it so you can buy skins, with real money, individually.
If you could purchase skins individually, the onus would be on Blizzard to continually create more special skins – and other cosmetic items – that are high enough quality to make people want to buy them. Right now, they don’t have that much of an incentive to do that. All they have to do is release a few skins at a time and let people bankrupt themselves buying loot boxes to get them. It’s an awfully anti-consumer model that should be properly called out. Add in the outrageously disproportionate number of less desirable, low-effort cosmetic sprays and player icons that clutter up loot boxes, reducing your chances of getting these, and holy crap how did this system get so popular and successful?
Go Beyond Skins and Emotes
On that note, let’s not get too locked into skins. They are awesome, and, in any game with cosmetic items, skins are going to be the cream of the crop. But you can do so much more than skins, and, on the subject of Overwatch, you can do so much more than skins and emotes. In Overwatch’s hierarchy, it goes Skins, Emotes, Highlight Intros, Victory Poses, Voice lines, Sprays, and, finally, player icons. As we’ve already gone over, Overwatch definitely back loads cosmetics, creating the most of the least desirable.
Now, I don’t want to act like I know how much work these things take; I have no idea. I’m certain it takes a great deal of work from a great deal of people. But I can at least ask that they be more creative with what types of cosmetic items they make. From my days (2,000 hours) of playing Dota 2 all those years ago, I remember two things that Overwatch should consider: announcer packs and HUD skins.
Announcer packs were amazing, and Blizzard certainly has the character library for it. Also, custom HUDs – and maybe even menu skins – would be a subtle, but desirable change of pace. Overwatch as it stands creates comparatively few cosmetics that people actually want, such that loot boxes often feel like “skins or bust” ventures. Introducing different types of quality cosmetics will go a long way; why not custom flags, for example?
Work in More Golden Loot Boxes
From what I remember and what I can find through research, Golden Loot Boxes – that’s loot boxes that guarantee one legendary skin you don’t already have – have been used twice in Overwatch’s history. While one could say this further bolsters the case that Blizzard would rather you buy multiple loot boxes to get a legendary skin…actually I don’t have a good alternative for that.
You get loot boxes as a progression item. One per level up. Maybe every 20 levels, you get a Golden Loot Box? Maybe make Golden Loot Boxes purchasable? If you don’t want people to purchase individual skins, at least let them buy something that gives a partial guarantee.
It’s clear that people are looking for more of a sure thing. That’s why people are loving the battle pass model; it tells them exactly what they are working toward. It doesn’t give them a vague “well…you could get the skin you want!” Overwatch’s loot boxes are anything but a sure thing. Implementing Golden Loot Boxes would at least be something.
Consider Scrapping Them Entirely
Honestly, it’s amazing to think how far we’ve come. It’s encouraging to see consumers pushing back against loot boxes, but it seems like it’s been a long time coming. And, the incremental changes that Blizzard has been making to their Overwatch loot boxes are worth noting, but it still might be worth just scrapping them all-together and starting from square one.
I’m not naive. I know what a giant Overwatch is. I’ve reported on the millions of players Overwatch gains each year. But I also know that, contrary to its Titanic proportions, God himself will sink whatever he damn well pleases. Games aren’t infallible – no matter how large their following. And games like Overwatch don’t succeed by staying the same in the face of criticism. They succeed precisely because they adapt. And, as of right now, Overwatch is failing to adapt and get with the times on loot boxes. I’m not saying the game will die, but people will get tired of buying loot boxes. In fact, people already have.
I also know that the most radical changes are sometimes needed, and only the boldest developers are willing to make those changes. Before Shadow of War and Battlefront II, I would have considered a game outright removing microtransactions a completely ridiculous idea. We’re in a different world now, not that Overwatch knows it.