Dota 2

Battle.net may have Destiny 2, but Steam has millions of simultaneous PUBG players. GOG may have the best collection of DRM-free games, but Valve has, well, PUBG again. And Dota 2, and CS:GO. Competition has increased a lot in the past 10 years, but despite the growth of GOG, itch.io, Origin, Battle.net, the Microsoft Store, and others, Steam is still the gaming store on PC, and Valve runs two of the biggest esports in existence. Its influence on PC gaming can't be understated, so it naturally receives heaps of criticism and suggestions from players and developers alike. That's how it goes when you're on top.

Ruling out obvious fantasy, like a DRM-free release of Half-Life 3, here's what we hope PC gaming's de facto leader does in 2018.

Is a new Steam interface on the way?

A Steam interface overhaul

A big update to Steam's interface was teased last year, and it's about time. While Steam has changed a lot since 2003—mostly as new features were tacked on—it still leaves much to be desired. Better automated sorting of our libraries would be a start. If you have tags, why not let us use them? The controller settings are weird, opening in a Big Picture Mode-style window and changing my Steam overlay to the same as if there's no way someone would use a controller at their desk. The music section of my library is a mess, with repeat entries that don't play. In other words, the tacked-on features feel tacked on. Without entirely throwing out the interface we're used to, an extensive UI and feature refresh would be welcome. (GOG Galaxy's version rollback feature would be welcome, too.) —Tyler Wilde

CS:GO on Source 2

The biggest thing on the wishlist for CS:GO players heading into the new year is the long-awaited move to the Source 2 engine. Rumors have been circulating about when this change-over will finally happen for at least two years now, since shortly after Dota 2 was moved to the new engine in the fall of 2015. Valve confirmed back in April that they’re working on giving CS:GO the same treatment, but so far this update has yet to materialize.In addition to the presumed graphical optimizations of moving to the new engine, the content creation tools for new maps, new skins, etc. are allegedly a vast improvement over the original Source tools. Hopefully, this means we’ll see a glut of new user-created content when the update drops, thanks to the modernized and more user-friendly creation tools.

Similarly, the other big item on the wishlist is the promised upgrade to the new “Panorama UI”, a complete overhaul of all of CS:GO’s menus and interfaces using the panel-based UI that Dota 2 has already adopted. Just like the Source 2 update, this change has been in the works for quite some time now; Valve confirmed they were “preparing” for the UI switch at least as far back as the summer of 2016, but as with everything else Valve does, they’ve been rather tight-lipped about any sort of timeline for the Panorama implementation.

Below these big-ticket items on our 2018 wishlist, there are a litany of smaller changes we’d like to see happen:

  • Classic maps like Mirage and Dust would benefit from the same sort of overhaul Inferno, Nuke, and Dust 2 have received over the last couple of years. 
  • The map pool could use some fresh entries (or some revivals of classic entries) to keep the competitive meta interesting. 
  • An unranked version of CS:GO’s core 5-vs.-5 competitive format has been a popular community ask for years now.
  • Valve’s anti-cheat technology is lagging behind third-party services like ESEA, and could use a serious upgrade.

The astute observer will notice that almost everything mentioned herein could’ve just as easily appeared on a similar list at the end of last year. It often feels like CS:GO is a lower priority for Valve than its other esports juggernaut, Dota 2, so while there are plenty of updates we’d like to see in 2018, it seems unwise to get our hopes up that many of them will happen particularly soon. Nonetheless, we’ll keep our fingers crossed. —Mitch Bowman

A little warning before Dota 2 changes

The TI7 contestants were announced abruptly. The Pro Circuit system was announced abruptly. The games contest was announced, and soon extended, abruptly. Gameplay mini-patches were released abruptly, at one point abruptly breaking custom games. 

A surprise is nice sometimes, but when it comes to Dota 2, one of the biggest games in the world, not everything should come as such. At least a million players likely clock in every day, and a significant chunk of that population—plus some non-players—follow the competitive scene that’s grown from it. Basically, there are a lot of players trying to just play the game and keep up on a fundamental level. 

So, for many out there already irrevocably attached to the experience, frequently needing to stay up-to-date and ready-to-go is exhausting. Maybe it’s just become part of the Dota life: you wake up, see if Valve has done something, and then continue with life. But why does it have to be like that?

Dota 2 players could use a little communication. Just a bit. You can put something off for six hours to get us ready, and you don’t have to give a Riot-length explanation, nor a Developer Diary. It can be a six-hour heads-up on a patch, an announcement of an announcement, or a new way to share what teams are heading to TI. Have someone sit at a computer and press the buttons so people don’t guess teams from the source code. Or all of the above. Valve, you’re allowed to steal these ideas. In fact, please do. 

Of course, we’re also talking about Valve here, and that’s just part of how they do things. I’m sure they’re aware, but the reason why they haven’t changed anything is beyond me and anyone else in the scene who isn’t actually a Valve employee. But it doesn’t hurt to ask. —Victoria Rose

Improved moderation and curating

Steam Direct is great for new developers who don't have publishers, but the consequence is an influx of ripoffs and shovelware. In theory, Steam's algorithmic discovery tools and Curators should surface only the best games, and truthfully, my store page is looking pretty nice during the Winter Sale—a healthy mix of good deals and games I might be interested in. But that's not quite the case in the Popular New Releases section, which is consistently full of free or free-to-play games. Free games aren't necessarily bad, but the 'popularity' metric means free clickers and gags naturally get promoted over anything with even a small price tag, potentially burying great games that dare to cost five bucks. 

