After an outpouring of community discontent over Destiny 2’s loot box-centered holiday event, Bungie game designer Christopher Barrett tweeted that the game’s development team is going to be having “lots of discussion” about the game’s microtransaction strategy, and will be updating the community with a new “path forward” in early 2018.
We’re going to explain why the community is so upset with Destiny 2’s microtransactions, and how Bungie might make things better moving forward. And the best model for doing loot boxes and microtransactions already exists under Destiny 2 publisher Activision-Blizzard’s corporate umbrella. It’s a little game called Overwatch.
If you’re going to have loot boxes, make them Overwatch loot boxes
Loot boxes force players to buy a bunch of random stuff they may not care about in order to try to get the items they want by putting a game’s premium cosmetics in randomized boxes.
Loot boxes and gacha systems also use the same psychological manipulations that the casino industry employs when designing slot machines to obscure their costs and encourage players to spend more. You’re not buying what you want to buy, you’re buying a blind box in which you hope to find what you want to buy. If you don’t get it, you usually have to continue spending until you do.
Many gamers and commentators oppose loot boxes categorically. Although Call of Duty and some sports titles rolled out similar systems ahead of Overwatch, the economic success of Blizzard’s model deserves a great deal of blame for the proliferation of subsequent loot box systems like Destiny 2’s.
However, while Overwatch’s systems may not be perfect, the game remains extremely popular. The Overwatch subreddit isn’t a giant pile of salt, and prominent Overwatch YouTubers don’t spend a lot of time posting videos about the dire state of the game and its loot system. People who are angry about loot boxes are angry about Overwatch loot boxes, but Overwatch players, while they may wish they were getting more legendary skins, don’t seem particularly angry when compared to Destiny 2 players or the benighted Star Wars Battlefront 2 community.
Overwatch’s loot boxes pull in tons of money for Blizzard-Activision. Collecting all of Overwatch’s cosmetics requires hundreds of hours of play or significant spending. But, despite these facts, the way Blizzard runs its game generally feels more humane and less predatory than the loot systems in games like Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Battlefront 2 and Destiny 2. And while lumping Destiny 2 and Overwatch together as bad actors may seem appealing to loot box haters, making the argument that both games are the same lets Destiny 2 off the hook for all the ways its loot system is worse than the loot system in Overwatch.
For example …
Overwatch boxes are cheaper than Destiny boxes
Destiny 2 sells its bright engram loot boxes for an intermediate currency called silver that players buy with real money. 100 silver equates roughly to one dollar, but the in-game store gives you some bonus currency if you buy in larger increments. You get 5,800 silver if you spend $50, or 800 extra. The boxes themselves cost 200 silver each, or you can buy five for 800 silver.
That means a $50 spend buys you seven bundles of five loot boxes, with 200 silver left over, which you could use to buy one more box. So you get 36 boxes for $50, in the best case scenario, though you’ll get a few less if you buy your boxes one at a time or if you buy your currency in smaller denominations.
Overwatch sells its boxes directly for cash, and gives you more boxes if you buy larger quantities at once. The cheapest bundle is $2 for 2 boxes, and the largest bundle is 50 boxes for $40.
That means that, if you buy boxes in the largest bundles and therefore pay the lowest per-box prices, Destiny 2 loot boxes cost $1.38 and Overwatch boxes cost $0.80. On the most basic level, that means that Overwatch players who spend on boxes get to mash the “open box” button nearly twice as many times for the same amount of money, and opening more loot boxes is more satisfying than opening fewer loot boxes.
It may sound simplistic to say that Overwatch loot boxes cause less controversy just because they’re less expensive, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Spending less money to get more items makes players happier.
Bungie could justify a higher per-box cost if the contents of Destiny 2’s boxes were more valuable than the contents of Overwatch boxes, of course. The trouble is, they aren’t.
Here’s what you get in a $1.38 Destiny 2 Bright Engram
When people compare these loot boxes to casino games like slot machines, what they mean is that you’re buying boxes in order to hunt for certain desirable “jackpot” items. Most boxes you open will not contain the most desirable items. Many players wind up spending more to get those jackpot items when they’re hidden in random boxes than they would if the items were sold a la carte.
