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Published by Elijah Beahm on Editorial

Lootboxes are the talk of the town across all gaming, and never is it more evident how out of control this is all getting than when you examine mobile games. Even some of our favorite titles suffer from these microtransactions, and in the case of one game, they go far beyond the definition of “micro”.

It has to be said, while we certainly loved our time with Stormbound: Kingdom Wars, it’s one of many games that have come to symbolize what is so fundamentally broken about freemium economies on mobile, and the gross inflation of pricing schemes surrounding lootboxes.

Stormbound: Kingdom Wars presents players with four warring kingdoms – as it aptly states in its title. Forgoing the traditional multiplayer-only stylings of its brethren, Stormbound instead opts for ample offline and online content. Combat is intuitive and the offline component also ensures you can play the game at your own pace. It gets you comfortable before the grind starts, but that’s where things start to take a less fortunate turn.

Gotta Collect Em All!

You see, Stormbound: Kingdom Wars is a CCG (collectible card game) as much as it is a strategy game. This means virtually every unit is unlocked at random. Even the daily cards offered at relative discount are offered seemingly at random. Cards range in quality, up to Epic cards that are the hardest to acquire and most desirable. Even when you manage to receive one, there’s no telling if the card will be useful to you.

This becomes more egregious when you consider the fact that the only guaranteed means of instantly receiving an Epic tier card is either spending $9.99 USD for 120 units in the game’s premium Rubies currency for an 80 ruby Mythic Book (see: lootbox), or spending $19.99 USD flat for a faction-specific book (see: a fancier lootbox) with one guaranteed epic and six other cards of varying quality. The latter of which is in the Special Offers section, to indicate this is a “great” deal.

A whopping $19.99, which could buy you multiple premium priced mobile games or home gaming titles, for virtual cards that you aren’t even guaranteed will be what you’re looking for. As a “special offer” – like it’s an amazing courtesy granted to you. This, here, is the true cost of free to play games in the current marketplace, and the fact we’ve let it get this far is deplorable.

This would be annoying in an offline-only game, but Stormbound: Kingdom Wars also has a strong multiplayer component built entirely around players throwing their decks at one another. It’s almost guaranteed that if you have the cash to waste, you’ll have better odds of perfecting your card hand than the person playing Stormbound: Kingdom Wars purely as a free to play game. That’s a bit galling a prospect, isn’t it? Yet, it’s been accepted for a long time.

Back On the Farm(ville)

You see, this all started right at the end of traditional $2.99 to $4.99 mobile games with the arrival of Farmville. Farmville was free, had an exceptionally low skill ceiling, and introduced players to the idea that they could speed up their progress by just spending tiny amounts of money to grease the wheels of production.

Rather than offering challenge, Farmville adapted to be playable whenever you had a moment, melding to your schedule, but also slowly increasing the wait times so you’d get just a bit more impatient. Not outright irritation, but a subtle itch that would get under your skin. A little nudge growing in strength, pushing you towards spending a dollar or two so your crops would grow faster.

It sounds almost quaint to think that such blatant pay-to-win methods weren’t the norm, but these were once upon a time, exceptionally rare. However, Farmville and a swell of clones chasing its success tapped into something also found in the Chinese PC gaming market: If it’s free and follows the principles of a Skinner Box, it’s quite possible to take games that weren’t even necessarily great, and turn them into addictive loops that can hook players. While the ‘Ville subgenre has fallen somewhat by the wayside, the core ideas underlying shortcuts never went away. Instead, they’ve actually festered and become worse: the lootbox.

Can I Interest You in a Rare Unmarked Crate?

It’s no longer about earning a specific item, but earning the right to gamble in hopes of acquiring the item you might want – and the make you want it. That lootbox/crate/book you get has gone through dozens of hours of iteration. Nailing the most exciting build up with the unlock animation. Making even items you don’t want seem appealing with special effects. Drop rates ensuring the items you actually want are drip fed to you over time at -just- the right speed to ensure you keep unlocking more and more crates by playing more and more of their games.