2018 should see an even bigger influx of new games—thousands upon thousands—and I'm skeptical that these automated and community-driven tools will be able to keep up. At the minimum, I hope Valve more aggressively cuts asset flips—which it did a bit of in 2017—and outright insulting games, and sets a clearer policy on nudity and sex. It's been totally inconsistent in that latter regard, even receiving criticism from a porn game distributor.

An increase in moderation is doubly needed in the Steam community. It took me five seconds to find a group advertised with a lynching icon and a swastika. Delete. —Tyler Wilde

As always, a game

Valve says it's working on a few, but we aren't holding our breath. And no, nice as it was, Bridge Constructor Portal doesn't count. —Tyler Wilde

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Valve News Network reported a couple of weeks ago that the venerable online shooter Counter-Strike: Global Offensive might be getting a battle royale mode at some point in the future. But modder Kinsi wasn't willing to wait for it to happen, so they went ahead and created one of their own. 

Called Go 4 The Kill—or Go4TK, to save time and space—the mod features a map more than four times the size of Overpass, and three to four times larger than the Source engine normally allows. As Kotaku explains, it accomplishes this feat by breaking its map into sections separated by mountain ranges: Crossing the mountains places you into what is effectively another map, but everything is connected so you can move back and forth seamlessly. Despite the size of the playing field, performance should be roughly equivalent to conventional CS:GO maps because there's very little "'unnecessary' detail," aside from what's required to provide cover for players.

While PUBG is commonly cited as the battle royale standard-bearer, Kinsi said the inspiration for Go4TK came from a different game. "With Go4TK my aim was to combine two games that I like: King of the Kill and CS:GO," they wrote. "It was mainly meant to be a challenge for myself to push the boundaries of whats possible with server-side only CS:GO modding. From the ground up I've carefully handcrafted everything, be it the map in itself or the plugin allowing for the actual gameplay to ensure the best possible integration." 

There are some significant gameplay differences between Go4TK and CS:GO. Bullet drop and travel time are modeled, running will not reduce firing accuracy, weapons have randomized inaccuracy but no recoil patterns, ADS (aim down sight) is very important if you want to hit what you're shooting at, and if you get shot yourself, you'll bleed—and if you don't do something about it, you'll keep on bleeding until you die. It is also, despite being much larger than conventional CS:GO experiences, a smaller-scale experience than PUBG: Kotaku says the maximum player count is 20, while the Go4TK site says players per game is "targeted at 49."

Go 4 the Kill was actually released back in August, and work has continued since. There have been setbacks as well, most notably the shutdown of North American servers in November due to lack of interest. Kinsi said on Twitter that they might be brought back online soon, "thanks to a generous Redditor," although how long they'll be kept around will depend on how much use they see.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

For the first time ever, the UK Gambling Committee's year-end report on Young People and Gambling has looked into "awareness and participation rates" of skin gambling (if you're not sure what that is, here's a primer). The report states that, "based on the description provided within the questionnaire," 45 percent of children aged 11-16 knew about skin gambling, and 11 percent said they had placed bets with in-game items at some point in the past. 

"'Skins' are in-game items, used within some of the most popular video game titles. They provide cosmetic alterations to a player’s weapons, avatar or equipment used in the game," the report states. "Skins betting sites allow videogamers to wager cosmetic items rewarded in-game or purchased for real money on a digital marketplace, accessible from the UK for several years." 

A BBC report on the Gambling Commission paper leads with the statistics on skin gambling and then says that roughly 370,000 11-16 year olds in England, Scotland, and Wales reported spending their own money on gambling at least once in the prior week. But the context is misleading: The number is accurate, at least within the survey's margin of error, but it includes all forms of gambling, including slot machines, scratch cards, and wagers with friends ("five bucks says you can't make that jump"). Furthermore, the figure "represents a continuation of the longer-term decline seen since 2011," when 23 percent of 11-15 year-olds reported taking part in some form of gambling during the preceding week. 

Prevalence of gambling with in-game items increases with age, from three percent of 11 year-olds to 14 percent of 14-16 year-olds, and was higher among children who had spent money on other forms of gambling over the past week, or who had played "online gambling-style games," like casino games, slot machines, or poker. In fact, the rate of playing those games matches the incidence rate of skin gambling, at 11 percent.

It's the ability to convert in-game items into cash that denotes the activity as gambling for the purposes of the report, rather than the actual conversion itself—the fact that the skins could be converted into cash, not whether they actually were. That's also how the concept was introduced to survey respondents: "When playing computer games/app it is sometimes possible to collect in-game items (eg. weapons, power-ups and tokens). For some games, it is possible to bet these in-game items for the chance to win more of them." 

"The Gambling Commission takes the view that the ability to convert in-game items to cash, or to trade them (for other items of value) means they attain a real-world value and become articles of money or money’s worth. Where gambling facilities are offered to British consumers, including with the use of in-game items that can be converted into cash or traded (for items of value), a gambling license is required," the report says. "Tackling operators making gambling facilities available to children is one of the Gambling Commission’s priorities." 

