What’s the deal with Overwatch’s loot boxes?

After reading through Gareth’s excellent analysis of Hearthstone, I’ve decided to talk about Blizzard’s other hit, Overwatch. Mainly, I wanted to touch upon what bothers me the most about it: the loot boxes.

Like a litany of other online multiplayer games, Overwatch “drops” are tied to an acronym whose mention sends shivers down the spine of players: RNG. The infamous random number generator, an algorithm that dictates the drop rate of items in the simplest of terms, is the source of most of my anguish when it comes to playing any game dependant on this system. Be it the seemingly endless gear race that sums up World of WarCraft and Diablo III’s end-game content to the upgrades to your deck that come from random card packs in Hearthstone, it feels like there’s always a carrot dangling in front of me when playing any of these games. While they tend to be extremely well designed and fun experiences, having their progression be tied to RNG has always kept me from trying to be anything more than a casual player.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I’ve fallen into as close to an addiction as playing one of these games obsessively in order to get a get a certain item to drop. It happened during my time with World of WarCraft on more occasions than I care to admit, something that eventually prompted me to step away from that hamster wheel and try something else that I deemed to be more worthy of my free time. Since then, I’ve strayed from trying to compulsively acquire virtual goods that require time and repetition to attain, with varying degrees of success. That is, until Overwatch hit. I saw myself finally enjoying and doing modestly well at a multiplayer shooter. Though I tend to steer away from competitive games, I found in Overwatch a fantastic balance of cooperation, an element to games that I find engrossing when done well, and just the right amount of competition to make playing matches on the same set of maps over and over again compelling.

Thing is, Overwatch is also a game that makes use of RNG. But unlike World of WarCraft, Diablo, or Hearthstone, Overwatch doesn’t hinge on the randomness of that system. Anyone can enjoy playing to their heart’s content without ever having to worry about it. Unless they want new costumes for their favorite character, give them new voice lines, or post graffiti on walls, that is. These cosmetic items come as drops from randomized goody boxes that are given to you everytime you level up and with each three wins you get in the arcade modes. You can get up to four new items in each of these, ranging from character emotes, sprays, voice quips, to, most importantly, skins. Character skins are the most coveted and are usually the hardest to obtain thanks to the rarity system tied to item color. It began in World of WarCraft and is now a part of all of Blizzard’s games. You know the one: grey is a common item, a blue one is uncommon, while purple’s rare items, and yellow — you guessed it — legendary.

The problem stems to how these items are made available through the loot boxes. The content is completely based on RNG, which is calculated the moment you receive them. It doesn’t matter how or when you open them, since as soon as you receive them, their content’s already decided. Initially, it was possible to receive multiple copies of the same item in a single box, from which the game would convert multiples into a sum of coins that can be used to buy them instead. Recently, though, after many complaints from the Overwatch community about the annoyingly difficult it is to get the legendary skins already without the repeats, Blizzard changed how loot boxes work. Repeats are now less likely to occur, supposedly allowing players more chances to get what they actually want.

Unfortunately, the result of this change happened to be way worse than the situation before Blizzard stepped in. The aforementioned coins that would naturally come from receiving repeats in boxes are used to buy some of the cosmetic items, including skins, which happen to be the most expensive. The amount received for repeat drops varied on rarity, usually a fraction of the price of buying a new item — a literal penny-pinching game within the game. But with the lack of repeats, coins are even harder to come by, making the alternative to relying on “luck” even less viable.

Seasonal events aren’t new to Blizzard’s games. In Overwatch, they bring special game modes that are available for limited time every now and then, and with them, many items that are available for as long as the event is going on, including unique character skins that come from loot boxes earned by playing the game during these events and cost three times the normal amount in coins compared to the “normal” legendaries. So naturally, if you want to get any of those, you have to play the game a whole damn lot in order to level up, or pony up the cash and buy boxes with the real money, hoping you’re blessed by the fickle deity of RNG. I usually sit on the lower end of these blessings.

