Here we are in the midst of Overwatch Anniversary, the one-year birthday event for Blizzard's latest and greatest IP. Once again, Blizzard has ponied up a bevy of cosmetic items for players to get their hands on if they're lucky with the loot box rolls.
Overwatch regularly releases content updates and new heroes. These are funded in part by cosmetic items in loot boxes, which are pretty but not at all necessary for the game. For years, many gamers (myself included) have balked at the idea of DLC and had little to no issue with cosmetics funding gameplay where possible. It doesn't affect the game after all, right? As an example, I've purchased multiple skin packs in Killing Floor (even for skins I wasn't super enthusiastic about) to throw some more money to the devs for releasing free updates.
The thing is, the way loot boxes work in this particular game is a bit nasty. You'll earn a loot box every time you level up in the game (which roughly takes around an hour of gameplay). You can also get three bonus loot boxes from the Arcade once per week by winning nine games (and you still earn experience towards leveling along the way). You get things at a relatively steady rate, and it feels just about right were it not for how the loot inside the boxes is handled.
Let's break it down by the numbers. There are 1,916 unlockable items in the Hero Gallery (excluding the five skins from Origins Edition and the two unlockable sprays & skins from the Heroes of the Storm Nexus challenges). Going by the numbers in one of the wikis, there are an additional 227 unlockable Player Icons from loot boxes making for a total of 2,143 items to unlock. Most of it is sprays and player icons. Thanks to the drop rates being disclosed due to a law in China, we know that on average you'll get a Rare (blue) item in every loot box, an Epic (purple) item every 5.5 boxes on average, and a Legendary (Orange) in every 13.5 boxes on average.
Although we know the averages for what rarity of item you'll get, as far as we know you have an even chance of getting all items in that rarity class. This also includes duplicates, so it's possible to get a Legendary item that you already have. In the cases of duplicates, you'll get a measly 20% of their value in Credits (rather than something like the 50% one might expect). In addition, you can also get a bundle of currency that's below the equivalent value of an item; a Legendary currency drop will give you 500 Credits, which is half the value of purchasing a standard Legendary skin.
When events roll around, the rules change up a bit. Event loot boxes guarantee one item from the event apiece. Event items cost three times as much as non-event items in terms of credits, and to make things worse, you still get the same terrible rate of 20% of the standard price. The 200 credits you get for a duplicate event Legendary is 1/15th the credit cost to purchase an event Legendary. If you really want one of these items, the pressure is on as an event in the game typically lasts three weeks.
So, in summation: every time you open up a loot box it's a complete dice roll. You're guaranteed at least a Rare, but most of the Good Stuff™ is Rare or Epic quality, which is one in every 5.5 boxes or 13.5 boxes, respectively. Duplicates give you 1/5th the value for standard items and 1/15th the value for event items. Credit drops give you around half the equivalent purchase value of an item (or way less for an event item). There are over two thousand distinct items in the game and that number is growing.
Any one of these features might not be so bad, but all of them combined can make for some comically frustrating experiences. As you increase in level, the odds of you getting duplicates increases and the credit curve is just so off that it feels miserable. You can open up duplicate items in the same box, for goodness sake. To paraphrase The Martian's fictional astronaut Mark Watney, it's a real dick punch.
Blizzard apologists can and do bring up several points, some of which are quite salient. These are cosmetic items, none of which are necessary to the game. Updates to Overwatch are completely free. You get a free loot box at the opening of every event, you can earn them at a reasonable pace, and the Arcade loot boxes provide additional opportunities for earning more. Plus, Blizzard has to pay all of those people to keep the proverbial lights on.
Does this excuse the absolute dumpster fire that is the loot box system in Overwatch? Not just no, but hell no. So what, if anything, could Blizzard do to fix it?