Both the items you’re buying boxes to chase and the items you get when you don’t get the items you’re chasing are better in Overwatch.
A Destiny 2 Bright Engram contains four items:
- A loot item that can be a ghost shell, a sparrow vehicle, a ship, a loot-exclusive armor piece, a skin for an exotic gun, an emote or some Bright Dust, a secondary currency that can be used to craft other loot exclusive items.
- Some shaders
- Two mods, which fill out the box.
That means there’s really only one relevant item in a Bright Engram that can yield a jackpot item.
Ships are just cosmetic, but the exotic ones have unique models and may be more elaborate than legendary ships.
Exotic Sparrows can be slightly faster than legendary sparrow, and also have unique visual models.
Ghost shells give you perks like slightly higher experience gains in certain places, or they can highlight nearby planetary resources, making them easier to find. Exotic shells have fancier visuals and slightly better perks.
Emotes can also be rare, legendary or exotic. The rare ones are generally gestures, the legendaries are dance moves, and the exotics cause your character to conjure a hologram of something like a table you can flip to show your anger or a microphone you can drop.
The “jackpot items” are the exotics, the gun skins and, to some extent, the armor set. While there are no published odds for Bright Engrams, anecdotally, based on personal experience and YouTube videos of other people’s box openings, exotic stuff seems to drop out of every eight to ten boxes, and armor drops about once in every five boxes.
Most of the time, you just get a legendary quality ship or sparrow. That’s a near complete loss of your $1.38, because you will probably never use those item once you have an exotic. You can use a few legendary Ghost shells, since you need shells to detect items on each of the game’s patrol zones. But these are trash as well once you’ve covered the useful perks. You can dismantle unwanted items for an amount of bright dust that’s worth about the 20th of the cost of an exotic emote.
All armor in Destiny 2 is functionally pretty similar, so the exclusive set is basically a cosmetic look for your character that’s only available from the loot box. A Destiny 2 armor set includes a helmet, gloves, a chestpiece, boots and a class item, so an armor piece is one-fifth of a unique re-skin for your character.
Here’s what you get in an $0.80 Overwatch loot box
An Overwatch box contains four items, and each has a chance to be common, rare, epic or legendary. Commons are voice lines and spray designs you can tag onto the map; rares are basic skins that are usually just color swaps, player icons, and poses your character can assume on the victory screen. Epics are more complicated skins, emotes and highlight intro animations that play when you earn Play of the Game honors. You can also get credits, Overwatch’s crafting currency, as a drop, and those can come in any rarity tier, with the quantity increasing depending on the tier.
Legendary skins are the jackpot items. They completely transform a character, for example, turning the Mad Max-style biker Roadhog into Frankenstein’s monster or a walrus guy. Legendary skins sometimes come with unique dialog lines or sound effects, and reskin the character’s weapons to fit the skin’s theme.
Subjectively, Overwatch’s legendary skins are much more impressive than Destiny 2’s exotic cosmetics, but it’s hard to directly compare a legendary Overwatch skin to an exotic cosmetic from Destiny 2. The Overwatch skins certainly seem to involve more art assets; Destiny’s ships, sparrows and ghost shells have few moving parts. But you can use an exotic Destiny 2 cosmetic on any guardian, while each Overwatch skin only modifies a specific hero, and most players specialize in only a subset of the game’s cast.
Overwatch’s boxes that lack a jackpot item are pretty clearly better than Destiny 2’s, however, because the non-jackpot items like victory poses, emotes and highlight intros serve different functions than the jackpot items, rather than being inferior substitutes. While the crafting currency payouts for duplicate items are still a fraction of the cost to craft a jackpot item, the fact that there are four possible loot slots means you accumulate currency faster in Overwatch.
According to Chinese regulatory disclosures, legendary Overwatch skins drop once in every 13.5 loot boxes. However, drop rates actually seem to be significantly higher, at least during events, when special time-limited items are added to the pool. I bought 50 boxes for $40 during Overwatch’s recent holiday event, and got five of the seven event-exclusive legendaries, a result which was pretty consistent with every recent box-opening video I checked on YouTube. Between the boxes I earned from playing during the event and the five free boxes Blizzard gave everyone on Christmas, I got the other two skins without needing to spend any crafting currency or any more money.
