‘Tis the season for new big-ticket video games, and increasingly, now is also the season for new experiments in DLC and add-on purchases for retail titles. We don’t normally spotlight add-on packs if they’re just cosmetic, but today’s reveal of a new “loot box” for October’s Gears of War 4 got Ars’ attention—and not necessarily in a good way.
Today’s new Gears box is a cross promotion with hip-hop duo Run the Jewels, who had already released a music video connected to the game in September. Microsoft is charging a whopping $20 (£17) for the add-on, which includes the following: two skin unlocks (featuring RTJ members Killer Mike and El-P, with unique spoken dialogue), a single teal-blue skin for every weapon in the game, two emblem designs that can be applied to player profiles (only seen between matches), and two one-time XP “bounties” that can be claimed when playing an online versus match as either RTJ member.
As of right now, none of the contents in this loot box can be unlocked using the in-game currency that is doled out in online modes such as versus and “Horde” co-op. The only other cash-only content in Gears 4 is a $50 season pass for downloadable maps.
In my October review, I praised Microsoft for its season pass plan. Gamers who don’t purchase that pass or any map add-ons will still be able to access new online content via the game’s default matchmaking modes. That means fans should expect less player-base fragmentation when any of the game’s eventual 24 DLC maps appear. (Season pass holders get earlier access to those maps, along with the ability to create custom matches with those matches whenever they want.)
Today’s new, paid add-ons are wholly cosmetic (with the exception of that pair of one-time XP bonuses), so it’s not walling players off from core content. Still, all of the other cosmetic unlocks in Gears 4 can be earned via in-game currency, so I’m curious why Microsoft locked these baubles behind a paywall. I’m even more curious considering the slim amount of content players get for their $20.
Maybe you can justify the hefty price if you consider all 18 included weapon skins as discrete items. But since each skin uses the exact same color and design for each weapon, some players might describe that as one add-on split 18 ways (where you come down on this question probably depends on how much you like the color teal on a chainsaw-mounted machine gun.)
Remember, when The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion introduced a paid “horse armor” add-on in 2006, that cosmetic DLC cost gamers $2.50—and became a meme and rallying cry for critics of the era’s experiments with DLC. Whether inflation and star power make this Gears 4 pack more valuable to gamers is still up for debate.
Microsoft’s latest DLC isn’t the only promotional add-on content they’ve charged money for. But the company has been inconsistent on that front. Take the Forza series: in some cases, car companies have sponsored free add-on packs for specific cars, while in other cases, particularly Porsche-specific packs, they’ve charged for those. (In both cases, the contents are more than cosmetic.)
Turning cash into scrap
Today’s Gears 4 news comes as Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare edges toward its Friday release date—and as fans have already begun scrutinizing its weapon-unlock systems. If these systems work the same way as they did in IW‘s pre-release beta, then such DLC will go beyond wholly cosmetic kinds of content. “Epic” versions of the game’s weapons add specific perks, such as healing powers, without downgrading other stats for the sake of balance. However, to upgrade specific guns, players must earn “scrap” by playing online matches.
As an eagle-eyed NeoGAF forum member pointed out this week, the math works out in such a way that a single epic weapon would take, at a bare minimum, about 97 hours of average play to unlock. That estimate may very well be adjusted and reduced by the time the game launches at retail. Either way, Activision will offer more eager players the ability to pay real-world money to unlock loot boxes, which may randomly unlock epic weapons or other content that can be broken down into the game’s scrap currency.
Remember, this is all from the same company that has put a highly demanded Modern Warfare remaster behind a significant paywall: You can’t buy it without also buying a higher-priced version of Infinite Warfare.
How gamers respond to these two specific DLC campaigns—one for a pricey, small amount of cosmetic content that cannot be unlocked in-game, and one that teeters dangerously toward a “pay-to-win” model—will certainly be scrutinized by Microsoft, Activision, and every other game company dabbling in the “how much more can we charge” calculus that seems to constantly pop up in this industry. No matter what, however, both add-ons are clear signs that we’re gaining velocity down the slippery slope that is paid add-on content in paid, big-budget games.