How loot boxes are turn­ing full‑priced PC games into pay‑to‑win games of chance

The loot boxes in Star Wars Bat­tle­front II, Forza 7, and Shadow of War are a new low.


Sup­ply Crates. Bat­tlepacks. Ni­tro Crates. War Chests. Prize Crates. Card Packs. Pi­o­neer Crates. Trea­sure Chests. Loot Boxes. What­ever you call them, they’re the lat­est con­tro­versy to hit gam­ing. Not a new con­tro­versy by any means— these so-called “gacha me­chan­ics” ( go.pc­world. com/scgm) have cropped up in mo­bile games for al­most a decade, been banned by a num­ber of coun­tries, and even made ap­pear­ances on desk­top. Valve’s Team Fortress 2 has fea­tured them since 2010, for in­stance.

But the dis­cus­sion around loot boxes has be­come fren­zied this past month, thanks to three games in par­tic­u­lar: Forza Mo­tor­sport 7, Mid­dle-earth: Shadow of War, and Star Wars Bat­tle­front II.

Let’s re­count their sins.


Forza Mo­tor­sport 7 ($60 on Amazon, go.pc­ used to fea­ture a dif­fi­culty-based re­ward sys­tem. The more “As­sists” you turned off (i.e. Throt­tle As­sist, anti-lock brakes, the op­ti­mal path for your car to fol­low) the more cred­its you’d earn and the more cars you could pur­chase. This sys­tem was dis­man­tled in Forza 7 ( go.pc­ dif7), re­placed with Prize Crates and “Mods,” or lim­ited-use cards that re­ward you for spe­cific ac­tions dur­ing a race. And an an­nouncer that urges you to pur­chase said Prize Crates. The game was ac­tively de­signed to be worse in or­der to cram in loot boxes.

Microsoft also briefly killed the old VIP sys­tem. Ba­si­cally, those who bought VIP in pre­vi­ous Forzas would al­ways earn twice as many cred­its per race—a per­ma­nent paid booster, ba­si­cally. Kind of gross, but that’s how it worked. For Forza Mo­tor­sport 7, Microsoft tried to re­place this with five lim­ited-use VIP cards, good for 25 races to­tal, where cred­its would be dou­bled. Af­ter much out­cry, this sys­tem was rolled back and will even­tu­ally be re­placed with the old 2X booster.

Mid­dle-earth: Shadow of War ($60 on Amazon, go.pc­ goes one step fur­ther and sells you in-game items. These aren’t too dis­sim­i­lar from the mi­cro­trans­ac­tion­style boost­ers peo­ple have been forced to ac­cept in re­cent years, ex­cept for the fact ev­ery­thing you re­ceive is ran­dom. Loot Chests, for in­stance, pop out “two pieces of gear, in­clud­ing at least one Rare.” What pieces of gear will those be? No­body knows! If you don’t get what you need, you’ll have to sink more money into the damnable ma­chine and hope your luck is bet­ter the sec­ond (or third, or fourth, or fifth) time around.

Star Wars Bat­tle­front II ($60 on Amazon , go.pc­ is worst of all, though. Over the week­end EA ran Bat­tle­front II’S open beta/faux-demo, and it was the first chance for many to see how the new Star

Card sys­tem works. In a word: Poorly.

In the orig­i­nal 2015 Bat­tle­front ( go. pc­, Star Cards were con­sum­able pieces of equip­ment you at­tached to your sol­dier to gain spe­cial abil­i­ties—a ve­hi­cle-dam­ag­ing ion shot, for in­stance, or a lim­ited-use sniper rifle. Star

Wars Bat­tle­front II fea­tures a full class sys­tem how­ever, and so this type of Star Card didn’t make much sense any­more. There’s no use hav­ing a sniper rifle Star Card if you have a sniper class, af­ter all.

Cer­tain Star Cards still mod­ify a class’s equip­ment—say, re­plac­ing a grenade with a re­mote-det­o­nated ex­plo­sive—but the more prob­lem­atic ones give di­rect boosts to a class. In space bat­tles, for ex­am­ple, an X-wing or TIE Fighter might have a card that grants a two-per­cent weapon dam­age boost.

“Two per­cent? That doesn’t sound that bad,” you might say—and you’re right. Cards

have tiers though, so while the “Com­mon” version of that card is a two-per­cent boost, the “Leg­endary” version of the same card is a whop­ping ten per­cent. Yes, at any mo­ment, any fighter you square off against in a mul­ti­player match could have weapons that do ten per­cent more dam­age than you—and it’s all based on ran­dom chance.

Cards drop from loot boxes, or “Starfighter Crates” as Bat­tle­front calls them. (There are also “Trooper Crates” and “Al­le­giance Crates,” plus “Daily Crates,” which are re­warded for play­ing the game each day.) Cards are not re­warded based on the class you play, so if you’re un­lucky you could end up with a bunch of garbage for a class you never touch. It also has made lev­el­ing mean­ing­less—un­like Over­watch, there’s no crate re­ward for gain­ing a level, which is ut­terly bizarre.

Classes also have lev­els that are dif­fer­ent from your own global level. The catch: Classes only level up when you have a cer­tain num­ber of cards for them. If you have a full ros­ter of cards for the “As­sault” trooper class, for in­stance, you’ll un­lock ex­tra slots to put those cards in—up to a to­tal of three.

