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Loot crates are changing game reviews, and not for the better

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When economy changes design, reviews need to change too

stormtroopers in battlefront 2 EA DICE/Electronic Arts

There are three currencies in Star Wars: Battlefront 2. Each one can be used for different things, and you’ll need to understand the entire economy if you hope to be competitive in multiplayer. Progression is an important part of the game, and progression is complicated.

That’s why the use of loot boxes and in-game economies need to begin factoring heavily in scored reviews. We’re seeing free-to-play mechanics and value obfuscation make it into premium games, and it’s changing the way we interact with the games we play. A game’s economy is going to become as important as its story or controls as gambling mechanics grow in popularity, and some might argue we have already reached that point.

This is from our review of EA’s latest Need for Speed title:

Shipments still come every day for logging in, and they include a chunk of in-game cash, a batch of parts tokens (exchanged on a 3:1 basis for a speed card) and a vanity item that can be exchanged for the aforementioned money. It’s not an extravagant bounty but it is a help. Still, Need For Speed Payback’s punishing grind, loot boxes and multiple currencies offers a tacit encouragement to spend money to bypass its automotive chores while holding a fig leaf over the bad PR of a true pay-to-win scenario.

This is from our review of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War:

When you run out of in-game money, you have two choices: Make a huge time investment by hunting down orcs in your game world and earning chests via vendetta missions, or spend some real money to get the more powerful orcs you need now. Does the game ever force you to spend money? No. I’m sure you can get to the end of Shadow Wars without spending a dime, as long as you’re patient and persistent. But locking progress through this mode (and, again, toward the game’s secondary ending) behind either spending more money or doing tons of tedious busywork feels at least greedy if not predatory

The conversations around Star Wars: Battlefront 2 are focused almost entirely on the game’s economy, which makes sense. The rest of the game could be amazing, but the economy is predatory and kills the rest of the experience, based on my time with the game.

And this situation is terrible for everyone. It has to be frustrating to be an animator who worked on a game for years only to have the conversation around the final release be focused almost exclusively around how much it costs to unlock a hero. A concept artist or writer has nothing to do with how much a loot crate costs, but that’s all people seem to care about at the moment.

This change isn’t fun for critics, either. No one started writing about games hoping that one day they would need to keep spreadsheets that track how much time it takes to earn new characters or powers if they don’t want to pour more money into a game after it’s been purchased. We want to talk about how it feels to play a game, not what it costs.

The idea of “value” has been arguable for years — I used to say looking at games in terms of hours per dollar is like judging a painting by square footage — but you can expect this argument to continue with renewed passion as $60 games become shells for in-game stores rather than complete experiences on their own. Many publishers don’t seem to want to release a game you pay for once anymore; now, hits can sell you things indefinitely. And that shift is going to have an impact that will begin to show up in reviews.

Expect economy to be the big topic in 2018

The progression system in Star Wars: Battlefront 2 wasn’t designed to be more fun than the first game, it was designed to place more of a focus on the game’s loot crates and gambling-based economy. That sort of change is going to be felt in review scores.

It’s also going to be a conversation between the players and the publishers. Battlefront 2’s economy has already been adjusted from the beta, and it’s likely that it will continue to be adjusted as EA pays attention to how players interact with the various currencies or even whether they buy the game at all. The sweet spot with this sort of economy can be found in the place where players spend the maximum amount on the game without quitting.

This is also going to change how games are reviewed and discussed, not to mention how they’re presented to critics themselves. Writers are going to have to look out for in-game prices in virtual currency that are lowered during preview or review events, and a game review that is heavily critical of a game’s economy may need to be revisited if that economy is adjusted. Disclosures will have to change if publishers give critics more virtual currency to see or play with advanced in-game equipment before the review embargo is dropped.

Star Wars Battlefront 2 EA DICE/Electronic Arts

This tension and focus on each game’s economy could hurt morale among developers themselves. It’s going to be hard for players to care how well a character animates if they feel angered by games that are designed with an eye toward monetization instead of enjoyment.

Games will begin to feel exhausting if we’re asked to make a decision about whether or not to buy something every time we log in to play. Publishers could become even more risk-adverse as players begin sticking with single games longer, making hits bigger and middling games more of a financial danger. It’s going to create an unsustainable feedback loop where everyone wants you to play their game forever, and will use every trick they can think of to make that happen.

EA’s focus on free-to-play style economies in its big releases might be profitable in the short term, but it’s slowly strangling the company. Developers, who likely have very little say in these discussions, are getting harassed online.

Game reviews will increasingly discuss monetization as a major part of the scoring process, because monetization will become a more important factor in whether games are fun in the first place. It’s a future no one wants, unless you’re a shareholder in a major publisher.

The question of why publishers are leaning harder on loot boxes — or whether they’re an economic necessity — is outside the scope of this article. The objective reality is that they’ve already changed the way games are designed and released, and that’s going to impact reviews and the critical discussion around each game.

No one is going to like this change, but no one is going to be able to stop it. Welcome to the future.