Last month, big budget Lord of the Rings game Middle-earth: Shadow of War revealed it would supplement its full-fat price-tag by including loot boxes purchasable with real-world money. It was an announcement which, predictably, did not go down well with fans.
The single-player action adventure has an in-game store, called the Market, that sells orcs and other items for use in the game's Nemesis System. You can also buy loot chests, war chests, XP boosts and bundles. The loot chests contain gear (weapons and armour) of varying rarity. They can also contain XP boosts which, as you'd expect, help level up playable character Talion faster. War chests provide orc followers of varying rarity which you can use to help create a strong army. They can also contain training orders to level up and customise orc followers.
Publisher Warner Bros. accompanied the announcement with reassurances - that anything gained from the loot boxes could also be earned by simply playing the game, that the microtransactions could be ignored completely, and that they were simply an option offered to players as a way of saving time.
So why include them at all? The commercial argument is clear - these things make money and, yes, some of this money will go to supporting the game's developer. But by acknowledging the need to reassure fans it was clear Warner knew this announcement would draw fire Shadow of War's way.
Shadow of War is not the first triple-A game to include loot boxes in it and it will not be the last. Still, it is the latest, and until it is launched and in the wild for people to play for themselves, fans remain at best sceptical and at worst distrustful of the inclusion.
I sat down with Shadow of War's design director Bob Roberts at EGX 2017 to discuss the thorny issue - and to hear his reassurances loot boxes would not distract from the full Shadow of War experience.
What can you say to reassure the fans who will never buy a loot box that Shadow of War has still been balanced with them in mind?
Bob Roberts: We're working our tails off to make this massive game and as a designer - the design director - I focus on balancing it. We do a ton of playtesting and make sure it is tuned to a setting where people can enjoy it. We kept all of the loot boxes and the economy of real world money turned off in playtesting so we know we are balancing around an experience which is rewarding without any of that stuff.
Because some people think you guys have ulterior motives - that you're waiting for a tough bit to pop up an onscreen prompt saying 'hey... have you seen what we're selling...'
Bob Roberts: No - absolutely not. 100 per cent not. It is important to clarify this as there were a couple of misconceptions. First, the concern about balancing - hopefully when it is out there and people are able to talk about their experiences then the balancing question will be answered, hopefully by people you trust to play through it and see that.
The other big misconception was whether the game had to be online too - and it's important for people to understand that no, it's not required to be online to play the game, and it's a massive game where you can enjoy the full experience without putting any extra money in.
Which begs the question - why put it in at all? As a design director your life is spent ensuring players don't get bottlenecked in certain places, that people never run out of resources when they really need them. Why complicate that?
Bob Roberts: Yeah, in the game you earn resources at a regular pace and the systems are tuned to that so you don't need another option. At the same time, it's there as a player choice. It's there, from my perspective, for people who are protective of their spare time and scared when a massive game comes along that they're not getting to see the full experience.
It's the same design philosophy as us adding in difficulty modes. So we now have Easy mode, and we've added Hard mode at the other end of the spectrum. Frankly the Nemesis system comes to life when you are dying loads, so you could see Easy mode as a system which makes the game less enjoyable if you are the type of player who really should have put it on Hard. It's putting more control in people's hands - saying, you know how you play best, you make that choice.
The ideal for people who set it to Easy is if they are just finding things too punishing, not because they don't want to die. We'd rather you die regularly to get the full experience of the Nemesis system.
Right. And you're not saying switch it to Easy and pay for loot boxes.
Bob Roberts: *laughs* Right.
Will you pay for loot boxes?
Bob Roberts: I personally, probably, will just let the systems feed me the rewards as we've balanced them. It's a weird question as a designer - I want to have the experience I think most people will have so I can relate to what people are saying around balancing. I wouldn't want to shortcut anything and then have a skewed perspective of what people are saying around balance in case we do need to go in and update anything later.
Speaking generally, do you think it's fair for full-price triple-A games to feature loot boxes like that? I have chosen to pay for them in the past in other games on the odd occasion - and I'm still not sure how I feel about it.
Bob Roberts: You put your 60 bucks in for a big game like ours upfront and our focus is that its initial purchase price is more than worth it. You want people to be pleasantly surprised by how much stuff is in it.
But I understand the argument that the fact they exist at all as a distraction.
Bob Roberts: Yeah, it's such a charged topic. It's frankly complicated - you see the debate play out online and forum threads where people argue with each other about it.
There's so much complexity to it. Especially when you see articles coming out about our game, or another game, and we have announced a load of new content and we're trying to find out what people think about those things but the conversation keeps coming back to that [loot boxes]. It's interesting to see the discussion but we want to get people's opinions on more than just that.
It dominates the conversation, especially before people have had a good chance to see how it works themselves.
Bob Roberts: Yeah. Obviously we have tuned our game so it works without those things and that including them does not distract from the rest of it.