For instance, during the Lunar New Year’s “Year of the Rooster” in-game celebration at the end of January 2017 — which held a whopping 13 character skins among over 120 new items — I was able to get three of out the four costumes I was aiming for from the set based on The Journey to the West. For that, I played enough to level up over thirty times and win the three weekly arcade mode loot boxes during the three weeks Year of the Rooster was available. I even spent some cash for five extra boxes (that didn’t win me anything). And even with all that effort, I had to use every last bit of my in-game coins to buy the one out of the two skins I still wanted. Earning these proved to be so time-consuming, tiring, and downright ridiculous that I ended up quit playing Overwatch altogether for almost three months. Since then, I’ve been gradually returning to the game every event. I haven’t played nearly as much as during the Year of the Rooster event, and my luck’s been mostly the same.

Sure, some of the blame rests on me and my desire to “own” silly cosmetic items for my fake videogame characters, but there’s no reason Blizzard has to make things so difficult to begin with.  Therefore I want to propose a few things that might make the experience of dealing with loot boxes in Overwatch a little better, bearing in mind that most of these are features that are already available in other Blizzard games.

Here we go…

Implement more ways to earn coins

Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone offer a number of quests to partake and win currency in. Overwatch could do something similar. Heroes’ and Hearthstone’s quests not only serve to give currency, but also end up helping incentivize players to try out new classes and characters, as well as discover new ways of playing those games.

Overwatch would benefit greatly from having these sort of in-game challenges, especially given how some roles like support sometimes don’t see as much play as others. As for obtaining coins that way, heck, I would play someone like Widowmaker a whole lot if there was an incentive like that around.

Make some cosmetic skins part of special achievements

A natural extension of the previous idea, why not have some unique skins be tied to in-game achievements? World of WarCraft has a ton of character mounts, pets and items that can be earned by completing the craziest of achievements.

My personal favorite (and something I’ve done during my stint in that game) was the “What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been” set, which gave the reins to a violet proto drake mount after finishing all of the achievements for WoW’s seasonal events through an entire year. Granted, it doesn’t have to be this crazy, but man, it’s something I’ve never regretted doing and have great memories of.

Like the previous idea, having skins in Overwatch be tied to achievements would also help incentivize people playing the game to step out of their comfort zone and try new things out, depending on how it’s implemented.

The game sort of already features something like this, but it’s for sprays only. Expanding it to cosmetic skins is the next logical step.

Allow players to sell unwanted cosmetic items within the game

It’s already a feature in Hearthstone — you’re able to “dust” cards you don’t use in order to conjure up new additions to your deck. The same could be done in Overwatch by allowing players to get rid of items in their inventory and save up coins for stuff they do want.

The amount of coins you get from repeats is already low enough as it is, and having the ability to sell unwanted cosmetic items would help bump up coffers. It would be a slow but sure stream of coins to eventually buy new items with and most importantly, keep players coming back for more.

Keep introducing even more ways to earn cosmetic items than just loot boxes

Blizzard has shown that they aren’t averse from the idea of having players earn skins without loot boxes when they introduced the Nexus tie-in event between Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm. By playing the latter with people in your friends list, you’d unlock new cosmetic looks and sprays for some Overwatch characters.

So why not keep doing that even further with their other games? World of WarCraft has a free trial that has already seen integration with other properties, such as unlocking a new paladin hero in Hearthstone by playing a character up to level twenty. The same could be done during seasonal events for their games outside of Overwatch. It wouldn’t change how events worked in the game proper and it would nudge players to try out other properties. It’s a win-win situation for Blizzard.

 

Overwatch is already a great game. Having even more incentives to play and ridding it of the loot box issues would make it even better. Given Blizzard’s knack of interchanging ideas among properties, it’s my personal hope that some of those ideas could eventually come to fruition in some form or the other.


 

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