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Overwatch’s loot box system is Blizzard’s true masterpiece

Overwatch’s loot box system is Blizzard’s true masterpiece


The maddening genius of the loot box

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Photo: Blizzard Games

It’s been barely a week since Blizzard dropped its Overwatch anniversary event, and dedicated players have already started obsessing over how to collect as much as possible and maximize their time before it closes. There are exhaustive Reddit threads analyzing just how many in-game credits are required to purchase every new item. You can also find article after article breaking down all the new in-game emotes and skins so players can prioritize how best to spend their virtual currency.

the ‘Overwatch’ business model could become the gold standard for shooters

The most astounding part is that none of this matters at all. Every item is cosmetic: they won’t make you run faster, deal more damage, or collaborate better with your teammates. Everything Blizzard has included in the update, and every update prior to the anniversary event, is designed to be an aesthetic flourish. You can get your hands on a funny dance animation, or a slickly designed new skin that makes a character look like a futuristic space marine or even a beekeeper.

More than anything, the anniversary event illustrates why Blizzard’s business model for Overwatch is such a successful departure for multiplayer shooters — and how it could become the gold standard going forward. Because Blizzard doesn’t sell in-game currency at a 1:1 ratio, like many other modern games with collectibles, players are forced to buy bulk packs of loot boxes.

These boxes have a random chance of dropping something you’ll want. But more often than not, they contain stuff you already have. There’s also a currency in the game that will let you buy items directly, yet you can only earn that currency by opening a loot box. So think of this system as like trading card booster packs, where you might have a slight chance of getting a rare card grouped in with a bunch of so-so ones.

Photo: Blizzard Games

Players can purchase large amounts of loot boxes at once to maximize their odds of getting a desirable item (or to amass more gold). But the better approach — and the one most players have figured out — is that you need to pick and choose which items you really want and focus only on those. (It’s worth noting that Blizzard on Friday responded to frustrated fans who feel the loot box system for the anniversary event is unfairly stingy and not weighted toward new items. The developer says its monitoring the situation and looking into ways to improve it for special events.)

This system of never letting you purchase anything with real money manages to keep most players’ self-destructive buy-everything impulses at bay, while also creating a clear path toward generating money over time. (Blizzard has not disclosed concrete Overwatch revenue figures beyond saying it’s a billion-dollar franchise, but the title has amassed more than 30 million registered players in its first year alone.)

It’s worth considering how this stacks up to other games in the industry. Modern video game business models are fascinating because they contain radically different tactics all bundled into a single product. For blockbuster games, you have the disc in a box for $60, the season pass of downloadable content for $40, or perhaps the $250 physical collector’s edition. Then you have the cosmetic upgrades that cost in-game currency — weapon skins and costumes and silly emotes — and blind box-style mechanisms for randomly generated digital goodies governed by arcane mathematics.

‘Overwatch’ has a balanced and sensible approach to loot

Photo: Blizzard Games

Then there’s free-to-play games, which help players justify spending even more money on these add-ons by reminding them they already received something for nothing, as well as titles with monthly subscription fees to continue playing. Games nowadays are about how to both maximize the value players feel they’re receiving and keep those players spending money over time without feeling cheated.

In Overwatch, Blizzard has created perhaps the most balanced and sensible approach. It may not be the most lucrative model — League of Legends developer Riot Games made $1.7 billion in microtransactions in last year, according to game analytics firm SuperData Research, while Clash of Clans maker SuperCell generated $2.3 billion in 2016. But Overwatch undoubtedly has one of the most fine-tuned revenue models of any modern game.

By giving players free updates every two months or so and charging nothing to access this content, Overwatch ingratiates itself to its fast-growing user base, which already paid $40 to buy the game outright. Because of this, many of these players in turn feel more comfortable giving money to Blizzard for loot boxes, which remarkably don’t even come with a guarantee that a desired item will pop out once opened.

Because the quality of these cosmetic upgrades is so high, players still respond in feverish, must-have-it fashion. The anniversary event, for instance, contains 11 new player skins. Each one is a painstakingly designed visual refresh: the samurai Genji can now look like a full-blown Power Ranger, and rollerskating DJ Lucio has a full jazz makeover that even changes the tune of the music he plays as he skates around the map. This tweet, from Blizzard concept artist Anh Dang, shows just how much work goes into each one of these skins:

So Blizzard seems to have mastered its microtransaction approach by giving the collectible card and toy model a digital makeover, with cosmetic add-ons players actually value. Of course, not every developer can amass fans like Blizzard. There are few franchises, save perhaps Nintendo properties, that can match the dedication of the Overwatch fandom — the game outranked every TV show and movie in Tumblr engagements over the last year.

But Blizzard’s carefully crafted business model is as equally impressive as Overwatch’s popularity. It proves that games can exist as cohesive online services without demanding players continue to pay money to keep pace with the most relevant updates. If a developer designs game elements with enough polish and care — and considers the core player experience sacred enough to never tamper with — players might go so far as to demand they be allowed to spend more of their own money.