How Have Indie Games Remained Immune to the Loot Box Controversy?

The various strategies indie devs employ prove that loot boxes aren’t a necessary evil.

2 months ago by Nate Hohl

If you like to keep up to date with the latest news and trends within the gaming community, you have no doubt heard about (and likely even experienced firsthand) the growing trend of developers putting random loot box systems into their games.

What used to be a practice that was confined to free-to-play games and multiplayer titles has now started to creep into single-player games as well, as the recently released Middle-earth: Shadow of War proves, and similar systems have already appeared or will appear in games like Gears of War 4, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Destiny 2, Call of Duty: WWII, and Star Wars Battlefront 2, just to name a few.

However, indie titles, even bigger ones which attract thousands of players, have remained largely immune to the presence of loot boxes, and we here at Indie Obscura thought it would be interesting to explore the whys and the hows behind said loot box immunity. As you’ll see below, the strategies which some indie developers have adopted prove that putting random loot boxes into your game (and thus running a high risk of ticking off your players) isn’t the only viable strategy for turning a profit.

That Old Familiar Beat

Now, before I start to dive too far into specifics, I know it’s worth mentioning that, in many cases, indie games don’t really *need* to resort to random loot boxes in the first place. The overall cost of making your average indie game is usually a lot lower than what it costs to make a larger AAA title, but such is not always the case.

Going by what the industry as a whole classified as “indie,” one could argue that League of Legends developer Riot Games is indie, or that Warframe developer Digital Extremes is indie. Heck, even *Valve* could be considered indie, if only because it doesn’t have any other company to answer to but itself.

I’ll definitely cover how each of the above studios circumvents the need for loot boxes in its own way, but I figured I’d start out with a more universal option which quite a few indie devs have turned to in the past: offering bonus physical items, most often of which are soundtracks for their respective games.

I know that AAA developers often offer physical items as well, but it’s usually only as part of a very expensive collector’s edition and thus not an appealing prospect for the general masses. I also know it likely costs even more money to produce those items, which is why I think it would help if more AAA studios offered digital bonuses that weren’t tied directly to their respective games.

If fans could buy digital items for their favorite AAA games like soundtracks, artwork, short stories (for more narrative-driven games), or even more niche items like phone ringtones, that could help to offset development costs to a degree without having to resort to loot boxes. Such a route likely wouldn’t be ideal for every AAA game out there, but it would still be worth at least considering in most cases.

Embrace the Grind

If you were to watch a few trailers for Digital Extremes’ online co-op space ninja title Warframe without knowing anything about it beforehand, you’d likely be very surprised to discover it was an entirely free-to-play experience. The game has some pretty slick visuals and a gameplay format which embraces fast-paced combat and high-speed acrobatic mobility.

However, one thing it hasn’t embraced in the four years since its launch is random loot boxes. Instead, Warframe gives players the option of working towards the specific rewards they want or paying real money to cut down on the time investment needed to get those rewards. If you have cash to burn, you can go into Warframe’s in-game market and buy pretty much any weapon or cosmetic item or playable Warframe (the game’s version of character classes) you want.

Alternatively, if you’d rather earn those items through gameplay, you can do so by purchasing an item’s blueprint with in-game currency and then hunting down the specific materials you need through grinding. Sure, acquiring some items can involve *a lot* of grinding, and there are a few items which can only be bought with real money, but even in the case of the latter, you still know exactly what you’re paying for, no random elements to deal with.

If AAA developers wanted to build up some good will with fans while also finding consistent ways to make their games continuously profitable, they could do a lot worse than by following Warframe’s example. Instead of random loot boxes, give players guaranteed paths towards the items they really want and then give them a choice: do they want to invest their time into the grind or invest their cash so they can skip the grind?

Granted, such a system does run the risk of ticking off players for different reasons (no one likes to feel like they’re caught in an endless grindfest after all), but given the choice between a guaranteed method of getting something I want or having to rely on randomized chance, I’d always prefer the former over the latter.

 Buying and Selling

Earlier I mentioned Valve, the company best known for its digital PC storefront Steam but also as the developer behind games like Dota 2, Team Fortress 2, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. I am fully aware that such games also utilize their own random loot crate systems which often require the purchase of keys with real-life money to be opened (and that such systems have been around for a long time), but those same loot crate systems also feed into another element that most other AAA games don’t have: a player-driven market.

The Steam Marketplace allows users to buy, sell, and trade items from different Valve games, making the whole idea of random loot crates a bit more palatable since people who buy and open the crates know that any items they don’t want they can usually just sell, and in some cases those items can turn quite a tidy little profit depending on how rare they are.

Now, I’m not suggesting that AAA developers try and implement player-driven markets into their own games (we all remember how well that went for Blizzard and Diablo 3), but the desire to trade items is definitely one that players have floated in the past, and it’s something that could be implemented in pretty much any game that now has random loot boxes.

Again, it probably wouldn’t be a perfect system for everyone, but if there were two players who each had an item the other wanted, suddenly the fact that they got their respective items from random loot boxes wouldn’t matter so much if they could just trade them to each other.

 Putting Some Skin in the Game

They say that sometimes the best solution to a problem is the simplest one, and League of Legends has managed to make that saying true to some degree. The popular MOBA title helped to pioneer the idea of supporting a F2P game with cosmetic microtransactions, more specifically the various alternate skins that are available for each of the game’s playable champions.

While the champions themselves can be either bought or earned via gameplay, skins can only be purchased with real money, creating an interesting sort of economy where players can help support League of Legends in multiple ways, either by playing and unlocking champions to bolster the game’s metrics, buying skins (and other items) for real cash and supporting the game financially, or both.

Sadly, most AAA publishers would clearly rather force players to deal with random loot boxes than letting them just buy the items they want directly, and the unfortunate truth is that, over time, the former strategy is a lot more lucrative in most cases. Plus, we’ve seen with games like Gears of War 3 and Evolve how easily the concept of offering a bunch of optional cosmetic DLC right from the start can quickly get out of hand.

If a AAA publisher were ever to adopt such a strategy, however, it’s clear they would have to take a “less is more” approach, at least initially, and I’d also argue that such a system could work if it was maybe paired with a loot box system wherein less desirable items could be bought directly and more desirable items could only be found in loot boxes.

Not an elegant solution, I know, but it would be better than having random loot boxes be our one and only option.  

No matter how prevalent random loot box systems continue to be over the coming years, I at least believe there are a few things AAA publishers and developers could learn from their indie brethren. Yes, AAA game development is expensive, and yes random loot boxes can help to greatly offset those costs, but AAA publishers also need to consider the longterm effects of such systems.

I doubt we’ll ever fully reach the nightmare scenario in which every game (or at least every AAA game) has some sort of random loot box system, but if gamers continue to think that such a scenario is a distinct possibility, that won’t do much to help with game sales either.