I checked several videos and postmortems from people who purchased 100 boxes during October’s Halloween event, and every one I saw got all eight exclusive skins from that event well before they finished opening their boxes, without needing to use any crafting currency.
Blizzard also implemented duplicate protection for legendary Overwatch skins in July 2017. That means, when you get a legendary drop, you’ll always get a skin you don’t have, unless you have them all. As a result, you can collect a whole set of event skins in far fewer boxes (and therefore at a much lower cost) than you could before the change, when collecting all of an event’s items was unreasonably expensive.
Blizzard didn’t do this as an act of charity. The Overwatch team recognized ahead of everyone else that players were feeling abused by the game’s loot system, and it made a calculated business decision to give up the money they’d get from the few players willing to spend hundreds of dollars chasing legendary skins in order to forgo a community revolt.
It paid off. Blizzard is now able to make a persuasive argument that its loot boxes are different from the controversial boxes in embattled games like Destiny 2 and Battlefront 2.
You can grind for free Overwatch boxes
Destiny 2 lets you earn loot boxes by earning experience points from killing enemies, playing Crucible matches or completing public events. But there’s a catch: When the game has its weekly Tuesday reset, you get a buff called “well-rested” that triples your experience gains for the first three loot boxes you get each week.
Even when you’re well-rested, it still takes a couple of hours of play to earn each of those three boxes. And once you exhaust your buff, you basically hit a soft cap, because then you have to grind public events for somewhere in the vicinity of six or seven hours to earn a marginal box without the buff.
Overwatch gives you a loot box roughly every 90 minutes you play, with no cap.
When Destiny 2 held its holiday Dawning event, which contained limited-time event exclusive loot boxes, it put a hard cap of seven free boxes per account. If you wanted any loot you didn’t get in your seven freebies, you had to buy more boxes.
When Overwatch holds an event, all its boxes become event boxes for the duration of the event, and you get a free box every hour and a half, just like regular boxes. If you play about 20 hours during each of the three weeks an event typically runs — a lot of Overwatch, but not outside the norm for many enthusiast players — you will earn around 40 free boxes over the course of the event.
If you put an extra $20 with that, you can get 24 additional boxes, which should get you close enough to collecting all the event skins that you can craft the remaining one or two you might not get out of this many boxes. If you play less, you might wind up spending $40 if you want to get absolutely everything, or you might just live without a few of the skins.
There should be no reason to spend more than $40 on an Overwatch event unless you want all the skins even though you barely play at all, or unless you are a streamer who wants to stream a bunch of box openings.
Of course, in its first year, Overwatch did a Summer Games event, Halloween, Christmas, Lunar New Year, an Uprising event tied to the game’s lore, and an event for the game’s anniversary. If you spend $40 on each of those events, that’s $240 for the year. So when I say the cost of collecting cosmetics in this game is reasonable, I’m speaking in relative terms. It’s reasonable when compared to Destiny 2.
Destiny 2 needs to do loot boxes better, or just stop doing loot boxes
The lesson the game industry took from the success of Overwatch is that loot boxes are easy money. But, while loot boxes may be lucrative for games like Overwatch, they can kill games that do them wrong. Just ask EA and DICE.
Loot boxes only work for games that players intend to have a long-term engagement with. Nobody needs cosmetic customizations for a game they intend to stop playing after a couple of weeks. But if players spends a significant amount of money on microtransactions in a game and walk away feeling disappointed with what they got for their money, and then the game constantly badgers them to buy more, they’re going to start disliking the game and distrusting its developers.
Dissatisfied players will eventually disengage from the game, and many of them will not return for expansions or sequels. Blizzard saw this coming, and dodged the bullet. Bungie seems to be struggling to do the same thing, and the player anger speaks for itself.
Developers that alienate their communities while chasing loot box skrilla will wind up kneecapping their entire franchises. Players want to feel like heroes, not like losers in a casino.