Anyone reading gaming news lately has no doubt encountered droves of articles concerning lootboxes, which seem to be the AAA game industry's new favorite way to monetize games.
All the cool games on the block are doing it, and on paper the finances seem to indicate that the system works. However some recent controversies might convince Take-Two not to force them onto Red Dead Redemption 2, or to otherwise implement them in a more consumer friendly manner.
We've known since the game's announcement that Red Dead Redemption 2 will have a multiplayer mode similar to GTA Online, and following the last earnings report from Take-Two we also know that Red Dead Online will have "recurrent player spending opportunities".
Considering how widespread the lootbox system has become, appearing even in single player games like Middle Earth: Shadow of War and Assassin's Creed: Origins (though in the latter they can only be bought with in-game currency, not real money, and are thus an example of lootboxes done right) and continuing to be popular across multiplayer titles like Overwatch and Rainbow 6: Siege, it's not a far-fetched assumption that Take-Two was planning something similar for Red Dead Online.
However, following a few high profile debacles, most notably the recent controversies surrounding whether lootboxes can count as gambling and the outcry regarding the pricing schemes of EA's Star Wars: Battlefront 2, the Red Dead Redemption 2 team might opt for a different approach to monetization.
Looboxes have earned the ire of the gaming community at large, becoming a widely condemned practice. At the same time, the numbers speak for themselves. Lootboxes keep increasing the long-term profitability of games, which is why companies are pushing them.
Something to remember with the gaming community is that said "community" - meaning the people who engage with one another and with developers online - is a minority among the consumer base. For every angry fan talking about boycotting lootboxes on social media there are 100 voiceless consumers who buy into the system.
What's different this time is the magnitude of dissent.
Anger towards lootboxes is nothing new, but the controversy around Battlefront 2's handling of them seeped down into the wider consumer base, and had a significant negative effect on review scores.
As skewed a metric as it is, many publishers consider Metacritic as the be-all-end-all qualitative factor (to the extent that some issue bonuses to employees based on Metacritic scores), and while most of Battlefront 2's reviews are in-progress and thus not tallied, things are not looking good - at least, with corporate eyes. To game company executives, a 7/10 is an abomination, a failure, a disgrace.
Looking at the landscape through Take-Two's eyes, three things would likely be most noticeable: lootboxes are hated, lootboxes make money, and GTA Online makes more money.
Thing is, GTA Online doesn't have lootboxes (thankfully), and it consistently makes the highest profit from digital sources quarter to quarter among publicly traded game publishers. This means that Rockstar is capable of maintaining a huge "recurrent consumer spending" economy without resorting to lootboxes.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is going to be a huge release, but so was Battlefront 2, and the latter was seriously marred by the controversy.
Almost every review about the game says something along the lines of it being a great title brought down by the botched microtransaction system.
Take-Two has a lot more riding on Red Dead Redemption 2 than EA had on Battlefront 2, meaning they might look at this example and make the Wild West free of "buffalo crates" (or whatever you want to call them).
At the same time, there exist examples of lootboxes done well in the industry.
We mentioned Assassin's Creed: Origins above, which doesn't turn into a money-sink (though we question the logic of lootboxes in a singleplayer title), and another prime example of non-trash lootboxes is Blizzard's Overwatch.
The key lies in giving players reasonable ways to acquire lootboxes without spending real money, meaning not pricing them exorbitantly, while keeping actual gameplay-changing content out of lootboxes. In Overwatch, everything is cosmetic, while in Battlefront 2, if some kid spent $400 on microtransactions, they'll have access to heroes, better guns, secondary abilities and more.
Based on GTA Online's huge amounts of post-launch content, Rockstar will very likely support Red Dead Redemption 2 and Red Dead Online with a lot more than just cosmetic DLC. Should the game incorporate lootboxes that give players advantages, it will likely bring with it its own controversy.
Since we know that no microtransactions isn't an option, the best methodology at this point would be copying the GTA Online system.
Rockstar has proven their talent in game development more than enough times for us not to be worried about the quality of Red Dead Redemption 2, but the question of how monetization will be incorporated is still in the air.
Take-Two Interactive is sitting in an advantageous spot where they know the game will sell well, so chances are they'll ride that wave and hopefully give a pass on lootboxes.