In other words, it's the people running unlicensed gambling sites who are liable to be targeted by the Gambling Commission, and not the games themselves, or the companies who make them. In fact, earlier this year the commission successfully prosecuted YouTuber Craig "Nepenthez" Douglas and his business partner Dylan Rigby, who ran the FUT Galaxy website that enabled gambling on real-world soccer matches using FIFA 17 virtual currency. But that currency could also be exchanged for real money, which fell afoul of the UK's Gambling Act and cost the duo £255,000 ($340,00) in fines.   

"Because of these unlicensed skin betting sites, the safeguards that exist are not being applied and we're seeing examples of really young people, 11 and 12-year-olds, who are getting involved in skin betting, not realizing that it's gambling," Gambling Commission chief executive Sarah Harrison told the BBC. "At one level they are running up bills perhaps on their parents' Paypal account or credit card, but the wider effect is the introduction and normalization of this kind of gambling among children and young people." 

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

The FTC has finalized its settlement with Trevor "TmarTn" Martin and Tom "ProSyndicate" Cassell, the streamers who used their YouTube channels and other platforms to enthusiastically promote the skin gambling site CSGO Lotto without any indication that they happened to own 42.5% of CSGO Lotto. Some of Martin and Cassell's videos showed them achieving extraordinary wins on the site, and worked with other popular YouTuber friends to produce similar videos with titles like "1% CHANCE?! (CSGO Lotto)."

The initial settlement, reached in September, set new standards of disclosure on the two and the site, forbidding them "from misrepresenting that any endorser is an independent user or ordinary consumer of a product or service." 

Per the settlement, Martin and Cassell are forbidden from misrepresenting endorsers as independent consumers, must "clearly and conspicuously" disclose their endorsements and connections with other endorsers, submit a compliance report to the FTC in one year, and maintain a variety of records relating to their accounting, consumer complaints, marketing material, and personnel for the next 10 years.

No actual penalties were imposed, however, which didn't sit well with a few members of the public who took advantage of the commission's invitation to submit comments on the decision. "I am appalled and disgusted with this ruling. These two deserve a hefty fine, if not jail time, for knowingly misleading their largely adolescent fanbase into using a gambling website that they owned," Jack Thorpe wrote. "The items that were being traded on CSGO Lotto had real money value, and these two were pocketing millions from rigging a system that they owned." 

Another, using the name Maloney, noted that Martin and Cassell had "purposelessly deceived their audiences by pretending to have found CSGO Lotto and recommend to use it when in fact they owned it from the beginning." 

"I believe this deliberate action deserves a larger punishment than just warnings to not do it again," they wrote. "A precedent needs to be set in order to stop these malicious acts from further occurring." 

A third respondent, Christopher Jahn, acknowledged that the CSGO Lotto site had a clause in its TOS stating that users must be at least 18 years old, but then moved on to the obvious: "Let's be honest here, what teenager is actually going to abide by that, let alone even read it? Can you imagine a modern day teenager saying, 'Well, I'm not quite 18 yet, guess I'll be a law abiding citizen and go do something else'? No teenager is going to do that." 

These were the only three to comment, and their words were not enough to have an impact on the ruling. 

The full text of the FTC's CSGO Lotto settlement is available here, and you can get a closer look at what caused all the trouble in the first place in our explanation of CSGO skin gambling. A photo of clearly chastened TmarTn participating in a recent Call of Duty: WWII promotion is below.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

CS:GO skins and all other Steam Market items are subject to a $400 maximum listing price. Items are often sold for greater sums through key trades, a sub-currency of the CS:GO economy. A single CS:GO key costs $2.50 USD and can be sold on the Steam Marketplace. To break through the $400 ceiling, you convert your listing price to a key value. If you want to sell an item for $500, divide your listing price by the key value, 500 by 2.5: 200 keys. Most people use third-party trading websites to list CS:GO’s rarest wares, but once a trade is made, those keys can be sold back into the Steam Marketplace.

There are some skins in our list that definitely break that cap, but due to both the extraordinary rarity of these items and their inconsistent prices in the key market, we’ve pulled our best estimates from varying trading sites. These are subject to change on a whim, but remain impressive no matter how transitory.

[Updated 11/30/2017]

Guns

Souvenir AWP: Dragon Lore, ~ $4200 (10,000 keys)Dragon Lore, Field TestedThe Cobblestone Collection

The original Dragon Lore skin originally fetched a hefty $10,000, but this commemorative skin still commands a quaint $4,200, almost as if to say “Why have my scope flash off the morning sun when I can just use these totally rad gold stickers?”

This particular Dragon Lore commemorates the Grand Final match of the 2015 DreamHack Cluj-Napoca CS:GO Championship between Natus Vincere and Team EnVyUs, and is autographed by MVP Denis Koslin.

AK-47: Fire Serpent, $3200Fire Serpent, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Bravo Collection

I’m no economist, but does it say something that this skin is basically three times as expensive as a real-world AK-47? This holiday, please think of the less fortunate arms dealers, and buy this commemorative memento from the Operation Bravo: Ruins map. Let’s see a Precious Things statue spit fire like this.

