Microtransactions and the need for post-launch income have put cosmetics in a position where they’re highly sought after, but lack the meaning they once had.
When I think of games with great cosmetics, it’s difficult to pick any from recent years. Sure, Overwatch may have seven million (brought to you by Hyperbole Inc.), but luck is all that is required to get them - or lots of dollar dollar! I remember the days when you had to work for cosmetics so other players knew it wasn’t just luck in a loot box, or a one time fee; it was sheer determination and hard work. I remember the importance of cosmetics in Halo 3.
With Overwatch, any progression, rewards, or sense of accomplishment come from the cosmetics. When new events come along, players scramble to get the ones they want; there’s no denying that receiving a legendary skin from a box is a great feeling. When I see a player using a new legendary skin in Overwatch all I think is they were either lucky, or spent a lot of money to get it. With Halo 3 you didn’t have to be lucky; you had to be scrupulous, skilful, and patient.
What made Halo 3’s cosmetics meaningful was what players had to go through to get them. Whether it was soloing the game on legendary difficulty, or completing every achievement in the game, it took serious determination. Players with these cosmetics had a feeling of accomplishment, and owning them was a benchmark for the rest of us. You got a great feeling for killing someone who had the Hayabusa Sword shouting, “oh, you’re not so good now are you!?!?”. Killing players with really good cosmetics made you feel like you were just as good as them. Those feelings are non-existent in multiplayer games now. Now, killing someone with a good skin or unlocking a skin doesn’t mean anywhere near as much as it used to.
Getting a cosmetic by chance out of a loot box is a more concentrated but fleeting moment of accomplishment, and in most cases designed to get the player to buy more. Games such as Overwatch could benefit greatly from skins unlocked for certain achievements within the game - perhaps X amount of hooks with Roadhog, or X Hanzo headshots, or X amount of Tracer Pulse Bomb kills will reward you with a skin that’s unavailable in loot boxes. The golden weapons within Overwatch were almost that originally, but we’re at a point where most players have at least one by now, and you can buy them for any character.
A sense of real pride and accomplishment has been sacrificed for fleeting moments of luck (and continued greed on the part of those funding the games). I miss the days of battling my way through a campaign, or checking every nook and cranny to unlock things that made me look different online; not just pumping money into it. Online AAA gaming has lost the cosmetic magic it once had, and how they’re monetised becomes further scrutinised.
When people argue a new titles’ microtransactions “are just cosmetics” I sigh, and reminisce about when they actually meant something to those that had them, and even those that didn’t.