Loot boxes continue to be a divisive issue in gaming.
I recently wrote an article comparing Overwatch’s loot boxes to the boxes in Destiny 2. I argued that the Overwatch system was priced more fairly, and that the rules governing Overwatch’s box contents were less stingy and predatory than the Destiny 2 boxes. I concluded that games that sold cosmetics from loot boxes should follow the Overwatch model.
This position seemed controversial to some. Even if Overwatch boxes were less awful than Destiny boxes, many readers objected to praising Overwatch’s system at all. These players would like to see randomized loot boxes eliminated from all the games that use them, and, presumably, replaced with a-la-carte purchasing for skins and cosmetics, where you only buy the specific items you want.
Regulators and government authorities in some places agree. Blizzard recently disabled loot box purchases in Belgium, after regulators there decided that loot boxes are analogous to gambling.
However, Blizzard has offered several skins you can purchase directly in the past few months, and they’ve all been very expensive. And if these skins are any indication, collecting cosmetics under an a la carte system in Overwatch would likely be more expensive than getting them out of randomized boxes.
This is how it all breaks down. The reality of what it costs to collect everything may not be what you expect.
Understanding Overwatch’s economy
Overwatch cosmetics come in four rarity tiers:
- The common tier includes spray images that can be tagged onto walls, and voice lines
- The rare tier includes poses for the victory screen, player icons and skins that use the base character model, but change the color scheme
- The epic tier includes skins that are a big more complex, and which may feature new textures or minor model changes, as well as emotes like laughter animations or dances and highlight intro animations
- The legendary tier includes skins that dramatically change the appearance of the character, as well as a few very elaborate emotes.
You sometimes also get a currency called credits. Bundles of credits can be of rare quality, which contains 50 credits, epic quality, which contains 150 or 200 credits and legendary quality, which contains 500 credits. You can use credits to buy any of the other cosmetics. Buying an epic like an emote or a highlight intro costs 250 credits, and buying a legendary skin costs 1,000.
Each loot box contains four items, and Blizzard sells them in bundles. The larger the bundle, the cheaper the cost per box; if you want to buy two or five boxes, the smallest packages, they cost a dollar each. However, you get 11 boxes for $10, 24 for $20, and 50 for $40. You also get a free box every time you earn 20,000 experience points and gain a level while playing, which takes about an hour for most players.
You can also get three extra boxes each week by winning nine matches in Arcade mode, which features a rotating set of variations on regular Overwatch play, such as deathmatch or low-gravity modes. Many players have played hundreds of hours of Overwatch over the last two years, and therefore have earned hundreds of free loot boxes.
At least one item in each box will be rare or better. Epics appear every three to five boxes. Legendaries appear every 13.5 boxes according to Blizzard’s regulatory disclosures to Chinese officials.
Blizzard releases most of its new cosmetics as part of events. There are six events on Blizzard’s calendar: Summer Games in August, Halloween in October, Winter Wonderland in December, Lunar New Year in February, an Overwatch lore-based Archives event in April and the anniversary event in June.
Each event adds six to eight legendary skins to the game, as well as a handful of epic skins, a couple of highlight intros or emotes and some voice lines, icons, sprays and victory poses. Event cosmetics are only available during the run of the event, but all loot boxes, including the ones you get for free, are event boxes during the event. Epic and legendary event items seem to drop a bit more frequently than similar quality loot from non-event boxes.
You can buy the event cosmetics with your credits, but the newly released skins cost triple the usual credits price, so a newly-released legendary event skin will cost 3,000 credits. However, the previous years’ skins from the same event cost the regular price of 1,000 credits.
Since new skins cost triple the price of the previous year’s, before I open event boxes, I always use credits to buy any old skins I am missing from that event to get them off my loot table.
So what does it cost to get all the stuff?
Previous articles have discussed Overwatch loot box mechanics in depth, but the crucial thing to know is that, in July 2017, Blizzard made a major change to the way loot boxes worked: You should no longer get duplicate copies of stuff you already had, unless you owned every item of the same type on that rarity tier.
