Imagine, for a moment, you need brakes on your car. It’s a $60 repair according to the mechanic, seemingly a great price for new brakes. You agree. However, returning home, you discover those brakes weren’t installed. The mechanic explains $60 was the initial price. For additional cash, you can purchase a mystery box. That box may or may not contain the brakes.
Promptly, the same as any rational consumer, you leave, never to return.
Yet in 2017, consumers engage videogames this way. Worse, those buyers won’t even get brakes, rather boxes of nothing purchased with money that is something hoping to get… nothing.
It’s the unnerving placidity that Forza 7 uses that’s disturbing. It took a while to get here. Elder Scrolls’ infamous horse armor on Xbox 360 ran $3.50; that wasn’t okay said internet commentators and meme makers. Later came $10 maps packs, then acceptance. Map packs jumped from $10 to $15. That’s okay. Maps cost a lot to develop. Then a microtransaction for some ancillary item. Maybe it cost a buck. That’s okay. You don’t need the item to play.
Then chunks of the game, gone, sold piecemeal, one by one. Oh well, you don’t need to buy that stuff. Then single player items or in-game cash, locked by a paywall. Too bad, consumers said. Games cost a lot to make. Then the insidious part: Purchases of unknown items, locked server side, without any knowledge of what’s inside. “Loot boxes,” their catchy internet nomenclature. Overwatch made that one okay. Now, like the rest of these items, it’s okay. You don’t need to buy this stuff after all.
Everything in Forza 7 exists around loot boxes. Before each race, the loot box option sits under the “Start race” selection. The in-game menu teasingly introduces the concept early on. It’s like a casino, flashy colors and promises of virtual riches, only here, you can’t win a damn thing.
Forza works in other insidious ways. Each race, player names hover over the cars. A number, surrounded by one of various colors, indicates your status (as if some critical race intel). How many cars does the player in first own? You can tell. They have a status number. How do you get cars? Racing, partially, or buying loot boxes. Want to match that number 7 car collector on the leaderboard? Buy a loot box. You’ll match an arbitrary status faster.
Supporters of this scheme – and it is just that, a scheme – are right: You don’t need to buy anything. But, Forza 7 and its ilk strike with predatory might. They use casino tactics and ping the brain’s reward centers; it feels good to unlock that car or see some item arbitrarily designated rare, as if artificial items can be rare.
It’s designed to make you feel something, either worth or pride or part of a group. It sinks into the community. The scheme inflates through socialization. People against the scam get pulled in. Their friends in the community bought one and it didn’t hurt. Then another, and another, and another. Slowly they all fall, just like the previous industry schemes wormed their way in. No one is shocked by $15 map packs. Cosmetic items for $4? Passe. Online passes became ubiquitous (dropped only because profits didn’t meet expectations). We’re at the level of loot boxes, with seemingly no bottom if Forza 7’s gross and exploitative measures indicate anything.
Worse, Forza 7 isn’t worth the effort. Forza Horizon’s decorated festival aesthetic long surpassed the dryness of this simulation. A few asides in Forza 7 like car bowling – oddly a better fit for Horizon – feel out of place. Once on the track, there’s more fun in watching the wacky arm flailing inflatable tube man to the right of Watkins Glen’s next-to-last turn than in the actual race. Forza lost its personality, enough so that it’s no longer Microsoft’s Gran Turismo derivative; it’s just Gran Turismo. Even the fascination with cars whittled away. You race ATVs and diesel big rigs, sure to fascinate people of the future. Yes, people on this planet once burned diesel into the ozone, leading to the great gas riots of 2068. If that wasn’t bad enough, some people paid money to simulate it, then paid more to unlock additional diesel chuggers.