If you follow multi-platform websites or other systems on social media, one term will be familiar - loot boxes. After a few years where they've crept into games, plenty of gamers have decided that recent examples take things too far. A recent tipping point seemed to be Middle-earth: Shadow of War, a single player adventure that tried to shoe-horn in immersion-breaking loot boxes. This particular microtransaction-fuelled feature has been common in multiplayer games for a while, yet their presence in the high profile sequel were unwelcome, sloppy and undoubtedly greedy on the part of the publisher.
Pretty much every game is being scrutinised in relation to this topic right now, including shooters where, frankly, they're not new to the genre. Yet if you game exclusively on Nintendo hardware you may not be very familiar with the phenomenon - we have the infamous 'packs' in FIFA 18, similar ideas in NBA 2K18, and not much else. DLC in Switch games, for example, is primarily a 'pay x for an expansion pass' deal; we can debate the merits of individual offerings, but you typically know what you're signing up for.
As highlighted above, the current rebellion against loot boxes and similar microtransactions feels very much like a case of some losing patience, especially with the way games are now tilted to push players towards paying more into their retail games. Balancing is the key issue, and whether it falls towards a 'pay-to-win' model on games that already cost $60. Add to that the way some packs and drops trick players into compulsive borderline gambling, making them dip multiple times for better rewards, and it's easy to see why some are calling for gamers to vote with their wallets and ditch the worst-offending games.
Nintendo, mostly, has stayed quite sweet in this respect, avoiding the bad publicity and vocal critics online that other publishers are dealing with. Yet it feels like the company is struggling to resist, as accountants and investors no doubt whisper in the metaphorical ear of Nintendo to say 'go on, players will pay'.
Those whispers will be happening because, well, gamers do pay. As much as it'll irritate the most staunch anti-loot box brigade at present, companies are using them so much because they evidently work. They'll have analysts proving that this kind of monetisation is effective; heck, EA must make an absolute packet from FIFA each year through Ultimate Team's in-game economy. Yes, a vocal contingent resist these add-ons and even complain about them, but millions evidently buy into it.
Nintendo's no saint when it comes to DLC, albeit its questionable moves have been relatively light compared to exploits elsewhere in the market. This writer still thinks pricing was a tad over-aggressive for extra characters, outfits and stages in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U / 3DS, especially compared to the Mario Kart 8 DLC's fantastic value around the same time. Then we've seen the 'gacha' approach in Fire Emblem Heroes on mobile, with the defence that it is a free-to-play game, where such tactics are common and - from a business perspective - necessary. Let's also not entirely forget amiibo as 'physical DLC' in some cases, such as a difficulty setting in Metroid: Samus Returns locked behind a specific figure.
Nintendo, over the past few years, has also sought to push the boundaries of monetisation in other ways. We've seen commercial tie-ins with major brands, with some Japan-only promotions in Animal Crossing: New Leaf and the infamous Mercedes vehicles in Mario Kart 8; these are free to players, with companies paying the money for advertising. These arguably do little harm as they're optional, but they can impact the 'purity' - such as it is - of some gaming brands. Even in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild we had the slightly bizarre 'Nintendo Switch' red t-shirt, albeit that's self-promotion. It's a game that's seemingly vulnerable in terms of immersion breaking, with last week's Xenoblade Chronicles 2 tie-in being a simple promotion for an upcoming game. These sorts of moves won't be popular with everyone, and they're gradually becoming more common.
So far Nintendo is trying to increase its marketing and monetisation of DLC through relatively harmless ways. It's clearly important revenue, with Xenoblade Chronicles 2 offering one of the pricier expansion passes, albeit one with more updates than other Nintendo equivalents.
All of that said, a hat should be tipped to Nintendo's efforts to continually make games better for free. Splatoon 2 and ARMS continue to add new weapons, characters and stages respectively at no cost to players, maintaining interest months after release. It's a lovely bonus when we get free content like this, or even generously priced DLC.
Nintendo is - we'd argue - on the right side of having a nice balance in DLC and broader add-on content to date. There have been some flirtations with marketing tie-ins that can be tacky, but so far the company has generally offered fair value with DLC and assorted extras. It'll be interesting to see whether it can resist the temptation to monetise more retail games in the future - the uproar would be significant if some of the microtransactions from a game like Pokemon GO crept into the main series, for example. Or if a future entry of Splatoon throws in loot boxes for new outfits and guns. Those would be moments when criticism would certainly be fair game.
As it stands Nintendo still has a solid reputation in terms of its approaches to DLC and add-on content; let's hope it stays that way.