The best games aren’t being made by big studios anymore

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but the AAA games industry is in a pretty sorry state at the moment. Big publishers spend months hyping their games up only to launch titles that feel designed to squeeze as much money as possible out of players.

Then, when forced to defend these practices, they have the audacity to suggest that their “surprise mechanics” are ethical and fun for everyone involved.

If you’ve been following gaming news lately, you’ll know that I’m talking about Electronic Arts and its farcical defense of loot box mechanics when questioned by the UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sports Committee a couple of weeks back. Kerry Hopkins, EA’s VP of legal and government affairs, now famously referred to loot boxes as “surprise mechanics” and compared them to Kinder Eggs or Hatchimals while noting that the way EA implements these mechanics are “quite ethical and quite fun; enjoyable to players.”

Hopkins’ characterization of loot boxes is laughable at best. As the old saying goes, “if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck,” and that’s true no matter how you might dress it up and present it. Loot boxes are loot boxes whether EA wants to refer to them as something else when under scrutiny from government officials, and they’re becoming a major problem in games that should ostensibly be setting an example for the industry as a whole.

It isn’t just Electronic Arts that’s pulling this nonsense either. There are plenty of companies shoving loot boxes and microtransactions into games that still cost $60 at retail. When developers from Crystal Dynamics got up on stage at E3 2019 and announced that Marvel’s Avengers won’t have loot boxes or pay-to-win mechanics to applause from the audience, it was clear that things are getting bad (though, unsurprisingly, Marvel’s Avengers will still have microtransactions – something that wasn’t mentioned on stage during Square Enix’s show).

The reason Crystal Dynamics can say that and be applauded for it is because we’ve become so accustomed to this kind of nickel-and-diming in major releases that it’s surprising when AAA games promise to launch without it. Really think about that for a second: Loot boxes, microtransactions, crate-and-key mechanics, and battle passes have become so common that it’s becoming novel to see a game that doesn’t have them.

For the most part, it seems that the AAA games industry is more concerned with creating games-as-a-service that can pull money from players on an ongoing basis than they are with creating games that are actually fun and engaging to play. Progression in many of these games is tied to unlockables, which are increasingly obtained by way of opening loot boxes and seeing what you get.

Even aside from the question of whether or not this is encouraging gambling addiction in the people who play these games (some studies suggest they are; EA and organizations like the ESA insist they aren’t), shouldn’t we be alarmed that major games these days are basically digital Skinner Boxes that are designed to reward us proportional to the amount of money we spend after we’ve already bought the game?

Maybe for some people, these loot box and games-as-a-service mechanics aren’t a bother. If I told you that I’d never been excited to level up and earn a loot box in a game like Apex Legends or Overwatch, I’d be lying. Even without spending additional money, though, after a while you begin to question if you’re continuing to play because you’re really having fun or if it’s because your next loot box or cosmetic unlock is on the horizon. When you have that realization, it isn’t a good feeling.