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Call of Duty: WWII’s ‘controversial’ loot boxes are about attention and addiction, not money

A strange tone for a serious war game

Sledgehammer Games/Activision

Call of Duty: WWII has to walk a line between treating a real-world conflict with as much respect as possible while also delivering an entertainment experience that allows all the different modes and goals of a video game with a huge budget. Doing both things isn’t always easy.

One of the biggest changes from past Call of Duty games is the inclusion of Headquarters, a social space where players can gather to hang out, practice firing their weapons in the target range, watch some eSports in the theater, pick up missions and track their progress or play against each other in a one-on-one deathmatch area.

There’s plenty of do, and a good amount of secrets and Easter eggs to discover. There’s even an area where you can spend virtual currency to play classic Activision games, like Chopper Command or Skiing.

Grabbing loot boxes is now a public event in Headquarters. The boxes drop to the ground, and other people can watch players open them to see what they’ve earned. Some of the daily missions even give players the chance to earn points by watching others open a certain number of loot boxes.

But isn’t this a gross way to handle loot boxes?

Loot boxes are already a hot topic in gaming right now, so most of the attention on social media has been paid to the way loot boxes drop from the sky in Headquarters, and how strange it is for a game to reward you for witnessing other people opening their loot boxes. Some people are claiming we’re moving the bar from getting random in-game bonuses to incentivizing what amounts to gambling, while also giving players a bonus for even just watching the transaction.

You can watch the process in the video below to see for yourself:

The in-game economy itself in Call of Duty: WWII isn’t particularly punishing for players. Supply drops are limited to cosmetic items, experience boosts and items for the Zombies mode, and of course you can earn in-game currency to buy loot boxes without spending any extra money. It’s what most players are used to from past Call of Duty games; the premium currency options aren’t even live in the game yet.

But presentation can be a powerful thing by itself. The animation here is clearly meant to emulate slot machines, and variable reward is one of the most powerful psychological motivations to continue behavior that humans have found. It’s not just about getting you to spend money, but for you to feel good when you’re playing the game and staying engaged long enough to earn more boxes, and now you’ll get at least part of that thrill when watching others open their own rewards. If you see someone earning a rare reward, you’re more likely to go chasing it yourself.

It’s bizarre to see an area like the Normandy base used as a framing device for celebrating new levels or loot boxes, but Call of Duty: WWII is already mixing a number of tones and goals between its campaign, multiplayer, Zombies mode and now the Headquarters itself. You’re bound to get strange compromises when every aspect of a game this broad has to exist inside the universe of real, historical war, and that disconnect is why the sight of supply drops falling from the sky next to celebrating players is so ... weird.

This isn’t a new low in monetization, as some may think. It’s more of an evolution that’s meant to keep your attention as much as grabbing your money. It’s a psychological technique meant to keep you hooked more than a way to grab more of your money upfront. Whether that’s more or less scary is up to you.

The companies involved will be paying close attention to how these features are used compared to past games in the franchise. As long as the game sells, and the social loot boxes do their job? The online complaints and funny gifs on Twitter will be easy for Activision to ignore.