Removing gambling was good, but….
When Blizzard removed loot boxes from Overwatch when Overwatch 2 launched in October 2022, many gamers rejoiced. Many – including this avid gamer – considered loot boxes to be gambling, a game mechanic that could put vulnerable people, like children and those with addiction issues, at risk.
no gambling or gambling-like features in Overwatch 2 anymore
But is the system that replaced loot boxes any better? From a predatory perspective, perhaps, as there are certainly no gambling or gambling-like features in Overwatch 2 anymore. But the new way Blizzard has monetized the game – a shop and Battle Pass akin to what other popular games have – has taken much of the fun out of a game that was one of the shining examples of what multiplayer first-person shooters could be.
The gambling might be gone, but has the enjoyment disappeared, too? Let’s take a look at what Overwatch was and what it is now.
Overwatch had the best loot box mechanics
Part of the fun and motivation of playing video games in this “live service” era of gaming is the ability for players to earn rewards. Depending on the game, these rewards can be cosmetics like character “skins” (costumes) and sprays, or items that provide in-game benefits like weapon add-ons or power-ups.
Overwatch rewards have always been purely cosmetic: skins, sprays, voice lines, player icons, and the like. They are just for fun and have no impact on gameplay. In the original Overwatch, which debuted in May 2016, players received these rewards through loot boxes. Each loot box contained four mystery items of varying rarity.
Overwatch loot boxes could be purchased from the game store with real money or earned through simply playing the game. While I do consider purchased loot boxes to be gambling, Overwatch’s loot box system was the best in the industry, as they were easy to earn for free and none of the items provided in-game advantages. I have nearly every cosmetic item from Overwatch 1 and never spent a penny beyond my original purchase of the game.
Those with addiction issues could find themselves in trouble quickly.
But I do see the problem with loot boxes, even those in Overwatch. Kids might not understand the concepts of randomness and chance and use their parents’ credit cards to buy truckloads of loot boxes trying to get that legendary skin they desire. And there were time-limited items, as well, available only during seasonal events, so there was that temptation to buy “just one more box” as the event was about to end. Those with addiction issues could find themselves in trouble quickly.
Fortunately, I played enough where I got most things through free loot boxes and earned enough in-game currency (received when getting loot box items I already had) where I could buy anything I didn’t have without spending real money. But again, I get why people didn’t like loot boxes and am not upset Overwatch did away with them.
From gambling to greed
But the problem is that Overwatch 2’s monetization is awful. I won’t get into the history of Overwatch 2’s development, but one of the key things to know is that it went from a game players would have to buy to a free-to-play game. And because it is free, Blizzard had to figure out how to make money without loot boxes.
Enter the shop and Battle Pass. Like in other games, players earn experience points (XP) through game play. After earning enough XP to level up, they move up a level in the Battle Pass. With each level comes a reward that would have been an item in the old loot boxes (and in Overwatch 1, you got a loot box and thus four items for each level-up). Ok, fine. But most of the rewards in the Battle Pass are garbage, things like weapon trinkets or player icons that nobody cares about. And to get most of the good stuff, like the new mythic skins, you must pay $10 for the “premium” Battle Pass. A Battle Pass is good for one season, each season lasts two months, so that’s $60 a year to get all the Battle Pass items, assuming you play enough to get through all 80 levels each season.
The absolute WORST part about the Battle Pass, though, is that new heroes are locked inside it. In the original Overwatch, you bought the game and then received all new heroes, maps, and game modes for free when they were released. They were just part of the game. Now, you either have to buy the premium Battle Pass to unlock the new hero immediately or grind to level 45 in the free version of the Battle Pass. Don’t have the time to get to level 45? Too bad, you won’t get the hero until it’s made available again and now you don’t get the full game experience.
Overwatch is a game built on heroes and their lore – locking new heroes in the Battle Pass destroys part of that enjoyment. It also effectively makes the game pay-to-win, as those with the money to buy the premium Battle Pass can immediately get the new heroes and have the strategic in-game advantage they might provide.
