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The year in loot boxes


The great Star Wars debacle – and I’m not talking about The Last Jedi’s second act here – dominated video game headlines in the last quarter of 2017. But in truth the year was packed with depressing stories about loot boxes, so many in fact that it has at times felt like our beloved hobby was more about the chance to win a rare item than it was about the chance to play.

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For Honor Steel packs were pretty expensive.

It all began with For Honor, Ubisoft’s excellent but troubled melee combat game. Soon after For Honor came out in February, a redditor worked out how much money it would cost to unlock all 12 heroes in the game and their associated aesthetic items (2017 would see enterprising redditors work out how much things cost to unlock in a lot of games). It turned out it would cost an eye-watering 585. Ouch.

Ubisoft, sensing a growing resentment among players (growing resentment was a running theme of 2017), said it never intended for players to unlock everything in the game. That was a PR line that didn’t go down well (PR lines that didn’t go down well was another running theme of 2017).

The vociferous debate surrounding For Honor’s progression was 2017’s first step on the road to a full-on furore around loot boxes, and the realisation that more and more video game publishers were shoehorning exploitative microtransactions into full-price games.

Publisher Warner Bros., which is now overshadowed by EA as public enemy number one but for a good portion of 2017 was glared at by the gaming community’s collective eye of Sauron, released Injustice 2 in May and with it a controversial gear system that added loot to the otherwise superb fighting game. Loot in a fighting game! Gear came with stats, which gave you an edge. Was it pay-to-win? It sure sounded like it.

It turned out Injustice 2 avoided a PR debacle because it included a competitive mode which let both players agree to toggle gear stats on or off. It was the game’s saving grace, although I’m still surprised it didn’t kick up more of a stink. Never mind. Warner Bros. would right that unwanted wrong just a couple of months later.

In August, Warner Bros. announced Middle-Earth: Shadow of War would have loot boxes. Yes, Warner announced loot boxes, like they were some cool new feature for the game. The single-player action adventure, Warner signalled, would have an in-game store, called the Market, from which players could buy orcs and loot chests – in a full-price single-player game.