M4A4: Howl, ~ $3700 (1500 keys)Howl, StatTrak Factory NewThe Huntsman Collection, May 2014

Turns out crime still pays. OK, technically it's mundane internet art theft,  but this bit of contraband still stands as one of the primo skins for competitive CS:GO enthusiasts, and it’s only getting rarer. 

The Howl's extraordinary price is due to the unusual controversy that followed it after release, which included the gun's removal from distribution—but not from owners' inventories. CS:GO stopped dropping new Howls long ago, so the lucky initial owners of this lion-faced piece of copyright infringement own one of the most coveted status symbols in the game. 

P90: Emerald Dragon, ~ $550Emerald Dragon, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Bravo Collection

Asian artwork is always in good taste. Just ask your local tattoo artist. Hopefully your aim is a little more straightforward than this poor lizard, because he’s all over the place on this skin. Remember, kids, always assign a designated dragon.

Might as well pick it up now, since it’s currently less than half of its original $1,000 price tag.

AWP: Medusa, ~ $1400Medusa, Minimal WearThe Gods and Monsters Collection

While this fetching gorgon skin demanded a hefty $400 upon release back in May of 2015, it’s only risen in value since, topping out currently at about $1,400. You might say its high value is set in stone… I’ll show myself out.

AK-47: The Empress, ~ $750Empress, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Spectrum 2 Collection

Finally, you too can be the belle of the ball, the becky with the good hair, the yas queen. Look, what do you want from me? It’s a pretty lady with blonde locks that would make Reinhardt blush. This skin helped ring in the Chinese release of CS:GO just last September, so if you’re looking for some fresh paint, have at it.

AUG: Akihabara Accept, ~$500Akihabara Accept, Factory NewThe Rising Sun Collection

Anime is trash… and so am I. The Akihabara Accept still commands a decidedly not-trash price (a remarkably consistent $500 average since release, though some have sold for over $1,000), so I guess we’re stuck with visions of pink-haired teens slaughtering us from afar. God bless Japan.

Five-SeveN: Hyper Beast, ~$200Hyper Beast, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Operation Hydra Collection

Doom’s floating sphere of teeth, the Cacodemon, has got nothing on this sinister-looking Swedish meatball. If you pull the trigger, it’s like wiggling its tongue. If you want a little extra spice with your meatball, the Hyper Beast skin can also be purchased at considerably lower rates for the AWP, Nova, and M4A1-S.

 MP9: Bulldozer, ~$250Bulldozer, Factory NewThe Assault Collection

You’ll be a bulldozer in the eyes of your enemies with this skin: Loud, yellow, prone to making odd noises when you back up. The Assault Collection skin pack hasn’t been part of the regular loot drop in CS for a few years, so it’s gone from selling like dirt to plowing cash.

AWP: Boom ~$400Boom, StatTrakThe eSports 2013 Collection

With a classic comic book framing, this skin shows off its entrepreneurial spirit. No need for boisterous cries of “Boom! Headshot!” when you can just cut out the middleman. I look forward to the eventual Disney-owned shared universe.

Souvenir USP-S Road Rash, ~$400Road Rash, Factory NewThe Overpass Collection

Remember when mom would take you to the mall for new clothes, but your enlightened 13-year-old self just had to have those pre-torn jeans? This is like the gun equivalent of that. Why didn’t you stop us, mom?

This skin dropped during the ELEAGUE Atlanta 2017 CS:GO Championship Grand Final Match, and is autographed by MVP Peter Rasmussen AKA “dupreeh” of team Astralis.

M4A1-S: Master Piece, ~$2900Master Piece, Souvenir, Factory NewThe Overpass Collection

If you look closely enough, you can see a faint homage to the Mona Lisa smile between the first squiggly line and the fifth, just behind the lettering that reminds you of a passing train car.

This skin was dropped during the ESL Cologne 2015 CS:GO Championship’s Quarter Finals match, and is signed by MVP Håvard “rain” Nygaard, then of Team SoloMid.

AK-47: Red Laminate, ~$450Red Laminate, StatTrak, Factory NewThe eSports 2013 Collection

They took an AK-47, dashed it with some nice red paint, and poured laminate all over it. It’s the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto of guns. Get this one while it’s hot, because it’s been rising from a modest $300 to a $450 average since October 2016.

AK-47: Fuel Injector,  ~$320 (156 keys)Fuel Injector, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Wildfire Collection

Yellow. The color of sunshine, bees, and the light you try to ignore while driving. Throw caution to the wind with this simple skin (sold at a remarkably consistent $400 average) that will leave your victims wondering how that oversized banana got the drop on them.

AK-47: Wasteland Rebel,  $425Wasteland Rebel, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Vanguard Collection

As far as war chants go, “MAKE THEM CRY!” ain’t too bad. It certainly rests alongside other such classics as “YOU DON’T EVEN GO HERE!” and “HEY, WANNA FIGHT?”

For you Counter-Strike lore hounds, the Wasteland Rebel’s flavor text indicates it’s a favorite of Naomi, a bodyguard to Operation Bloodhound Terrorist leader Valeria Jenner

AWP: Oni Taiji, ~ $145Oni Taiji, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Operation Hydra Collection

“Taiji,” more commonly referred to in the West as “Tai Chi,” is the ancient Chinese philosophy of supreme ultimate state of undifferentiated absolute, infinite potential, and the oneness before duality. You know, yen and yang. Pretty heady stuff for a gun with a demon on the butt. While it’s currently on a downswing price-wise, it might not be a bad idea to pick up one ASAP considering Operation Hydra recently ended.