The first and most obvious solution is to stop making duplicates a thing. Assuming you could get these in just any loot box (which you can't, on account of time-limited event stuff), it would take 536 loot boxes to get your hands on everything. If you wanted to spend your money as efficiently as possible, you'd buy eleven 50 loot box bundles, which would run you $439.89 (possibly including tax) or whatever your regional equivalent may be. This happens in a game where you already pay $39.99 right out of the gate. As for events, with at least 100 items in each box ... well, assuming the "at least one event item per box" metric, it would take a somewhat hefty chunk of cash to get everything. Let's say that an event loot box guaranteed at least 2 items. That'd be 50 loot boxes, which will run you another forty bucks right there (likely a bit more, as it's over 100 items in each event). This system might also necessitate doing away with currency altogether.
Another potential idea is to increase the credit reward for duplicates to something more reasonable like 50%. (At 100%, that's just about the same as removing duplicates.) That would be a nice incremental step. This would also be greatly helped by scaling the reward for time-limited event skins so a duplicate Legendary gives you 1500 Credits instead of 500. (Hey, you can just buy a regular Legendary instead! that's not so bad!)
Blizz could also make it possible to buy individual skins. In the Overwatch Anniversary event, there is one skin I really want, three skins I kind of want, and the rest I'm ambivalent about. I'd like about half of the dance emotes. Considering the way the math works out now, I'd probably spend the money to buy these items directly rather than gambling in Blizzard's slot machine-like system, and that's why this probably won't be put into the game anytime soon.
Finally, they could add a skin "market" like Valve does. Hey, hate on CS:GO and TF2's crate & key systems all you like, but at least I can click a button and just buy an item I really want.
A system like this can hook whales—the rare player that will spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a game. Even so, I'd be hard-pressed to hear an argument where someone spending hundreds of dollars just isn't good enough. If there were a finite amount of stuff in the game, it might not be so bad, but we get another 100+ things added to the pool at least six times a year (possibly more, if we get new events). That doesn't include any other releases added to the pool like a new hero (which adds almost as much stuff to the loot box pool as an event) or little updates to existing characters like the new Reinhardt skins we got with the release of Eichenwald.
I'll admit that I'm terrible at math and probability. Other people aren't, and the numbers they've run paint a bleak picture—thousands and thousands of loot boxes to get everything. I imagine very few people actually care about getting everything. I personally just want a few things. But thanks to this terrible random system that's been thrust upon us (and with less than a 0.1% chance of getting the thing I actually want), I'm stuck rolling the dice again and again hoping to get the things I actually want. If I don't, my only options are spending the pittance of in-game currency I receive for duplicates or buying more loot boxes and hoping for the best (which I'm sure is the entire point).
We're one year into Overwatch, and if you think this system is bad now, I can guarantee you that it is only going to get worse. Most of the items added to the game post-release have been the more expensive event items. We're due for our first repeat event in just under three months (the Summer Games), and Blizzard surely has new content to come along. How much worse are the odds going to be if you now have to pull from a pool of 200+ time-limited items that give you 1/15th their value for duplicates? It's been particularly brutal in the last two events with a bunch of Legendary and Epic items being released; it would take over 50,000 credits to buy everything in the current event. The one year anniversary, touted as a celebration of the community and filled with thanks of all sorts to players and the community at large, is ironically the most expensive one to date.
I might be called "entitled" for saying that a completely optional loot system for cosmetics is terrible, and I don't think that would be a fair thing to say. I have put additional money into the game as it is, and I may well put more in. (The chances of that are rapidly diminishing as I read over my own words explaining just how broken the current loot box system is.) I have no problem buying cosmetics to further support the development of a game I like, but the terrible way Overwatch does things feels like I don't get very much value for my money. Sure, Blizz needs to keep the lights on, but Activision Blizzard is a multi-billion dollar company and Overwatch itself is a billion-dollar franchise.
All of the downsides and pitfalls in the system as it stands are just a bit too much. Thankfully, a change may be on the horizon; it seems like Blizzard has at least acknowledged that players aren't happy. Here's hoping to see a productive change.
Do you think the loot box system in Overwatch is fine as it is or does something need to change? If you could just buy individual items in the game, what would you be willing to pay for each tier of rarity? What's the worst loot box you've ever opened? Let us know in the comments below!