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How Overwatch makes loot boxes less hateful with good character design

I don't think there are big fans of loot boxes out there, but some games are able to implement them well enough to at least get some sympathy. Let's take a look at how Overwatch does it and how it relates to the game's character design.

 

At launch, according to some estimates made by fans, it would take 40 hours of playing to earn enough credits to buy Darth Vader on Battlefront II, EA's new Star Wars game. Players thought this was abusive and the backlash got so big that EA reduced in 75% the prices of some characters in the game. And then removed microtransactions a few days later.

The boxes in the game may contain credits that can be used to buy new heroes or more boxes, and cards that can be used to upgrade weapons and abilities. So, arguably, a player with more money to spend could use it to get advantages in the game. The backlash is completely understandable and it even caused some governmental institutions to start looking into the ethics of it.

Loot boxes are not a new thing though, they may be starting to get traction on the AAA market now but they’ve been the standard in the mobile f2p space for quite a while. And while many are not fans of this type of reward system, there was never such a big complain about it. I believe that’s because a lot of games implement this in a better way than Battlefront, like Overwatch.

But before that, let’s quickly talk about another controversy, one in Marvel VS Capcom Infinite (I promise, it’s related). 

Fans got disappointed by the lack of certain characters in the latest entry of the series. There’s speculation that Disney wants to promote their Marvel movies in the game and so, X-Men characters from previous entries were all removed. Associate producer Peter Rosas, said in an interview with Gamespot that "If you were to actually think about it, these characters are just functions. They're just doing things." and compared how, for instance, while Magneto (a character used a lot by pros on previous games) isn’t in the game, new characters like Ultron and Captain Marvel have a lot of similar moves to Magneto and can replace him.

The problem is that for most people, characters aren't just functions. Before the game's final roster was announced, you could see fans of the series speculating about what characters should be in the game, cheering for certain ones that never showed up before and so, had no defined "functions" yet. You see the same phenomenon with Smash Bros games. There’s always people asking for new entries like Ridley, Travis Touchdown and Waluigi without having any idea of what their moveset would look like. They’re more interested in the character itself. In it's appearance, personality and so on. If the moveset is good, that's a bonus!

Even for those playing competitively. Eventually they may decide to use a character that functionally suits them better but they have to start somewhere. And at the start they'll probably lean toward a character that appeals to them in a more subjective level. So, it's very important to have interesting characters in your game, specially if it's a character based one.

Now let's finally look at Overwatch. It's Blizzard's first new franchise since Starcraft in 1998 (I know it's weird to think of World of Warcraft as a spin-off, but technically it is) and also the studio’s first multiplayer first person shooter. 

Until 2016 it was not common for these games to be character based. Call of Duty, Halo, Counter Strike, Quake, all the big names from the genre have either customizable characters or generic ones with aesthetic differences but no changes in gameplay. With the exception being, of course, Team Fortress 2, a class based multiplayer FPS from which Overwatch took their biggest inspiration.

Overwatch doesn't have classes though, it has heroes. And this distinction is very important. In Overwatch you’re not playing as a Soldier or a Medic, you’re playing as The Soldier76, The Pharah and The Tracer. Each of them with their unique design and personality. And while the game doesn't have a story mode, each character has a rich backstory that impacts directly it’s design and gameplay. 

The maps are also full of tips about the lore. Players can see big posters of D.Va and learn that she’s a big popstar in that world. They can find Sombra’s bedroom and see that she sleeps with a Teddy Bear. While waiting for a match to start, characters talk among themselves, showing the player how they relate. And of course, there are comics and short animated movies being released to deepen the lore of Overwatch.

With all that, Blizzard gives enough to players to make them have some knowledge of the characters and the world, but not enough for them to be satisfied, it invites players to look for more about the heroes and try to fill the blanks themselves. Fans are given just the right amount of information to create an emotional connection to those characters, to cheer for some, hate others, to imagine stories and create romantic relations between their favorite heroes. There are millions (rough estimate) of fanfics and fanarts out there to show this. And this is part of why Overwatch’s loot box system don’t get as much hate as other loot box systems.

People care about the items they get in OW’s loot boxes because it’s something for their characters, they want a cool new cloth for Hanzo or a cool new dance for Zarya. Because they like those characters, they’ve grew an emotional attachment to them. The more you play, the more this attachment grows and the more you care about making your hero looking cool. “This is called The Sunk Cost Fallacy” told me game designer Maíra Testa, who has been working with f2p games for years now, “the player has already invested so much (time and/or money) that leaving feels more expensive with time (emotionally)”.

Also, all the items inside the boxes are cosmetic, there are no weapons or characters to be acquired. You’re already paying $60 for the game so all the characters are free. Since this is a new franchise, the characters are all new and might not be well known enough for the player to feel like spending money on them. Making the characters to be available from the start gives the player a chance to try them and build a stronger connection.

And of course, you don’t need to spend real money in Overwatch to get items, but to do so you need to play more than people that choose to pay. But these are usually the majority of players, which is good for the game because those are the ones that keep the servers full, allowing people to always find available matches and play more, and get more attached to the characters, and care more about their items and the cycle goes on.

I’m not going to discuss the ethics of all of this here, but I think it’s safe to say that Overwatch loot box system works and it’s something that fits perfectly in the game. Blizzard’s been fine tuning the system since the game’s launch, adjusting prices and giving the players more opportunities to win items, while at the same time giving them more reasons to keep playing. But it wouldn't work if the players didn't care enough about the characters.

You can't think of your characters as just functions and of your microtransactions as just one way of getting more money out of your game, they're all connected parts of your game just like any other mechanic or aesthetic. Maybe loot boxes will go out of fashion soon, and if that happens, something will come to take it’s place, but the point here is that whatever type of microtransaction you decide to add your game, it should be well thought and added to fit the game in a consistent way as part of the whole package, not as something that could just be removed after a few days and a lot of angry complaints.
 

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