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Are Overwatch's loot boxes worth your money?

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The $700 game

Blizzard launched a new microtransaction store alongside Overwatch to sell cosmetic items for the game. The only thing in this shop is bundles of randomized loot boxes: two boxes for $1.99, five boxes for $4.99, 11 boxes for $9.99, 24 boxes for $19.99 or 50 boxes for $39.99.

So, depending on how many you buy at a time, each loot box costs you between 80 cents and $1.

You also get a loot box each time you level up in Overwatch, and the boxes you get for playing are identical to the boxes you get for real money. Many people are thinking about buying loot boxes in Overwatch right now, so here's a primer on what to expect from boxes, the rate you can earn them for free, and whether they're worth buying.

What's in a loot box?

Loot boxes contains cosmetic customizations for your Overwatch characters. These items have no effect on gameplay. Each character has 54 collectible items, including cosmetic skins, emote animations, voice lines, victory poses, highlight animations and graffiti tags you can spray onto the environment, for a total of 1,134 different items. None of them will change how you actually play the game.

The system used for distributing these items will be familiar if you have ever played Hearthstone. The Overwatch items have designated rarities similar to Hearthstone cards: They can be common (white), rare (blue), epic (purple) and legendary (orange). There is also a special currency, similar to Hearthstone's arcane dust, that you can get in your boxes or from dismantling duplicates; it can be used to craft other items. The rarer an item is, the more it costs to craft. Dismantling a duplicate yields 20 percent of the item's crafting cost, which is counted in credits.

Voice lines and sprays are common (25 credits), victory poses are rare (75 credits), highlight intros and emotes are epic (250 credits), and skins can range in rarity from rare to legendary (1,000 credits), depending on how elaborate they are. The rare skins are just color palette swaps. The epic skins tend to have new textures or minor model changes, and the legendary skins bring significant changes to the models.

Legendary skins, for example, turn the sinister assassin Reaper into a mariachi, turn the Dwarven engineer Torbjorn into a pirate, and turn Pharah into an anime mech. You can preview all the different customizations in the game's hero gallery. Each character has four legendary skins in total: two new models, each with two different color or texture variations.

You get four items randomly in each box, and one item is guaranteed to be of rare quality or better. Rarer stuff seems a little more common than comparable items in Hearthstone.

Based on my testing, you'll likely get an epic item every three boxes and a legendary once in 10.

How many can you get for free?

Overwatch gives you a loot box every time you level up your account in the game. That's how you earn items without paying.

The first level requires 1,500 experience points to reach, and each subsequent level requires more experience than the previous level until you reach level 23, when the experience requirement stops increasing at 22,000 points per level until you reach level 100, when you get a promotion. Promotions work kind of like the prestige system from Call of Duty: Getting promoted awards you a fancier frame for your account portrait and resets your level to 1, so you can start all over.

You probably don't need to buy Overwatch loot with real money

Since you get a loot box every time you level, and you can keep on earning promotions and leveling up, you can earn a lot of loot boxes.

There are 21 characters in Overwatch with four legendary skins each. If you assume you'll get eight to 10 legendary drops per 100 boxes, some of which will be duplicates or legendary currency drops, and that you will get about 5,000 total currency per 100 boxes from duplicates and currency drops, then you can expect to have most of the cosmetics after about 300 boxes, although it will take around 800 boxes to collect absolutely everything in the game.

However, if you play a lot of Overwatch, it's possible to get everything for free.

How long will that take?

You earn about four experience points for every second you play Overwatch. That's 240 experience points per minute. Since the first 22 levels of each promotion tier have lower experience requirements, the average experience required for a level is 20,085 points.

It takes around 84 minutes to earn that much experience.

In addition to your per-minute experience gains, you get 250 bonus points for finishing each game, a bonus of up to 150 points for the best medal you earned during the game, 200 points for playing consecutive matches and 500 bonus points if you win. So bonus points ought to shave about half an hour off your time per level, if you win about half the time and get the consecutive win bonus on most of your games. There's also a first-win-of-the-day bonus worth 1,500 points per day, which nets you an extra box every two weeks if you win a game each day.

Overwatch skin

However, there's quite a bit of time you spend "playing" Overwatch in which you don't actually earn experience. There's a wait while all the players load into the game before each round and a character select window afterward, and then the game gives the defenders a full minute to get into position and establish themselves before the attackers get to leave their spawn area.

After each round, the game spends about a minute displaying the high scores and medals, awarding experience and running the play-of-the-game replay before it loads up the next round. I ran a stopwatch from when I first loaded into a game and compared the timer to my postgame experience awards to see whether the meter was running during the preparation phase. The game isn't awarding you any points during this time.

That means you'll probably spend around three minutes doing things that do not award experience for every seven- to nine-minute round of Overwatch you play.

If we assume an average game lasts eight minutes, and the average post-match bonus is 800 points, then the average game is worth about 2,720 experience points. That means you'll need to play about 738 games to earn 100 boxes. If we assume the average amount of time per game not spent earning experience is about three minutes, then you can expect it to take about 135 hours of real time spent with Overwatch to earn 100 boxes. To put it another way, if you spend two hours a day playing Overwatch, you'll earn about 90 boxes per month.

That may seem like an absurd amount of time, particularly to console players who are accustomed to consuming games and moving on, but Blizzard has a reputation of supporting its titles for years with upgrades and expansions. The studio seems to be positioning Overwatch as an esport, so this game will likely be around for a long time and attract a sizable community of players who will pour hundreds of hours into it.

So, are the boxes worth your money?

You probably don't need to buy Overwatch loot with real money.

If you're interested in spending money on boxes, you're probably also planning to play a lot of Overwatch, which means you're going to be getting a lot of boxes for free. You're likely to earn a substantial number of legendary skins within the first few weeks of heavy play, along with enough currency to cherry-pick some of your favorite stuff that you don't get from your boxes. Over a longer period, you'll acquire a fairly extensive collection of cosmetics just from playing.

But there's an undeniable allure to instant gratification. If the money's not a big deal for you, and you want to have a loot bonanza right now, opening a bunch of boxes is lots of fun.

And Blizzard will likely to continue to release new cosmetic items, so unless you spend a whole lot of money or play the game 12 hours a day, you probably won't run out of new stuff to earn anytime soon; unlocking everything would cost about $600 to $700, or it would take about 1,000 to 1,200 hours.

Luckily, based on what I've played so far, that will be a very enjoyable slog.