If there are three things that Team Fortress 2 is famous for, it’s the unique art style with cartoony and memorable characters, how utterly insane the game is and, well, hats. There’s a reason why TF2 is referred to as a “war-themed hat simulator” with just how many cosmetics are available. But there is one more thing that TF2 is famous for: Crates. Mann Co. Supply Crates that require Mann Co. Keys to open, for sale in the Mann Co. Shop for about $2 each. Did the inclusion of Crates and Keys in 2010 doom the gaming industry forever, flooding the universe with loot boxes until the day gaming dies? Well, let’s talk about it.
Team Fortress 2 isn’t the first game to have in-game purchases for real money that were mostly randomized. Maplestory beat us in that aspect, with a Gachapon Ticket which could be purchased for 100 Yen in Japan and, just like the Gachapon machines where you stick in a coin and get a little capsule with something in it, you got a random reward. This was back in 2004, and is believed to be one of the first instances of loot boxes.
But loot boxes were a thing in China before they were a thing in Team Fortress 2. According to Wikipedia, the Chinese free to play game ZT Online used loot boxes as a way to make money for the game, which made sense at the time because most people didn’t really have the money to spend on fully priced retail games but could spend pocket change here and there and might buy loot crates and things like that. After all, all the little transactions build up over time, and the idea of loot boxes became a big way of funding free to play mobile games.
What Team Fortress 2 can be blamed for is bringing loot boxes to western gaming. We got our first Mann Co. crates in 2010, the Mann Co. Supply Crate #1, which appeared in a patch on September 30th. This crate contained a chance at a handful of weapons, a Name Tag, a couple of hats, white and black paint or an approximately 1% chance of an unusual. Sounds basic, but clearly it was a success because Valve made tons and tons of money off it.
And if Valve was making tons of money off of crates, that meant that crates and loot boxes and all that are fine and everyone can do loot boxes! Team Fortress 2 proved that loot boxes worked and Valve made a fortune off of them. And because, at the time, Valve was considered to be the greatest and most honest gaming company ever, no one saw any issue with TF2’s crates, which were either cosmetic or could be crafted or obtained via drops anyway. After all, if Valve was doing it, then it had to be good.
Loot boxes could only go up from there, and their popularity was boosted when Dota 2 and CS:GO started having weapon crates (although Dota 2’s cosmetic-obtainment systems have changed a bit throughout the years).
So did Team Fortress 2 ruin gaming forever by introducing loot boxes to the western world? No. But Team Fortress 2 set a precedence. Our silly little crates and hats proved that people will happily pour tons of money into randomized loot, hoping to get cool shit to put on our characters.
But of course, some people had to take it too far. I guess it reached peak loot-box-iness in 2017 with Star Wars Battlefront II, but even though that game changed, there are still plenty of incredibly aggressive loot box systems out there, like basically all the EA sports games which have loot boxes to get characters for your custom teams. I was actually really sickened by this because we had a copy of a FIFA game back on the Playstation 1 (so 2001-2002? It was a long time ago…) and you could build a custom team with whoever you wanted.
On the plus side, things seem to be changing a little bit? At least people are a bit more weary of loot boxes these days and anything too insane gets shouted down for being predatory. Unfortunately though, I don’t think they’ll ever go away. Loot boxes are just too easy to add to almost any game and some people will buy them, no matter what. As long as a steady stream of money can be made from loot boxes, they won’t go away. At least not until developers find something just as addictive but even more profitable.
While Team Fortress 2 didn’t ruin everything forever with its crates, it did leave a stain on gaming history, one that won’t ever be removed, no matter how many cans of A Distinctive Lack of Hue you throw at it.