I came away from this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo excited about a precious few upcoming titles. Foremost among them was Middle-earth: Shadow of War. I described the elegance with which the developers introduced complexity to 2014’s Shadow of Mordor‘s alchemy of procedural generation and visceral combat. I said that I would be “shocked if it doesn’t immediately become one of the year’s highlights” upon its release, and I meant it.
When Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment first announced the presence of loot chests in the upcoming Shadow of War, I was flabbergasted. It was a reaction shared by the vast majority of the gaming community at large.
Not only would micro-transactions invade the single-player experience, they would be directly tied to mechanical advantages that would negate time spent actually playing the game. It is an even more egregious spiritual successor to Ubisoft’s abusive tactics in the Assassins Creed series; locking much of the game’s best equipment, and then badgering you to open your wallet while you play.
WBIE has doubled down on that practice, and in doing so, they have turned Shadow of War into a glorified slot machine.
No, it’s not technically (read: legally) gambling. It’s worse. While it is equally as exploitative of the player, the promise of reward is completely artificial. Furthermore, there are multiple studies that suggest that the early introduction of these concepts can have a real impact on the severity of gambling problems later in life. Children who start gambling early have been found to gamble more and (even) less responsibly.
Rather than search for “whales” among their consumers, many of today’s biggest names in the gaming industry are raising their own.
Loot boxes and their ilk have proven a clever disguise for the behavioral conditioning that major game publishers have begun to employ as a matter of course. From mobile games to the biggest AAA titles in the industry like Overwatch, Call of Duty, and League of Legends, the problem continues to spread because our lawmakers simply aren’t paying attention. The closest we have gotten to a real examination of the issue was an impotent and arguably misdirected offensive against Steam’s tradeable item marketplace.
Until we call publishers to account for these practices, our children will be continually trained to answer the lure of digital Skinner Boxes. So long as we excuse the practice, it will continue to expand until it eclipses the immersive experience that games once intended to provide.
But customers sucked into the world of loot box accelerants aren’t the only ones gambling. Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and other publishers are making a terrible wager. They are measuring the value of your time spent on their game, and then bluntly suggesting to their own customers that there is value in avoiding it. It clearly defines the publisher’s opinion of both the game and its creators — in the most negative possible way.
So, while I’m giving advice that absolutely no one will follow, here’s something for free:
Just stop. Write up another press release. Apologize to your fans for insulting them and to your hard working development team for devaluing the work they have put into making something worth our time. Take a hard step back from the reviled business practices for which you are quickly becoming infamous, and don’t forfeit all the good will you have gained on the backs of the talented creators in your employ.
Eventually, someone will realize that loot box schemes are no more than thinly veiled attempts to produce young gamblers. When that happens, you have a choice; to be the ones who came the wrong way around to the right decision… or Exhibit A.
I reached out to Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for comment but received no response at the time of this writing.
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