AWP: Pink DDPAT, ~ $130Pink DDPAT, Souvenir, Minimal WearThe Overpass Collection

At some point, Counter-Strike scientists asked “if Barbie had an AWP, what would it look like?” The Pink DDPAT pairs well with any seasonal outfit, be it for a jaunt at the mall, or in the official Barbie DreamCamper. Sleep well, Ken.

If you’re worried about getting dropped by cross-map headshots, maybe take a chance on the DDPAT at the lowest price it's seen since release three years ago. This souvenir skin commemorates the 2017 PGL Krakow CS:GO Championships, was dropped during the Group Stage match between SK Gaming and Immortals, and is autographed by MVP Fernando Alvarenga.

M4A4: Royal Paladin, ~$320Royal Paladin, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Revolver Case Collection

The Royal Paladin is a proper statesman’s rifle. An elegant leaf engraving, fine ivory, and enough gold to fix at least a few mouthfuls of teeth. Though it’s had some significant dips, the Royal Paladin has maintained an impressive $350 average price over two years. That’s monarchy for you.

AK-47 Neon Revolution, ~$155Neon Revolution, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Gamma 2 Collection

Pink as a clown’s bum, with “ANARCHY” emblazoned in spray paint on the side. It’s a rifle with all the quiet modesty of a Jared Leto acting role. Wait, when did this skin come out? Summer of 2016? Oh, no. *Checks flavor text.*

Well, at least something is producing a better return-on-investment than that trainwreck.

USP-S: Neo Noir, ~$120Neo Noir, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Spectrum Collection

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Counter-Terrorists on fire off the shoulder of bomb site A. I watched grenades glitter off the skybox into our spawn from across the map. All those moments will be lost in time, like lag in the rain.

The USP-S is one of the few guns on this list with roots as a fan favorite from Counter Strike: Source, so maybe a few of those epic moments can live on with you in the end.

Knives

Karambit: Lore, ~ $1400Lore, StatTrak, Factory New

It’s a knife called “Lore,” but I’m not exactly seeing any further exploration of the Counter Strike world beyond a rad visual design. Still a better love story than Destiny. Ha, commentary.

Comes with a custom knotwork paint job, and it shows. The skin originally sold for $400, a mere penance compared to the $1,200 minimum you’ll likely find these days.

M9 Bayonet: Night ~$620Night, Factory New

Sleek, yet simple. Dark, yet pointy. Seems like as good an excuse as any to yell out “I AM THE NIGHT!” over and over again. If, like its flavor text describes, it’s “the bite at your neck,” this skin might just bleed your wallet dry.

M9 Bayonet: Crimson Web ~$950Crimson Web, Factory New

Some knives are silver, some are black, some are even the color of the rainbow. This little buddy does you the solid of getting all red and nasty before you even start to work. Thanks, champ. Also spreads jam really well.

Gloves & Stickers

Moto Gloves: Spearmint, ~ $700Spearmint, Minimal Wear

Wash the taste of a bad match out with these minty mittens, at least until all your friends are asking for a piece. Warning: Do not ingest gloves, especially ones that taste like pine trees.

Hey, at least after spending upwards of $700 (up from $400 a year ago) on gloves, you have all the right in the world to growl “and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

IBuyPower (Holo) ~$4500Marketplace Link

You thought the IBuyPower sticker was something else back when it debuted at $400 in 2014, huh? Well, Mr. Moneybags, hope you're ready for a second mortgage, because this increasingly rare sticker now tops a majority of all CS:GO skins for a lordly $4,500 average.

Although the “Contraband” Howling Dawn sticker goes for about $200, the first-edition esports stickers are by far the priciest. Among them, Team iBUYPOWER’s holographic sticker reaches a whole other level, due to the fact that the team was banned by Valve and dissolved after the discovery that they fixed matches for their own benefit

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Loot boxes, which burst open to reveal randomized rewards in games, don't exist because they're good for game design. They exist because the industry wondered: how do we charge each player the maximum amount they're willing to spend for as long as we can keep them spending? The answer already existed in a model proven successful decades ago by baseball and Magic: The Gathering cards.

In his 2013 book, Uncertainty in Games, Greg Costikyan describes the success of Magic's card packs: "...When you purchase and open a booster pack, you are always uncertain what you will obtain—and may experience delight at finding a new card that works well with others you have, or disappointment at receiving cards that duplicate ones you already have, or worse, quintuplicate them—meaning you already have the maximum of this card you can use in a single deck. This is, of course, one reason Magic's business model is so effective: there's always a temptation to buy more cards, and players can be induced, in essence, to spend the maximum amount they are comfortable spending on their game, whether that be a few dollars or a few thousand."

Like Magic packs, loot boxes turn the experience of getting stuff, rather than the stuff itself, into what's for sale, and encourage us to keep chasing the delight of getting what we want. They 'work' because they offer an uncertain outcome, and uncertainty is a component of good games, whether it results in a botched saving throw in D&D or a lucky bounce in Rocket League. A box which may or may not contain something rare is not sinful on its own—it's fun. It's adding money to the mix that's the problem.

