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developer discusses controversial loot boxes in Shadow of War

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When Monolith and Warner Bros’ Middle-earth: Shadow of War arrives in October it’s going to be loaded with microtransactions. In the form of loot chests and XP boosts, players who don’t fancy unlocking skills and perks organically can do so by handing over real life cash. And yes, people are angry about the fact that these purchases could negatively affect the game experience.

Lead design director Bob Roberts maintains the inclusion of microtransactions “will not distract from the rest of [the game]”. In a conversation with Eurogamer, Roberts reckons that balancing will not be affected by pay-to-win scenarios, and that he and his team have tuned their game so that it works with our without them. Although critics doubt the veracity of this approach given that full-priced games have broken balance intentionally to coerce players with these types of microtransactions. The most recent incarnation of this issue being NBA 2K18 being turned into an overwhelming grind to entice players into spending more money.

Roberts defends  the concept of loot boxes in single player games by bringing up that the devs have put a higher focus on making Shadow of War’s microtransactions entirely optional. Shadow of War is not the first triple-A game to include loot boxes in it and it will not be the last. So despite the fact that these microtransactions are functionally similar to level boosts in multiplayer games, it seems like the way they will likely affect game balance (according to critics), is the big problem here.

We’re working our tails off to make this massive game and as a designer—the design director—I focus on balancing it for players. We do a ton of playtesting and make sure it is tuned to a setting where people can enjoy it. We kept all of the loot boxes and the economy of real world money turned off in playtesting so we know we are balancing around an experience which is rewarding without any of that stuff.

It is important to clarify this as there were a couple of misconceptions. First, the concern about balancing—hopefully when it is out there and people are able to talk about their experiences then the balancing question will be answered, hopefully by people you trust to play through it and see that.

The other big misconception was whether the game had to be online too—and it’s important for people to understand that no, it’s not required to be online to play the game, and it’s a massive game where you can enjoy the full experience without putting any extra money in.

It’s interesting to see the discussion but we want to get people’s opinions on more than just that… Obviously we have tuned our game so it works without those things and that including them does not distract from the rest of it.

The “complications” Roberts references are never fleshed out, and the overall tone of his responses could be considered dodgy or evasive. The fact that Roberts specifically mentions testing the game with MTXs off, and given that the publisher clearly wanted these in from the beginning, it seems a bit suspect. It feels like the devs might have missed the important part of understanding how the MTXs will actually affect game balance. Overall, the interview will likely do very little to reassure the vocal critics of Shadow of War.

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Eurogamer’s chat with Roberts can be read in full in this direction.

You can also find some gameplay from EGX below:

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