Everyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention to gaming news is likely familiar with the Battlefront 2 fiasco regarding the lootboxes and microtransactions.
The controversy was big enough to prompt EA to turn off microtransactions in the game entirely, but that couldn't quiet the many voices that cried foul. Soon, eyes were turned to other upcoming AAA titles, Red Dead Redemption 2 among them.
While hardly as nefarious as many gamers made it out to be, comments made by Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick regarding monetization didn't help quell the masses.
Taken out of context, his words "recurrent consumer spending opportunities" were like fuel on the fire. Players were on edge about how invasive the microtransactions of the next game from the publisher and developer behind GTA Online will be, and with the whole Battlefront 2 debacle, those worries were magnified.
During an earnings call, Zelnick stated that the company's goal going forward is to put microtransactions into every release, thus practically confirming that Red Dead Online will have them. While there was always no question about this following the huge success of GTA Online's Shark Cards, it did act as some kind of faux-red flag.
Thing is, in that same call - in that same paragraph too - he also said things that clearly highlight that he doesn't intend the company's games to gouge every last cent from players. What's more, in light of the recent controversy, those words are more than just corporate promises, since going down lootbox-lane is a guaranteed disaster.
Let's, for starters, not even deal with those comments, but simply look at the situation from the perspective of your typical AAA corporate bigwig.
It's easy to demonize these people since they can appear to be overly greedy and many may have never even held a controller in their life. But simply put, they want to make money for their shareholders. That's what they are paid to do. Lootboxes, granted, have so-far proven to be a pretty good way of doing that.
They worked for Blizzard, right? Blizzard is doing lootboxes well in the sense that they only provide cosmetic rewards and do not affect performance (in fact, not even progression affects performance in Overwatch, which is better from a gameplay design perspective altogether, but that's a whole other story...).
Then came EA, who as always, butchered the system to be as penny picker-y as possible. This controversy, which was greatly increased in magnitude due to the huge IP it was tied to, reached beyond the core gamer demographic and turned the mainstream opinion against lootboxes.
State commissions are investigating whether to outright ban lootboxes in some countries, Battlefront 2 is one of the worst rated AAA titles this year and players are ridiculing EA en-masse under every single social media post about the game.
It looks really bad.
Now, switching back to corporate-vision, this puts lootboxes into a terrible light. They get your game rated down into oblivion and bring lawmen sniffing.
Take-Two has been big on public image, and Rockstar even moreso - they like having the spotlight for themselves, and when Red Dead Redemption 2 rolls around, they definitely will have it. So it's imperative that there aren't any meltdowns when the entire gaming world is looking.
Microtransactions as a whole have been under constant fire, but the lootbox controversy is the most public and loud example of hostility. In the case of GTA Online, a vocal minority of active hardcore gamers criticise the system, whereas the overwhelming majority of casual players buy in. Lootboxes are now near-universally reviled.
If Red Dead Redemption 2 fielded it's multiplayer component with lootboxes that provided players with weapons, horses and other items that greatly affected gameplay, then slapped huge prices on them while saying "psst, you can also get them for real money", the outrage would rain on the game's parade big time. Take-Two has a lot riding on this release, so that isn't a route they'd want to go down.
Now, we keep referring to Take-Two instead of Rockstar in this piece because usually the developers have little to no influence on how their games get monetized in the AAA sphere. The publisher does the number crunching for profit margins and market research etc, and the developer is simply told to make flashy animations for when the lootbox pops open.
Swinging back to Zelnick's comments, he added some important sentences after talking about bringing microtransactions into all their games:
We are convinced that we are probably from an industry view under-monetizing on a per-user basis[...]
[...]we’re not trying to optimize the monetization of everything we do to the nth degree. My concern is, if you do that, the consumer knows. They might not even know that they know, but they feel it.
He's avoiding EA's big mistake - he doesn't assume the consumers are stupid.
While the controversy around Battlefront 2 is more than legitimate, as the original approach was utterly underhanded and botched, increasing the scope of said controversy to unreleased games, the economies of which we know nothing about, is needless.
Condemning the microtransactions of Red Dead Online, which are as of now completely shrouded in mystery, seems like a manufactured controversy piggybacking on the Battlefront 2 bandwagon.
While this may not have been the killing stroke for lootboxes, they are definitely at the forefront of the industry's collective mind right now due to the state commissions being involved. And while a few have come out on the side of lootboxes, like the UK, many others, including the EU and certain states in the US, have stated that they are, in fact, gambling, and need to be regulated if not outright banned.
Looking at the big picture, the whole "battle" between players and AAA publishers regarding monetization started with DLC becoming widespread roughly a decade ago. Lootboxes are just the newest chapter in this long tale - but it might be the briefest.
Let's just hope what comes next isn't worse.