I appreciate that Rocket League, CS:GO, Rainbow Six Siege, Overwatch, and other games only offer cosmetic items in loot boxes, and Overwatch in particular is fairly inoffensive as you can work toward skins without purchasing anything but the game. The way Star Wars Battlefront 2 implemented loot boxes, however, shows that the biggest companies are testing the waters: how much can we put in these things? An entire multiplayer shooter's library of upgrades? They tried. 

When a progression system is wrapped up in loot boxes which can be purchased with real money, it isn't a fun progression system, practically by definition. If you've made something players can pay to skip, then you've made something worth paying to skip. With Battlefront 2's premium currency temporarily removed, this is hilariously obvious. There is currently no reason for Credits, the non-purchasable currency, to exist, as their only purpose is to abstract achievement so that it can be spent like the premium money, turning 'achievement' into 'grind,' a paycheck rather than a trophy. Not fun. Loot boxes are surely also why generic upgrades can't be applied to multiple classes, and why there's an overcomplicated crafting system—there had to be something to buy even after 20 hours of play. Also not fun. 

Bad game design which transparently exists to encourage spending is frustrating, especially in a game that already costs $60. What may be worse, though, is that by pairing cash and games of chance, EA and other big publishers are endangering every developer by inviting the scrutiny of politicians.

Are loot boxes gambling?

Buying loot boxes, like gambling in a casino, can potentially be addictive.

Buying loot boxes, like gambling in a casino, can potentially be addictive. "We know that the dopamine system, which is targeted by drugs of abuse, is also very interested in unpredictable rewards," said Dr. Luke Clark, director at the Center for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia, in a recent interview with PC Gamer. "Dopamine cells are most active when there is maximum uncertainty, and the dopamine system responds more to an uncertain reward than the same reward delivered on a predictable basis."

Yet loot boxes are not legally considered gambling in the US and elsewhere, at least according to precedent. A series of 1996 lawsuits brought against baseball card manufacturers under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act claimed that limited-run "chase cards"—rare, valuable cards that might appear in a pack—constitute an illegal lottery. The suits were not successful. A similar suit against Nintendo in 1999, which claimed that Pokemon cards constituted gambling, was also dismissed.

Last year, The Washington State Gambling Commission ordered Valve to "take whatever actions are necessary" to put an end to third-party CS:GO skin gambling sites, where players could bet valuable gun skins on the outcomes of esports matches, among other things. The Gambling Commission did not, however, take aim at the practice of delivering skins randomly. It is seemingly legal to sell boxes—physical or digital—with unknown contents, some more valuable to collectors than others. It's a practice familiar to toy collectors, sometimes called 'blind boxes.'

Above: Hell.

It's tempting to read recent anti-loot box statements from politicians as a win, but legislators getting involved in game design is uncomfortable.

What's the legal difference between loot boxes and roulette? Mainly, it's that in a casino I put down money hoping for it to return to me, whereas when I buy a key for a Rocket League crate I know the money is spent—the gamble is whether or not I'll be satisfied with my purchase. That is an important distinction. However, if the contents of a loot box can be sold for a cash profit, which most can be through sanctioned marketplaces or EULA-defying grey markets, the distinction blurs. Still, unlike gambling, your possible reward is never zero, and the in-game items can't be turned in to the publisher like gambling chips for cash. Their value entirely depends on the value collectors assign them. So, it's different, but is it different enough?

While the 1996 lawsuits against baseball card manufacturers alleged that it was not different enough and failed, that doesn't mean legislators will never successfully amend the law. It's unlikely to change, but it's still up for debate. Ebay's policy, for instance, plays it safe by requiring the contents of 'grab bags' to be listed in order to avoid sales which might constitute illegal lotteries in some states. In reality, though, I was easily able to find multiple listings for 'surprise boxes.' Whether they are or aren't lotteries by law is unclear. Do we want them to be?

Whether they are or aren't lotteries by law is unclear. Do we want them to be?

It's tempting to read recent anti-loot box statements from politicians as a win—we don't like loot boxes, and they're saying they'll get rid of them—but legislators getting involved in game design is concerning. A ban on charging for uncertain rewards would end Hearthstone, Magic: The Gathering, and all 'blind boxes' and 'grab bags' outright—you would not be able to buy anything without knowing its exact contents, or perhaps at least their value—and lawmakers wouldn't necessarily stop there. It could be just the in they need to form government-run ratings boards for games, which I oppose completely.

It's not far fetched. In 2005, US Senators Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman, Tim Johnson, and Evan Bayh sponsored the Family Entertainment Protection Act, which would have put the ESRB under federal observation and fined stores which sold Mature games to kids under 17. In 2012, Donald Trump tweeted that videogame violence "must be stopped." Nothing has come of these intentions to regulate the sale of games, but if certain game systems were deemed gambling, you can be sure that 'the danger to our kids' would become a standard talking point again.