Be­cause class lev­els are tied to how many cards you have, and be­cause more boxes means more chances for cards, EA is es­sen­tially giv­ing peo­ple a chance to buy their way to bet­ter equip­ment—not just dif­fer­ent equip­ment, like in past Bat­tle­field games with their paid short­cuts, but straight-up bet­ter. We’re talk­ing a gun that shoots 40 per­cent longer with­out over­heat­ing, an of­fi­cer class that re­gen­er­ates nearby al­lies’ health with 40 per­cent less

de­lay, abil­i­ties that re­fresh 28 per­cent faster.

It’s gross. It’s the ex­act same “Pay-to-win” slip­pery slope peo­ple feared would come to pass with mi­cro­trans­ac­tions (and has come to pass in cer­tain free-to-play games) but ob­scured be­hind an ad­di­tional layer of pseudo-gam­bling. We can talk all you want about Over­watch and its loot boxes. There are some eth­i­cal con­cerns there, too. But at least Over­watch is con­tent to dole out dumb (and un­nec­es­sary) cos­met­ics—cos­tumes, badges, and so on. If you get a bunch of cos­tumes for a char­ac­ter you never play, well, no loss re­ally. It doesn’t af­fect the game.

But Bat­tle­front II? It’s a new low. I un­der­stand where the prob­lem lies. Games are ex­pen­sive, the $60 price tag hasn’t in­creased in years, and mon­e­ti­za­tion is hard—dou­bly so as the in­dus­try’s pre­vi­ous golden goose of sea­son passes dies a slow death. It’s not that I don’t know why loot boxes are an at­trac­tive op­tion, nor that I’m un­sym­pa­thetic to pub­lish­ers try­ing to fig­ure out where to go next.

Loot boxes aren’t the proper so­lu­tion in most cases, though. More than DLC, more than sea­son passes, this lat­est trend has the po­ten­tial to cause real dam­age to games, to ruin en­tire swathes of the in­dus­try. It will drive away old fans, it will fail to con­vert new ones, and all be­cause a small sub­set of high-pay­ing “whales” (to use the in­dus­try’s nomen­cla­ture) get guns that shoot bet­ter than the rest of us.


Which brings me to my point: This is the

“vote with your wal­let” mo­ment, and we are go­ing to fail. His­tor­i­cally, that’s how this goes. We had the chance a decade ago and we screwed it up. As ex­pan­sions died off and games were diced up into in­creas­ingly smaller bits and bobs, as the in­dus­try was in­un­dated with map packs and mi­cro­trans­ac­tions and pre-or­der bonuses and sea­son passes and this labyrinth of post­pur­chase pur­chases, we could’ve said no. We should’ve been louder in our dis­sent.

We weren’t, and it’s been a decade of ex­ploita­tion. It’s been horse ar­mor. It’s been map packs go­ing from $5 to $10 to $15 to $20. Sea­son passes cost­ing al­most as much as full games and then rarely (read: never,

un­less you’re The Witcher 3,

go.pc­ de­liv­er­ing on their prom­ises. It’s been mis­er­able. And now the chance has come around again. The past six months have shown that loot boxes are the fu­ture, if we’re com­pla­cent. And not just the mostly harm­less Over­watch style. Those are still a trap, but at least they san­i­tize the spike pit be­fore they drop you into it.

Forza 7, Shadow of War, and Star Wars Bat­tle­front II are proof: If you don’t fight back, you will get the worst pub­lish­ers have to of­fer. You will get pay-to-win mul­ti­player. You will get sin­gle-player games bal­anced around grind­ing for loot boxes. And sure, games will mask that fact. They’ll come down just barely

on the proper side of the line. They’ll keep the per­cent­ages small—a 10-per­cent boost to dam­age, et cetera—to pro­vide plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity, to point to and say “Of course our games aren’t skewed to­ward peo­ple who spend money! We’re gamers too! We pri­or­i­tize fun.”

But deep down, you’ll know bet­ter. You’ll feel the Hand of the Mar­ket at play, med­dling in the game, mak­ing it just te­dious enough to tempt you. I know I’ve felt it with mi­cro­trans­ac­tions. I have no rea­son to think loot boxes aren’t a more in­sid­i­ous version of the same idea. And maybe you don’t care about Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or fancy cars, but I guar­an­tee your fa­vorite se­ries (or maybe sec­ond-fa­vorite se­ries) is next. It’s only a mat­ter of time with these things.


We prob­a­bly won’t stop it. Let’s be real, the num­ber of peo­ple who care about video games enough to fol­low news? A small per­cent­age. And that goes dou­ble for a game with broad ap­peal like Bat­tle­front II. Not only is it a damn good game ( go.pc­ adgg) at heart, but peo­ple see “Star Wars”

and they buy it. Dozens of ter­ri­ble Star Wars

games have cap­i­tal­ized on that mind­set for decades now. Dis­ney and EA are smart to embed this ter­ri­ble sys­tem in Bat­tle­front,

be­cause the like­li­hood peo­ple will ac­tu­ally vote with their wal­let, ac­tu­ally ab­stain from a pur­chase? Low. Too low to be a real fac­tor.

Again, his­tory bears this out. We have DLC. We have mi­cro­trans­ac­tions.

But this is still your best chance.

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