What We Need to Know About Middle-earth: Shadow of War Microtransactions

It was earlier this month that Middle-earth: Shadow of War made an announcement containing several buzzwords that make gamers instinctively suspicious: “premium currency,” “microtransactions,” “loot chests.” Well the system as we know it thus far has its numerous defenders, it’s still a system that needs defenders. Reactions have ranged from unabashed support to unequivocal denouncement, with little room in between.

In case you missed the announcement, Middle-earth: Shadow of War will have microtransactions allowing players to purchase two different types of chests that give them either gear or followers of varying rarity, which affects their respective stats and, in the case of followers, their traits. While there is in-game currency, called Mirian,” some of these chests can only be purchased with premium currency, called “Gold.”

When I first played Middle-earth: Shadow of War at E3, I was markedly excited about the gear system. This would add new life to the game, in the same way that a loot system as one in Diablo games. But this announcement certainly changes those prospects. The truth is, though, that we need more information before we can make a final judgment, but we might not get that information before we start playing the game. So, when October rolls around, and you get your copy of Middle-earth: Shadow of War (assuming this announcement hasn’t precluded your purchase), here is what you need to watch out for:

At What Rate Can You Earn In-Game Currency?

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This is an issue that any game with in-game currency has to deal with: how easy is it to earn, in comparison with just purchasing? Let’s use Overwatch as an example. Blizzard’s multiplayer shooter mega-hit has in-game currency that allows you to buy loot boxes, but the only way to earn that currency is to buy loot boxes, in which the currency drop rate is irregular to say the least. Because of this, and a few other factors, Blizzard changed loot boxes to make it easier to obtain items you don’t already have.

The important part to know about Overwatch, though, is that none of its items affect gameplay. So let’s try a different example and use For Honor. Now, For Honor only has one-type of currency (Steel), but it’s both premium and in-game. You earn it through playing the game, but you can also buy it as a shortcut. This steel is used to buy items that give you an in-game advantage, and it also used to upgrade those items once you have them. While many people question whether or not For Honor was ever “pay-to-win” in that respect, it’s worth noting that the developers actually increased the rate at which you can earn steel by at least 45% about a month after launch, so they at least acknowledged that there was some problem with their system, weighting it toward the premium, pay-to-win side.

So what will it be like in Shadow of War? The only two chests you can buy with in-game currency cost 500 Mirian. How quickly will you be able to earn that much Mirian? As with all of these questions, we just don’t know. If it’s even as low as 500 Mirian per mission, that really won’t be enough. Likewise, you can also earn Gold “in small amounts at specific milestones” during the game and by participating in community challenges? How many Loot Chests or War Chests can you purchase just with the Gold you earn in game?

What is the Drop Rate for Top-Tier Items?

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Middle-earth: Shadow of War is using a very familiar rarity system for its gear and followers – Common, Rare, Epic and Legendary. Legendary followers are only guaranteed in Loot Chests and War Chests that cost Gold, being premium currency, but Warner Bros. has stated that all items are available in all levels of Chests, meaning no content is hidden behind a paywall, just the means to reliable get that content.

This doesn’t mean it will be impossible to get Legendary-rarity gear and followers from normal Chests, but it also doesn’t tell us how likely it is to get them either. With in-game currency, you can only buy Silver Loot and War Chests. Silver Loot chests guarantee one “rare” level gear, whereas Silver War Chests guarantee one “Epic” level follower. Higher up the ladder, Gold Loot and War Chests guarantee one Legendary, and Mithril War Chests Guarantee four Legendary followers.

But what will the drop rates be for Legendary items if they aren’t guaranteed? Put another way: how likely am I to get Legendary items if I only use in-game currency to buy Silver Chests while never purchasing premium currency to buy the higher-level chests? This will go a long way to determining the nature of these microtransactions: just how hard are Warner Bros. pushing you to pay?

How Necessary are Top-Tier Items?

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When it comes down to it, though, this is the biggest question: Do I need Legendary items in order to succeed, or can I reasonably get by through the game without worrying about it? As with any introduction of microtransactions, the main fear is that the game will be balanced toward them, meaning people who don’t purchase will have a really hard time throughout the game.

Now, Monolith Productions and Warner Bros. have made it very clear that this is just a way to “save time,” meaning players who pay won’t have to spend as much time “winning battles, tracking nemeses, completing quests and assaulting fortresses,” but this is hardly reassuring. Overlooking the obvious problem with conflating a lack of time with an abundance of money, this logic sets up a false dichotomy between grinding and buying.

The theory is that, this just makes it so you don’t have to grind to get the top-tier items. The question you should be asking, though, is “why do I have to grind in the first place?” Games with gear systems don’t have to be grindy by default, with a for-pay “fast lane” for those who want to bypass it. Developers can easily make it so you earn sufficient gear at a reasonable enough rate that doesn’t require hours and hours of extra gameplay or a few extra dollars to fill their coffers. And Shadow of War might have done just that, but hinges on the qualifier “sufficient,” and brings us back to the question: How necessary is this top-tier gear? Will I be able to earn “sufficient” gear at a “reasonable rate” without paying? If the answer to this question is no, grab your torch and pitchforks.