There’s been a lot of talk about Loot Crates of late.
Most of it is, rightly, negative. It seems you can’t move in this industry any more without stumbling upon a new game that costs £50/$60 up-front and then nickel and dimes you for Loot Crates after you’ve already started getting invested. Overwatch, Shadow of War: Middle Earth, Forza 7, even the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Origins have them. And at a point where consumers are starting to voice their displeasure, I’m actually comforted to see sites like Ars Technica have some backbone and flag games in reviews that have “loot crates” within them.
But to people who reckon this is some kind of “new thing”… well yes, Loot Crates are the ‘new thing’. Not a new thing. But the new thing everyone is rushing into. But consider the industry overall, and you’ll realise something important: this is just the new bandwagon, and the next phase of industry giants shamelessly shooting themselves in the foot in order to pile on the new thing.
The video game industry absolutely has a bandwagon problem.
It’s not even a ‘new thing’; I remember vividly back in the 16-bit era, between the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis), that Nintendo and Sega were hitting it out of the park with Mascot Platformers. Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario World were huge games, and very successful and popular video games in their own right. So what did the industry do in this period? You’re exactly right, disembodied voice in my head – they made a slew of Mascot Platformers.
Cool Spot, Bubsy, Earthworm Jim, Mick and Mack: Global Gladiators, Ristar, Dynamite Headdy (my personal favourite) – and so many, many more to count. Many of these were proper “Mascot Platformers” in terms of being actual mascots of the era. Cool Spot, for example, was the 7-Up dot. Mick and Mack: Global Gladiators promoted McDonalds. Zool promoted Chuppa-Chups lollipops. Heck, you even had Disney bringing actual mascots over – Donald Duck’s Quackshot and Mickey Mouse: Castle of Illusion, for example. It was a slew of 2D Mascot Platformers and not all of them were terrible, it’s fair to say, but it was the success of Sega and Nintendo’s own mascots which drove a huge demand for this, a demand that the industry was only ever too happy to provide.
Then you got into the 3D Era, and games like Tomb Raider, Resident Evil and Doom began to reflect a more “adult” taste in entertainment and so the industry capitalised on this not simply by shifting the tone, but often by changing games into a 3D setting even if it didn’t ultimately work out. With the rise of the PlayStation, grown-up games began to flood the market – horror games, busty female leads, even first-person shooters began their creeping in even if they wouldn’t hit their zenith for another generation. When Final Fantasy 7 was bigger than God, the industry shifted to making JRPGs, even if they weren’t a Japanese studio.
We had Halo in Gen-6; and first-person shooters became the actual in-thing for home consoles. Resident Evil 4 also pushed many games into embracing the over-the-shoulder viewpoint that still remains with us today. Gears of War drove science-fiction action games. The Wii Remote forced Microsoft and Sony to embrace motion controls. I could go on. Look at any successful mega-hit of the past and then look at the next year or two of releases and you’ll often find a lot of people try to emulate that same success.
Of course, there’s a good reason for this. Good ideas tend to stick; and the industry likes to be seen embracing a success. It’s why I argue the Nintendo Switch is getting such a massive amount of support right now – the industry was blindsided by its success, but they’re not going to pretend it’s not happening. That would be silly. Success is paramount; to be seen supporting or copying a thing that is successful keeps you relevant. Staying relevant is key, because if you’re no longer relevant, no-one cares about what you’re doing. If no-one cares, then marketing gets harder and investment dries up.
Basically, everyone wants to keep up with the Joneses. Even if, as has happened numerous times, this means treading on some toes in the process.
Sadly, this also tends to happen from time to time with bad ideas. And the last few years we’ve seen this creeping in; most big releases now have a Season Pass, raising the actual outlay for a video game way past its recommended retail price. We’ve seen Microtransactions embraced, in-game consumables and costumes we have to pay for with additional real-world money. We’ve seen this with the complex weave of Premium Editions – a slew of boxed releases with different content and costumes designed to encourage a handful of fans to buy a game multiple times in order to get all the stuff. We’ve seen this with pre-order campaigns like the Final Fantasy XV pre-order slog or the Deux Ex “Augment Your Pre-Order” disaster. And yes, now we’re seeing it with Loot Crates, as more and more games embrace this mechanism in some capacity.
I’ve said before much of this is to offset increasing costs, mostly in marketing – which is ironic because by adding things like this that annoy consumers, you make it much more challenging for your marketing department to actually sell your product (which means more marketing costs, which means more money-grabbing mechanisms in game, which means more marketing costs… yeah, this is dumb).