Shop is sneaky
The shop is also terrible. Skins and other items you could have normally received in loot boxes now cost real money. True, there is no gambling involved anymore, so if you spend money, you get exactly what you want, but the prices are outrageous. A legendary skin, for example, costs 1,900 Overwatch coins, or the equivalent of $19. Just for a costume.
what Blizzard hides from you is that you CAN actually buy many of the items individually
There are also hero bundles, which usually include a skin, victory pose, voice line, player icon, and spray (give or take). These obviously cost more than just a skin, but are “discounted” from the price you would pay for each individually. This is all well and good, but Blizzard has done a rather nasty, predatory thing here. When you look at the bundle items, they are individually locked, so you need to buy the entire bundle, even if you only want one of the items. But what Blizzard hides from you is that you CAN actually buy many of the items individually, and often for no money at all.
If you go to the hero’s page in the game – the screen where you can customize your hero – you can see all of the items you don’t currently have for that hero. Very often, those same items from the shop bundle will be there and will be unlockable by either spending Overwatch coins (the premium currency, available primarily through real-money purchase) or Overwatch credits (a much easier to earn in-game currency).
there is no way on this shop page to buy that skin outside of the bundle, so if I want it, that’s $14
Looking at the current shop, there is a D.Va “Jolly” bundle for 1,400 Overwatch credits, or $14. I own a couple of the items, but don’t have the “Sleighing” legendary skin. There is no way on this shop page to buy that skin outside of the bundle, so if I want it, that’s $14 out of my pocket (technically $11.76, as Overwatch does discount the bundle if you own any of the items already).
But wait…if I go to my D.Va hero page and scroll down to the two skins I don’t own, one of them is the Sleighing skin. And I can unlock it for just 1,500 Overwatch credits, of which I have nearly 80,000, none of which I paid for. Making it look like I can’t individually buy the bundle skin – and not even for real money – if I don’t investigate every page very carefully is some pretty foul play.
And now a sub-Battle Pass?
The recently completed Winter Wonderland event was arguably even sneakier. This event introduced a secondary Battle Pass, called the Winter Fair Event Pass. With the free version, you could earn up to 120 event tickets by playing the game. If you bought the premium Pass for $5, you could earn up to 480 tickets (keep in mind, again, that you still had to play a lot to earn all the tickets).
With those tickets, you could buy special winter character skins and items. Big problem, though: of the five skins, two cost 160 tickets, so those were out of the question unless you bought the premium Pass. Enter FOMO. Players will see these skins – I particularly like the ones for Bastion and Baptiste – and feel like they have to spend the extra money for the premium pass.
But wait, even with the premium Pass, you still couldn’t get everything – you couldn’t even afford just the skins without everything else. If I did the math right, all the Winter Wonderland items combined cost 700 tickets.
So there was no way to get enough tickets to get all of the items…or was there? Lo and behold, the Winter Wonderland event also included a limited-time Tracer hero bundle in the shop for $30. In that bundle, you got a skin, four other items, and 575 event tickets. That’s the only way to get enough tickets to buy all the Winter Wonderland items. Spend $5 on the premium Pass plus another $30 on the Tracer bundle.
People thought loot boxes were predatory…this feels predatory in an entirely different way.
Now, one might ask, “What’s the problem? The game is free. You don’t need any of the stuff that costs money. Just enjoy playing the game.”
And that is a valid point. I don’t play Overwatch to be rewarded with “things.” I play because the game is fun. But Blizzard and other game developers have built incentives into every game to keep people playing, to keep people spending money, lest they miss out on something.
it feels insulting to Overwatch 1 players
With Overwatch 2, specifically, the new monetization system is such a departure from that of the original game that it feels insulting to Overwatch 1 players. The game went from a one-time purchase and the ability to earn nearly all the rewards for free to a free game that pounds you over the head with micro-transactions (and they’re not really “micro”!). It’s very difficult to stare at these rewards and items every session and not feel like you’re not missing out on everything if you don’t spend money, especially the new heroes.
Hell, I bought Overwatch 1 for less money than it cost to get everything in the Winter Wonderland event.
Need a balance between player and company
How can all of this be fixed? I’m not really sure – there are no perfect answers. One thing I’d like to see is a Battle Pass system like Fortnite’s, where you can earn enough in-game currency in the Battle Pass to eventually buy a future Battle Pass. It might take the better part of the year in the free version of the Battle Pass, but it can still done with no monetary outlay. And in the paid, premium version, you can earn more than you need to afford the next Battle Pass, so you can save up the extra currency to spend in the Fortnite store.
Loot boxes can be brought back, too, just not for purchase. Earned in-game only. That way, it’s not gambling, but the fun part of the mystery of the loot box returns.
Of course, it’s all about money, so if any of these things mean less cash for Blizzard, then odds are they won’t be implemented.
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