This dramatically reduced the number of boxes you need to open to collect all the skins in an event. Previously, each time you got a legendary event skin, it was chosen from the full set of skins, including the ones you already had. If you got a duplicate, it was exchanged for 200 credits, which is less than a tenth of the cost of buying an event skin.
That was a bad outcome for your legendary drop and, statistically, you were likely to see a lot of those outcomes. In order to get all the stuff in a single event, you would need to open hundreds of boxes, which meant spending hundreds of dollars.
Getting lower-tier stuff is also much easier. Even though there have always been a lot of common items in boxes, it used very hard to get them all, because every time you got one, it was pulled from a loot table containing the full set of possibilities, including the ones you already had.
Now that you always get the ones you’re missing until you have them all, it is essentially a given that everyone will get all the common stuff. You can estimate the frequency of your legendary drops and assume you’ll get everything else, if you’re going to buy or earn 50 boxes or more during an event.
This change dramatically improved loot box outcomes. It resulted in something like an 80 percent price cut to the (previously obscene) cost of collecting Overwatch cosmetics.
However, loot box systems are intrinsically opaque and complicated; all the math and mechanics are hidden from view, and most players’ interactions with them are driven by emotional responses rather than assessments based on the underlying math.
This worked in Blizzard’s favor the first year, when the fanfare and the fireworks of opening loot boxes enticed a lot of players to open their wallets, even though the contents of the boxes were awful. That rush wore off, though, and it seems like people realized they weren’t getting much for their money.
Blizzard realized that community dissatisfaction was unsustainable and made under-the-hood changes to make loot boxes better, but the same opacity that previously obscured the shittiness of the old system also obscured the improvements. The loot boxes may have changed, but the way people thought about them had not.
Things are a lot better now
The boxes start to look pretty good when comparing the current loot box system to likely alternatives. The elimination of duplicates makes the outcome of buying a bundle of loot boxes pretty predictable, and there is an effective ceiling on how much you can spend on the game.
A $40 bundle of 50 event boxes will usually get you four or five of the event skins, most of the lower-tier cosmetics and around enough credits to buy another skin. I’ve watched a number of box opening videos and the worst outcome I have ever seen from 50 boxes was three event legendaries.
If you buy a $40 bundle for each event and earn an additional 30 free boxes from your level-ups and weekly arcade mode rewards, you will likely unpack six or seven legendaries per event, and enough credits to buy whatever you’re missing.
The prototypical Overwatch whale who wants most or all of the cosmetics probably spends about $40 on each event for a total annual spend of $240, and combines that with moderate to heavy play to earn the stuff that they don’t get from their box bundle.
If you spend $80 and buy 100 loot boxes, that will generally be enough to get you all the legendary skins in an event without worrying about any free boxes. If you have bad luck and end up missing a skin, you will get enough credits out of the hundred boxes to buy it, with some left over. If you wanted to buy all the stuff in every one of Overwatch’s six events over the course of the year, without earning a single free box, $480 is the most you could spend before you’d run out of stuff to collect.
Even $240 is a lot to spend during a year on a single game, but many microtransaction models encourage players to spend bottomless amounts of money. It seems hyperbolic to call this model predatory or analogize it to gambling. Nobody is going to lose their rent or burn through their college fund buying Overwatch skins.
If you don’t care about collecting all the stuff and only care about getting skins on a couple of your main heroes, and if you play around six to 10 hours a week, you should earn enough credits from your play to collect all the skins for your mains without spending any money at all.
Here’s what a la carte looks like in Overwatch
Blizzard has now offered Overwatch cosmetics a la carte for cash, or a currency that can be bought with cash, three times.
The first batch was the Overwatch League team skins. These skins use the base models for the characters and palette-swap their outfits to represent team colors. Most of the skins also stamp some team logos on the characters’ clothes and equipment. In the loot box system, a color swap is a rare-tier skin, the most common to find and the cheapest to buy with credits. While recent epic-tier skins have unique model elements, some of the older ones just have unique textures, so maybe the inclusion of the team logos would raise these to epic-tier.