But they justify this the same way every time; “Everyone else is doing it, so why can’t I?”
It’s hard to argue against that. If everyone else is doing it, and making money, then why can’t a new release also do the same thing? Why condemn, say, Assassin’s Creed: Origins for the threat of an additional currency that will probably also get sold in bunches alongside the game, yet give something like Overwatch a pass? What makes Blizzard’s implementation, which has seen plenty of criticism by the way, better or perhaps more justifiable than UbiSoft sticking it into Assassin’s Creed (aside the obvious reason that we like Blizzard more than UbiSoft on the whole)?
Still, there is one constant in these trends which I think will give people some cause for optimism – saturation happens.
I’ve explained this before so I’ll keep this brief; think of someone making a delicious pie and a guy eats it all. It is delicious. Then a bunch of other people find out about this delicious pie, say, three other people, and they arrive for pie. The pie now has to be split between four people – perhaps still a good meal, but it’s not the whole pie. Then fifty more people come in, and suddenly the next pie gets cut into teensy-tiny slivers in order to go around. Eventually there are so many people turning up for the pie that dividing it up is pointless – it’s a frenzy as everyone scrambles for the pie in order to get a bit of it, and many end up having to go hungry.
Saturation is the net result of an industry which is a slave to trends. Eventually even the nicest idea is milked dry – I mean, I still think the Wii Remote was great. Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition is the bomb (and I’ll take a JoyCon supported HD port of that on the Switch, Capcom. Thanks!), but then Move and Kinect happened. Kinect was perhaps the saddest bit, Microsoft really wanted it to be bigger than it was but it died a cold, lonely, sad death. It’s why I believe no-one is utilising the basic Wii Remote functionality of the JoyCon right now. They could – and could even improve on the RE4: Wii Edition, but it’s a dead trend. And people only beat a dead horse if everyone else is beating the dead horse too.
Ironically, I think it’ll be the “mid-tier” which starts to smother this. I love that the middle-market is back with a vengeance. Yooka-Laylee, The Sexy Brutale – even Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which is priced as a mid-tier game.
Why will they change the big-budget reliance on loot crates and season passes and the sort? Because most of these games are turning profits. Large profits even. Stardew Valley made its creator several millions of dollars in its first few months, a reported $24 million – the kind of profit that most larger publishers wouldn’t sneeze at. If smaller, cost-effective and cost-efficient video games are capable of turning considerably large profit margins, it tells the industry that there -is- another way to make cash. And eventually, the bigger publishers will invariably start trying to muscle in on this scene (ironically, a scene that grew in the middle-market void the big publishers left behind from 2007-2013).
And they’ll do this not just because there’s money to be made – but because its where consumers are headed, and in the competitive “loot crate” market, there’s just not enough cash to go around, so companies that haven’t struck gold will simply head elsewhere. And when one of those strikes gold – yup, another gold rush, another rush to capitalise on the hot new thing, and then that will fall apart and the industry will fumble around again looking for another trend to latch onto.
Because that’s the fundamental problem with any bandwagon; it can only ever support so much. And when studios begin to be starved of sales and revenue, when they realise they’re not going to get a piece of this action – they’ll go away, find another thing and start the cycle all over again. This is how the industry works, and how it has worked, for decades. People reckon the Wii died out because of a lack of good games – maybe true, but the point was there were so many games, only a small handful were making any meaningful profit or sales impact. And then the industry moves elsewhere, looking for fertile soil of their own.
It’s why the PlayStation 4 has lost a lot of steam of late – lots of games aren’t making money. But look at all those studios talking about how they’re making a killing on the Nintendo Switch! If you were a studio, developer or publisher who was reading of this new gold-rush called the Nintendo Switch, wouldn’t you run to embrace it and make some cash?
And like most things, the Switch will run its course. It’s inevitable. And it’s not because Nintendo is a stick-in-the-mud, or because the Switch is bad or underpowered or difficult to make games for. It’ll be because there is only so much market to go around. Eventually, this market will grow – and support more companies – but it will eventually hit a market peak, then a saturation point, and then additional games will start finding it hard to crack the market and be forced to go elsewhere.
So it was, and so it shall be again. The industry seems to love chasing its tail. So let them learn the hard way. It’s clear that they need to run many things into the ground before they move on to pastures new.
And for all those enjoying the Switch now… prepare yourselves. Because the Switch will, like all bandwagons, see a glorious rise and a catastrophic fall.
Such is the price of being “the new thing”…