Like many in the gaming world, I'm not a fan of lootboxes. Outside of even pay-to-win concerns and how expensive it all is, well, I just don't think video games should be a way for children and young people more generally to gamble with real money. But Overwatch 2 has been changing my mind about lootboxes, so in this article, I'll tell you how Overwatch 2 is convincing me lootboxes are actually good.
The Traditional Problem With Lootboxes
Gambling has been in video games since the beginning. When human beings first discovered they could play games with other people, those same human beings started making bets. Plus, there's more.
In gaming more generally, exchanging money for a randomized draw that could be very worth it or very not worth it, i.e. gambling, has been a core and essential part of card games since their inception, really. Then, of course, there's been real-money trading in MMOs since the first MMOs.
The problem with lootboxes, though many don't really seem to say this, has never been that it's gambling or gambling-like. The idea of exchanging money in or about a video game for a random chance at something happening is a relatively benign concept.
So, what's the problem with lootboxes? Well, simply put: Creating a complicated, confusing gambling economy in order to maximize profits from children and young people in the context of a closed ecosystem where all the things you want you have to gamble for is the issue with lootboxes.
To put it more simply: If you can get the stuff you want with a reasonable amount of time or effort expended instead of paying, being able to spend real money to open virtual boxes of random items is not a big deal.
For most folks, that is, this is how they see lootboxes in gaming, or what they might think if they were told about lootboxes in games. Parents don't forbid their children from playing Magic because you have to spend money on packs of random cards to play and that's too much like gambling, usually.
Unfortunately, the reality is that when you do see lootboxes in games, chances are they're the main way, or one of the paid-for-by-real-money main ways, to get the stuff in a game you'd actually want. This creates tons of problems and weird dynamics that essentially boil down to it being a bad thing to have all the cool stuff in games played mostly by kids and young people (those with the least money) cost lots of money to get.
The dirty secret of it all, though, is that lootboxes don't have to be like that.
Lootboxes in Overwatch: A Case Study
Lootboxes were a thing in Overwatch. In fact, they were such a thing that they catapulted lootboxes into the mainstream and caused a bunch of games to start selling lootboxes. Then, of course, popular sentiment about lootboxes changed, and now, putting lootboxes in your games is generally (by gamers) thought of as a shady move at the absolute best.
Generally, gamers think that lootboxes exist to flout the laws of whatever country to get kids and young people to give up every cent they possibly can to greedy AAA game publishers that pay their executives hundreds of millions of dollars a year to let them best fleece innocent gamers.
So, you don't see lootboxes in many big mainstream games now, outside of the mobile space where monetization largely runs wild and people who identify as anything more than casual gamers just dismiss as being a 'phone game thing' or the like.
However, there's a loyal contingent of Overwatch fans calling for lootboxes to return in Overwatch 2 that supposedly has a fairer, more ethical monetization model, and I'm inclined to agree with them.
See, Overwatch was a full-price $60 AAA game. Then, it had lootboxes you could spend real money for on top of that. Overwatch 2 is a free-to-play game with cosmetic microtransactions and no lootboxes. In general, most agree that the latter is the better move between the two.
Overwatch fans, though, are asking for lootboxes back because lootboxes were actually a better, fairer system than the one in Overwatch 2. In Overwatch, once you bought the game, just by playing, you'd rack up tons of free lootboxes. And the boxes you opened would get duplicate and bad luck protection, so you'd be able to reasonably acquire tons of skins and cool cosmetics without spending a dime beyond what you'd paid for the game.
In Overwatch 2, well, over the course of a season that lasts 9 weeks, you'll be able to unlock some cosmetics for free, and that's it. It won't be much; the cosmetics won't be that cool or useful; and that's it. If you want more, you'll have to buy stuff from the shop, and the shop is expensive, coming in at around $20 for a skin. Of course, you'll also want other cosmetics, which are also expensive and quickly raise the price of customizing a hero fully.
So, Should We Bring Lootboxes Back?
Honestly, a lootbox system like that in Overwatch sounds ideal to me. Imagine a game, either free-to-play or a premium title, where there wasn't a paid-for battle pass that required grind and gave out meager rewards. Imagine there wasn't a rotating selection of stuff to buy in a shop that constantly disappeared thereby manipulating players into spending so they don't miss out.
Imagine a game without 30 different virtual currencies that only served to obfuscate how much money you'd need to spend on the premium currency you can only buy with real money. Imagine a game where there wasn't a class of free cosmetics that were overshadowed by premium, paid-for cosmetics.
You can accomplish all of that with a simple lootbox system. Make it generous, so you can open lots of boxes just by playing. And make it fair, so you can't get duplicate items or go forever without seeing a rare item appear. Then, for those that want to spend money, they can do so to get more skins than a casual player and get lots of skins faster than a serious player.
This doesn't sound like a bad system to me. Instead of paying for a competitive advantage or to just not have your character look ugly or the same as everyone else, you'll just pay if you're feeling impatient or want to get some extra stuff. Of course, those with gambling issues can engage with a system like this in a bad way, but it's tough to call that the system's fault.
Now, I don't think it's very likely lootboxes come back to Overwatch, but the reality is that if they did (and when they do appear in other games), they'd probably not be as generous as the system outlined above, because that system doesn't make companies as much money as they like.
However, it goes to show that the problem with lootboxes isn't really about gamling. Much like the overpriced skins in virtual shops across many a video game, the problem is that companies are too aggressively trying to maximize their profits at the expense of a satisfying gaming experience.