Overwatch League skins cost Overwatch League points, which you can buy for cash or earn by watching Overwatch League games on Twitch. $5 buys 100 points, but you get some extra points for free if you buy a larger bundle. A $100 spend gets you 2,600 points, which is around $30 extra. An Overwatch League team skin costs 100 points, so it’s about $5.
It would cost 2,900 points, or about $115, to dress the whole cast in your favorite team’s uniforms.
The second release was the Pink Mercy skin. This was an extensive transformation for the character, analogous to a legendary skin. The price was $15, though all of the proceeds were donated to cancer research.
Finally, for the Overwatch League All-Star weekend, which took place on Aug. 25-26, Blizzard released a special Tracer skin for the Atlantic region and a Genji skin for the Pacific region. These skins, which are comparable to legendary skins, sold for 200 OWL points, or the equivalent of $10 each.
When OWL launched, Blizzard gave existing Overwatch accounts 100 OWL points; the equivalent of one OWL skin. Other than that, there has been no way to get OWL points from playing. None of these skins were ever eligible to be purchased with credits. The OWL skins, the All-Star Skins and Pink Mercy were all only available for purchase with cash.
So what if Blizzard got rid of loot boxes?
The sales of the OWL skins, the All-Star skins and Pink Mercy give us an idea of what an a-la-carte Overwatch economy might look like.
Suppose, instead of loot boxes, the legendary event skins were just sold for 200 OWL points each. This seems a likely price point, since All-Star skins are roughly equivalent to legendaries.
You get 2,600 OWL points for $100, so people who bought OWL points in that increment could get the skins for a little less than $8 each. The six events have an average of seven skins each, so that’s a total of 42 skins which would cost 8,400 OWL points. You’d need to spend $330 to buy them all.
That’s cheaper than the $480 it takes to get everything out of loot boxes, but more than the $240 it takes to get everything, or nearly everything, by combining spending with grinding.
It’s likely that an a-la-carte system wouldn’t have as many freebies; giving you occasional loot boxes to open tempts you to spend money so you can open a bunch of loot boxes at once. But games that sell cosmetics a-la-carte have historically been much more restrained with their giveaways, because freebies don’t drive sales under that system.
The $330 price also doesn’t account for all the event goodies that are not legendary skins. It’s possible that, in a system that didn’t need stuff to fill loot boxes, things like sprays and voice lines might not be premium items at all; you’d just get them by default, or they might be gated behind in-game achievements.
But it’s also easy to imagine Blizzard selling emotes or highlight intros for 100 OWL points each, and maybe 50 points for player icons or victory poses. If that was the case, the cost of collecting all the stuff would rise considerably.
Who would win and who would lose?
There are some kinds of players who come out ahead in this kind of market. The first is the $480 loot box spender who buys everything and plays very little. But I don’t think many people like this exist. Most players who might be willing to spend that much money on Overwatch also play the game often, thereby earning a bunch of free boxes and obviating the need to spend that much money.
The other kind of player who would do better under this system is the casual or occasional player who likes skins and would like to get one or two specific skins from some of the events, but who does not play enough to earn the credits to get them for free.
These players are not going to spend 30 hours playing during an event to get a bunch of extra boxes, and they’d much prefer to pay $20 for the two skins they want instead of buying a bundle of 24 loot boxes and getting a bunch of other random stuff. I suspect this is a sizable group of players.
However, players who aren’t as concerned about the randomness because they want to collect most or all of the cosmetics would probably end up worse off under an a-la-carte system, depending on how things that aren’t legendary skins were priced under such a system.
And heavy players who get a sizable percentage of the cosmetics out of free loot boxes would probably also be significantly worse off, since developers that run a-la-carte stores for in-game cosmetics rarely give away freebies.
Loot boxes remain unpopular among many gamers, but Overwatch’s system is a lot less horrible than many of those we’ve seen in other games. And based on what we’ve seen of Blizzard’s a-la-carte skin pricing, it’s likely that many enthusiast players would wind up spending more money or getting less loot under alternative systems, even if those systems were more straightforward and less random.
It could also turn out that this is an emotional issue, and not a factual one. But right now, the numbers indicate a loot box system that’s working pretty well for most players.