Meanwhile, mobile games haven't needed the element of chance to succeed in selling premium currencies. The legality of Clash of Clans-like schemes (premium currencies that directly translate to boosts and bonuses and power) isn't in dispute. So, if loot boxes were declared illegal, we'd get a small victory in pushing game publishers away from design we don't like, but not necessarily toward design we do, at the expense of increasing government scrutiny which could harm small developers who have no part in this. 

As much as I want to stick it to corporations, a legal solution is worrisome. And given the precedent, it's also unlikely to succeed. We're talking about defining Magic: The Gathering and baseball cards as illegal racketeering, an accusation they've weathered successfully for years.

Above: Hell.

What to do

They botched one of their biggest launches of the year, ate a bunch of negative press, and could've avoided it all.

The dopamine rush described by Dr. Clark is real, and its easy to see how loot boxes could get children and people who are prone to addiction to overspend. For that and many other reasons, I'd love to get rid of them, if not by forcing indie game developers to submit their games to their state's gambling control board for inspection. Frustratingly, though, I doubt the catalyst for change will be reduced profits. 

The truth is that loot boxes are fun to open. I've purchased keys for Rocket League crates—because I must have the coolest car—and spending $10 here and there hasn't left me with regrets. Many probably feel the same way, so I'm doubtful that 'vote with your wallet' is going to force meaningful change. When they're relatively inoffensive, people are going to keep buying loot boxes, and blaming individual players pointlessly sets us against each other, instead of the people actually responsible: exorbitantly-paid executives and board members. 

All I can recommend for now is that we keep calling out obnoxious implementations of loot boxes. We may not like what we get when Battlefront 2's premium currency returns, but that EA removed it the day before launch shows that player criticism had a significant effect. They botched one of their biggest launches of the year, ate a bunch of negative press, and could've avoided it all. Whether they end up making money on Battlefront 2 anyway, or losing money, they may think twice about the nature of their in-game purchases next time.

Inside the industry, I don't expect any individual to risk their job by publicly criticizing their bosses—we recently spoke to insiders about loot boxes, and they all asked to remain anonymous—though I can't imagine the average game developer employee loves designing simulated slot machines. On that note, there's a lot of work to do on the industry that, while seemingly unrelated, would help. Namely, an end to reliance on temporary contractors, crunch, and high turnover, and reasonable profit expectations that don't require every game to pull in half-a-billion dollars per year in microtransactions.

Above: What buying currency in Battlefront 2 looked like, before it was removed.

I do think it's understandable that publishers want to earn revenue from existing owners if they're providing a service. Servers cost money. But it feels pretty obvious that they've slowly been working toward something they knew we didn't want, hoping that if they turned up the heat gradually—first pre-order bonuses, then microtransactions, 'games as a service,' and finally cribbing the MTG model—we wouldn't notice that the system is designed to encourage overspending on items. 

Of course we noticed, and so have legislators, reigniting the 'gambling for children' collectable card game debates from the '90s. Collectible card games managed to slip away from the controversy, but now that it's back, the games industry has to reckon with the ethics of how it applies game systems to monetization, as well as the way it produces games and the profits they're expected to make. If they don't back off, at least a little—say, by only putting cosmetic items in boxes and always providing an alternative way to get them—someone else might make a decision for them.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

In many ways, last night’s CS:GO grand final at IEM Oakland was a battle between two opposing philosophies on how to build a top-tier esports team. On one side of the match you had FaZe Clan, a team created by buying out contracts from other top teams and assembling  an all-star roster of talent from across Europe. Playing against them you had Ninjas in Pyjamas, a Swedish team with three veterans of the game who have been playing together for years, and two young up-and-comers who they’ve scouted from lower-tier teams and given a shot at competing in the highest level of professional Counter-Strike.

On paper, it didn’t look like much of a matchup. FaZe Clan’s dazzling roster of star talent has been consistently winning big events over the last few months, while the new NiP lineup has struggled throughout the year, culminating last month in a failure to qualify for the next ELEAGUE Major in Boston. Before the match got underway, NiP was being sold by the analyst desk as an underdog with a slim chance at making it through all five maps, and judging by recent performance, this was a fair assessment.There was, however, some early warning signs that this wouldn’t be the walk in the park for FaZe that many were predicting. Throughout the group stages it was clear that NiP had found a new chemistry with their recently-acquired young teammates, and any remaining doubt about their competence should have been expelled when they walked through the #1 team in the world in the semifinals.

Through all five maps of the grand final, the old guard of NiP proved why they’ve been at the top of the game for so long, landing incredible shots and making smart position plays that kept them winning rounds even when outnumbered or outgunned. 

Many of the rounds were so closely-contested that huge individual efforts were required from virtually every member of both teams to keep the games close, which resulted in some exciting Counter-Strike to watch, and a handful of stellar highlight-reel plays.

After trading map wins back and forth, it all came down to the fifth and final game on Cache, where a close first half lead into a handful of back-and-forth rounds, leaving the score at 10-9 in favour of NiP. Then a gap began to appear. The Swedes began to pull new tactics out of their deep repertoire, like having REZ flank through mid with some excellent timing, and sending GeT_RiGhT up into the A site boost spot to wreak unexpected havok.