In the case of multiplayer, this even ensures the player base themselves are a content resource. By always having players wanting for more, they keep engaging with each other – including reaching the point of not enjoying the game, but simply pressing on because they’re “so close” to getting that next crate.

One of the most prominent examples of this is not on mobile but on PC and consoles, with Blizzard’s Overwatch. The entire game’s lootbox economy is built around keeping the player engaged with its Arcade, Competitive, and Quick Play modes in equal measure so that no game mode grows short on players. Any item you unlock is purely cosmetic, but Overwatch gets around that by ensuring you want those cosmetic items.

The entire Overwatch brand exists to ingratiate players to the universe, like Hasbro did years ago with animated TV shows to promote the Transformers toys. It’s a self-perpetuating product. The characters sell you on the world, the game is fun enough to hook you in, and the lootboxes offer a chance to leave “your” mark on the world with a set of skins tailor made to entice you.  The icing on the cake? Seasonal events build on top of this with limited-time items that you have to try and earn quick as you can before they’re gone.

Except it’s not just cosmetic lootboxes now. It’s gotten to the point where that cosmetic-only lootboxes are considered “fair”, when games like Overwatch still let you spend upwards of $49.99 USD on blind lootboxes, hoping that you’ll get that special skin for Tracer that you keep not receiving.  That’s a quarter of a family’s weekly grocery budget, spent on content that is bound to a single game, with no value outside of personal ownership, on top of buying the game itself.

An All Too Familiar Battlefront

Now, Mobile developers have gone on record to state that often less 2% of their players spend money on in-app purchases. It’s not about getting everyone’s money, but milking money from players not-so-affectionately referred to as whales.

Whales are players who have disposable income and will drop a pretty penny on a game. Sometimes it’s to get an edge and achieve a power fantasy. In worse cases, a whale could be someone with gambling addiction tendencies. No matter the reason, whales can sometimes end up spending upwards of thousands of dollars a month on mobile titles. Not always something top of the line like Hearthstone either – one reddit user admitted to spending over $10,000 USD on a Hobbit tie-in mobile game.

It gets worse – now traditional home console titles are implementing these same predatory monetization approaches. There’s a reason we at Appolicious take it upon ourselves to note when a game has these sorts of microtransactions and lootboxes, particularly when they’re unfair to the user. Unfortunately, these mechanisms are so profitable for publishers that in the current market, it’s seen unusual to not have some sort of post-purchase monetization system.

Which brings us back to Stormbound.

A Storm on the Horizon

I want to be clear here – we genuinely enjoyed Stormbound as a game. It’s got excellently detailed art, solid gameplay, and an enchanting setting. However, just like so many games before it (and doubtless, games to come), it relies on unfair means of making a profit for its developers. What should be an unfettered gem is unfortunately stained by troubling business practices that abound in today’s market. We understand that ad revenue is declining, and traditional full-price purchases are a hard sell in a market saturated with new titles on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. It’s not even that microtransactions are a problem, if accounted for correctly. For example: Terminator Genysis: Future War, a real-time management strategy game, as all the same sort of shortcuts that Farmville did, but it balances out these advantages by rewarding skilled players who understand how to best use their base over someone who dropped cash to get ahead.

Lootboxes, meanwhile, are something far more pervasive. It’s behaviorist conditioning combined with trading cards, except not even for a real, physical item. You are intentionally throwing money (or time) to the wind in the hopes you might get an intangible good that is tied to a specific game or service that will, at some point, likely be shut down; especially since so many of the games that rely on lootboxes are multiplayer focused. Be it Stormbound or Battlefront II (2017), as soon as everyone else moves on, your precious lootbox rewards won’t be worth anything. It’s a prospect where everyone except you (the player) wins.

I can’t pretend I can offer a perfect solution to this problem. Right now, the world’s digital economy is shifting, and no one can be quite certain what will be the next means of monetization. One thing is for certain though: lootboxes can’t be the answer.