With so little official news about Red Dead Redemption 2 being available, discussion loops back to comparisons with Grand Theft Auto V and GTA Online time and time again. A recurring topic is that, seeing how successful the Shark Card microtransaction system of GTA Online has become, the same system is bound to be implemented in Red Dead Online, the multiplayer mode of the upcoming Western.
But what if Rockstar jumps on the lootbox bandwagon instead?
Lootboxes have become a commonplace method of distributing content in-game and is the AAA industry’s newest method of turning games into services instead of products you buy just once. The random nature of lootboxes coupled with designs that play on human psychology means these boxes can become highly addictive.
The concept behind lootboxes is that instead of players buying specific items at an in-game store, they buy these blind boxes instead. All the items in the game have a percentage chance assigned to them and which determines their availably in the random lootboxes that players obtain. For example, if there are 100 total items available in the game, each lootbox contains two items, and the item you want has a 2% chance of coming up in a single lootbox slot, on average you’d need to open 25 lootboxes to obtain it (25 lootboxes x 2 slots = 50. 2% = 1:50).
The use of this blind box approach to in-game items has become more and more common in recent years. Publishers like to use this relatively new method of monetization because it maximises recurrent spending from players. While selling currency will result in players buying the minimum required currency for what they need and purchasing those items, lootboxes remove the guarantee of actually getting what you want, occasionally forcing multiple purchases in cases where a single purchase of currency microtransactions would do.
However, there is more to lootboxes.
Naturally, on paper, this is something every consumer should hate. You’re paying real money for in-game content, but you don’t even know what that content is, or if it even is useful? Who would do this? That’s where the spectacle comes into play. The opening of lootboxes is dressed up in a way that makes the user feel rewarded. There are fancy animations, sound effects and unique cues for when a particularly valuable item pops up. You’re congratulated, and you feel like you accomplished something – even though you just paid $5 for a new skin for a character you don’t even play.
Another way this spectacle plays into the allure of the lootbox is by pushing video game video sharing to its limits. To some people, the idea of watching another person play a game seems like nonsense – why not play it yourself? However, watching other people open lootboxes en masse in videos or even streams has become popular online.
To add to the wealth of such videos on sites like YouTube, we’ve got an anecdote of our own. Two years ago at a one-week LAN gaming event, one day a particularly wealthy attendee made a show of opening 100 lootboxes in CounterStrike: Global Offensive in a row. A crowd formed around him, and they would cheer whenever a valuable item popped up. These people would be enamored by the idea of lootboxes, or being the guy who opens 100 in a row.
These things are designed to hook players, to get them addicted. That small sense of accomplishment of games in the past when you, say, leveled up or defeated a boss, has been replaced by an insatiable urge, a base need, of opening more boxes to have shiny confetti shower on your screen.
So where does Red Dead Online factor into this?
Well, Take-Two’s policy of pursuing recurrent player spending is no secret. GTA Online thrives on Shark Cards, which see players paying real cash for in-game currency, and their recently released NBA 2K18 has an overwhelming number of microtransactions of its own.
Red Dead Redemption 2 stands to be the company’s biggest release in years when it finally drops in early 2018 and this means there will have been no expense spared in making it the most polished game it can be – expense which needs to be earned back. Sure, GTA 5 broke even within hours of launch, however Red Dead isn’t as widely a known franchise, and while it’s guaranteed to turn a profit, Rockstar can’t be sure that it will end up bringing revenue for as many years as GTA Online has.
Rockstar has always been known to stick with the times, if not be the very developer who leads the charge in various innovations. Lootboxes as a system to ensure recurrent player spending, in spite of what the vocal element of the gaming community says, have been proven to work. You may not think lootboxes are worth it, I may not think lootboxes are worth it, and no member of the Red Dead Redemption 2 subreddit or our forums may think lootboxes are worth it, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re irrelevant.
For every major fan of Red Dead, for every player deeply involved in the gaming community, there are a few hundred casual members of the mainstream audience who will eat up lootboxes like candy. Oh, this Buffalo Crate (Bison Box? Supply Cache?) didn’t drop the color of horse I wanted, so I might as well pay five bucks for another. Ah, but I need another revolver for dual wielding, so there goes another fiver…
This, however, doesn’t mean the end of the world. Though there are very few example where lootbox monetization systems aren’t exploitative, it can be done. So long as lootboxes can be purchased with currency earned through gameplay in addition to being bought, and thus not forcing players to shell out real cash (check out the Overwatch system, for example), it shouldn’t be too big of a problem. This would also necessitate a fair balance between the prices of lootboxes and the rate of earning currency in game.
Of course, there is a real chance that Rockstar won’t step away from the system that worked so well for GTA Online, and simply use a similar microtransaction based monetization scheme.
Summer is almost over, and in spite of Rockstar promising to reveal further information about Red Dead Redemption during the summer, we still know as little now as we did right after the delay was announced. Whether Rockstar will release something – anything – in the coming days is a slim bet, but we’ll be keeping an eye out nonetheless.