All of a sudden the score was 15-9 courtesy of a string of inventive rounds from NiP. After a brief rally due to a big play from karrigan, FaZe was defeated 16-10. One of the most severe slumps we’ve seen a top-tier team go through in modern recollection was at an end, and NiP’s new lineup proved themselves to be a potent combination of old-guard experience and tactics, and new-school talent and energy.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament was the performance of 19-year-old REZ, the newest addition to the NiP lineup and a new face in the upper echelons of CS:GO generally. He was consistently a top performer for his team, dropping 24 frags in the first game against FaZe and earning himself HLTV’s MVP award for the tournament.

The Swedish team still won’t be attending the Boston Major in January, but they’ve shown that they still have the potential to compete at that level with their new roster, and the $129,000 they’ve taken home this weekend should be an effective salve for the pain of their weaker performances earlier in 2017.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

In the inaugural match of the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive semifinals today at the Intel Extreme Masters in Oakland, California, perennial Swedish faves Ninjas in Pyjamas got off to a rough start. After losing their first pistol round to SK Gaming—the number-one ranked team in the world going into this tournament—the Ninjas proceeded to lose four more rounds consecutively due to some aggressive flanking maneuvers from SK’s fer.

Round six appeared to be heading in a similar direction, with NiP’s Xizt left alone at half health to defend the bomb against two opponents. All signs pointed to an unstoppable-looking SK continuing to dominate the match, but Xizt proved why he’s been an instrumental part of the NiP lineup for half a decade now with a beautiful AK-47 spray into A bombsite that eliminated both surviving SK players.

Despite SK Gaming winning the next two rounds, bringing the score to 7-1 in their favour, the momentum had shifted out from under the Brazilian team. Ninjas in Pyjamas found new strategies to shut down SK’s aggression, and won every round for the rest of the half, leaving them at 8-7 going into their CT side.The second half of the map was similarly lopsided, with SK Gaming only winning 2 more rounds before NiP closed out the first game of the best-of-three series 16-9. For a match against ostensibly the best team in the world, on the map that SK had selected to play on, this was an impressive result for a NiP squad that has struggled to produce results at recent LAN events.

Compounding the impression that they were finding their formerly world-beating form once again, Ninjas in Pyjamas went on to win the semifinal match 2 maps to 1, losing on Cache courtesy of a massive 32-frag performance from SK’s coldzera, then coming back to close the match out on Inferno.NiP’s GeT_RiGhT put on a show of his own in the final rounds of the third map, with a flanking maneuver so good that he surprised even the announcers.

Ninjas in Pyjamas will now move on to face the winner of the other semifinal match between Cloud9 and FaZe Clan, attempting to add one more championship trophy to their already impressive mantle tomorrow afternoon. If they pull it off, it will be a ringing reminder of their potential to a viewership that had begun counting them out of this tournament before it had even begun. 

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

The Intel Extreme Masters pro gaming tour has kicked off in Oakland, California, and you can watch the action streaming all weekend for both PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

Above, you can see the PUBG battle royale 20-team tournament, competing in four matches on Saturday and four more on Sunday, all in first-person perspective. The action is underway and will pick back up Sunday at 1pm Pacific. The teams are competing for a share of a $200,000 prize, with the winners taking away $60K.

Meanwhile, CS:GO's tournament (embedded below) will feature the semifinals (now in progress) on Saturday and finals on Sunday beginning at 1:15pm Pacific. The purse is $300,000, with the top team to walk away with $125,000.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Valve has rolled out a new Counter-Strike: Global Offensive matchmaking system that expands on the Prime Matchmaking system it launched last year. Called Trust, the new system takes a more holistic approach to connecting players than Prime by taking into account a much wider range of factors, including some drawn from outside of CS:GO. 

Prime Matchmaking requires that players link their accounts to their mobile devices and have a minimum CS:GO rank of 21, to help ensure a reasonably consistent level of skill and commitment between connected players. But that "created a hard boundary in the CS:GO community, and players who might otherwise be perfectly happy playing together were separated," Valve said in a blog post

Enter the optimistically-named Trust system. "What if the Prime system was re-imagined using a wider range of factors? We started with that question, and have been experimenting with matching players using observed behaviors and attributes of their Steam account, including the overall amount of time they had spent playing CS:GO, how frequently they were reported for cheating, time spent playing other games on their Steam account, etc," Valve wrote. "We call this system Trust, and these factors considered together form a player’s Trust Factor." 

The experiment appears to have worked out. The post says that matches created using Trust have resulted in fewer reports, even among players who don't have Prime status. As a result, Trust Factor will now be the default CS:GO matchmaking system, although players who prefer Prime can stick with it for now. 

The blog post includes an FAQ, although some of the most obvious Qs aren't Ad: Valve isn't going to provide the full list of variables that determine your Trust Factor, nor is it going to tell you what your Trust Factor is or how you can improve it beyond the general suggestion of not being a dick. 

"We’re still iterating on the Trust Factor model and adjusting the way various factors are combined, but we want to make sure that all you have to do to improve your matchmaking experience is continue to play CS:GO and other Steam games legitimately," the post says. "The more you play, the more information the system has and the easier it will be for the system to determine who you should be matched with." 

Still, if you think your Trust Factor is somehow off the mark because you're getting low-quality matchups (and you're reasonably confident that you haven't been a dick lately), you can drop a "Trust Factor feedback" inquiry email to CSGOTeamFeedback@valvesoftware.com. 

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