The gaming world is currently on red-alert when it comes to loot boxes. Any mear mention of the word or something similar and red flags are raised while the army retreats into the fortress for safety. Developers have trained many of us gamers to be wary whenever loot boxes are introduced to a title. We expect the unnecessary grinding, a game built around microtransactions, or a perfectly fine game that has had some part torn away in favor of replacing it with a system that supports micro-transactions.

We are on alert for loot-boxes to be introduced into our favorite franchise, and its made us paranoid. Paranoid to a point that one of the most classic game mechanics, chests—and subsequently random drops—are now cause for alarm even being included in modern games.

Chests are not Mimics for Loot Boxes

Chests and the concept of random drops or purchases have been around in games for a long time. Perhaps the series most well known for this is Diablo. Diablo is entirely based on random drops and purchases for your gear and items, it’s a game that isn’t about progressing to receive a legendary item. It’s a game that is about finding the most efficient way to improve your odds of receiving it while making the effort of trying to make every scenario different. While some may not consider it the best system, it is, however, an accepted one.

It’s acceptable mainly for two reasons:

  • It creates choice in equipment and thus, challenge. When you can not perfectly min/max your character, you must make compromises and choices to best tackle situations.
  • Everyone is using the same system.

It is a game entirely based on randomness, not only in the loot that drops but even the chance of it dropping, changing, transmuting, upgrading etc. In short, nearly everything is random to an extent and its that way for a reason. Part of it might be nefarious in nature to extend the life of the game, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a valid reason as well; it just matters in how it is done. For Diablo, this crossed the line with Diablo III where the real money auction house was introduced. What was once seen as an acceptable mechanic (such as the reasons above) was now instantly seen as a way to nickel and dime players. It took a system that had merit and warped it into some evil. Once the real money auction house was removed, players again became fine for the random mechanics as it was once again seen for its positive attributes.

However, Diablo’s case is on the extreme end, but it represents the slew of games that exists where the primary method of acquiring items is through random chests. For other games, where randomness isn’t as prevalent, chests (purchasable or otherwise) and random purchases have served other valid game functions.

Balance

The most important reason for chests and random purchases to exists in most games (for a valid reason) is due to the economy. Many games that use an in-game currency to dictate some of a game’s mechanics typically do not account for a certain amount of currency being earned by players. This can be due to a variety of factors ranging from poor planning on the developers part to an intentional design decision. MMO’s have made use of this mechanic for a long time as a way to keep their economies in check.

Guild Wars 2, uses gold in an indirect way to give the same result as purchasing chests. Rather than using the gold to buy a chest full of random items, you instead use your gold to purchase items in hopes of crafting legendary or other special items. In this case, the purchasable chest is with what is involved in the creation of the item. It serves as a way to keep excess money and check while also making sure it maintains value through a much longer period of the game.

Guild Wars 2 Legendary Armor

MMO’s are not the only genre to take make use of this concept, in fact, many modern RPGs does this. For example, Horizon Zero Dawn uses shards to purchase various boxes that provide materials for crafting and other functions. However, there is also the Modification Box which, provides a random rarity modification when opened. Its existence is not to serve as the primary way to receive modifications, but rather, serves as a way to spend excess shards. This serves both the function of keeping a player’s shards in the count while also providing value to the in-game economy all the way up until the end game.

Again we are left with the question, where is the line? We have a slew of games that use random chests and random purchases as a primary mechanics that is considered completely valid. On the other hand, we have titles like Shadow of War where its clear that a portion of the game has suffered for the sake of including these mechanics. So when does the function of acquiring necessary items within a game via random means become less of a mechanic and more a new line of revenue? It depends.

The Line

Where the line is—entirely depends on the effect of the chest or random acquisition present in the game. If an entire game is based on random acquisitions and no one can obtain an advantage through paying, its ok. If a game uses it as a mechanic to stabilize its in-game economy, that’s fine. However, when a game introduces a random element that affects other players and can be purchased through loot boxes, you now have a grey area. An area that can very easily slip into malicious and predatory depending on how it’s handled, but that’s just it. It’s not the existence of the mechanic that makes its bad, it’s how it’s handled. Not all random is bad, but it certainly can be.

So before we all fly off the handle at the next game that includes a chest, let’s take a moment and think, how does this actually function and is it actually bad?