No matter what you call them*, loot boxes are not just a fad. They are a simple form of gambling integrated into some games. These mechanics are often fueled by real-life money, rather than in-game currency.
*loot crates, prize crates, surprise mechanics, pay-to-win, digital booster packs, lockboxes, battle packs, randomized rewards
This simple guide is here to educate people not in the know about what loot boxes are and why they matter.
Randomized rewards have been around for decades. If you’ve ever bought a pack of baseball cards, a blind bag, a mystery box, or a pack of Pokémon cards, you’ve purchased something similar to a loot box. But don’t freak out yet! Buying a pack of cards at Walmart doesn’t carry the same burdens that buying digital loot boxes has.
Let me explain from the beginning. (Also: This post includes links throughout and several more at the end if you want to learn more!)
Are loot boxes considered microtransactions?
Short answer: Yes.
Microtransactions were popularized by Candy Crush (which uses the addiction model to keep people playing). They’re an easy way to get a leg up on the competition or push through artificial barriers that the game puts in place to complicate progression.
These microtransactions don’t come in the cost of the game or subscription. There are stores in-game that can charge anywhere between 99 cents to 99 dollars for in-game bonuses, boosts, items, cosmetic additions, and more.
Loot boxes are microtransactions based solely on luck. They exist in the game and provide an in-game prize.
A normal microtransaction is clear about exactly what you are buying, how much it costs, and what it does. If you get duplicates of something, they are typically useful, and you most likely intentionally chose to get that duplicate.
Loot boxes are not clear about what you’re receiving. You could spend $20 on 5 loot boxes and end up with 4 of the same item.
In short, it’s gambling.
It’s gambling in the same way spending $20 at a slot machine might leave you with a handful of nickels. Yeah, you technically got something back from what you spent, but the amount is essentially meaningless to you.
Are card booster packs basically loot boxes?
Short answer: No.
Booster packs have pre-defined values that you expect to get in return for your purchase. In many cases, you get more value than what you paid for.
Loot boxes do not have pre-defined values. What you receive in a loot box varies wildly and is often lower in value than the money you paid for it.
When you buy a booster pack of cards at the store, it is unlikely that you’ll get duplicates in a single pack. You could pay $9 and get 11 different cards, for example. Card games and trading cards remain focused around these booster packs that provide an even playing field, since everyone else is playing with the same likelihood of getting terrible cards or amazing ones.
Digital games are different, though. If you pay a fixed amount of money to get a single random item, you’re opening a loot box.
Most games that have loot boxes are not focused around opening loot boxes. If they were, they’d be card games. Or casinos.
Where does the difference in value come from?
Physical booster packs are always random but provide value. You can trade cards with others. You can build entire decks of cards with enough booster packs.
Loot boxes can provide utterly useless items and countless duplicates. A loot box often only contains one item, and it’s usually for close to the same price as what we once paid for 5–12 trading cards. And you cannot trade loot box items with others.
A loot box could provide a super-powerful item that unfairly destroys the competition. It could also provide a slight color change to an item. Or a voice line. Or something else equally uninteresting or unhelpful.
And most of all, you can get duplicates of these useless items, and you can’t trade them with others for things you could actually use.
A loot box has the potential to give you a game-breakingly powerful item. In many games, if you don’t open loot boxes, you have no chance in a competition against someone who does.
It’s all about incentives. It gives you a reason to shell out cash. And you probably won’t get it on the first try.
Have fun opening 20 loot boxes and only getting things you can’t use or trade for better items!
This is why some loot boxes are “pay-to-win” in certain games. If you don’t buy loot boxes in your “free” game, you may not be able to make any progress at all.
Some games have implemented charts where you see the likelihood of acquiring a given item, but it doesn’t solve the problem.
So why should anyone who doesn’t call themselves a gamer care about this?
- Parents: If your kids are playing online games (whether it’s on a console like the PlayStation 4, a handheld system like the 3DS, or your cell phone), there is a chance that microtransactions are involved. It is easier than ever for people to pay for online game items in only a few taps of a finger. Your kid could be spending tons of your money if they’re playing on your phone or if they’ve snagged your credit card for their own phone purchases.
- Non-gamers: The line between gamer and non-gamer is getting thinner and thinner. Regardless, if you’re playing mobile games, you’re around loot boxes and microtransactions. Games like Candy Crush rely on players removing barriers and finding new ways to win (or win faster).
- Teachers: Most kids don’t understand money. If they’ve never had a job or done volunteer work, then $50 is just as meaningless to them as $300. If you have the opportunity, try talking about loot boxes when teaching probability or when explaining finances and economy.
- Kids/Teens/Young Adults: if you don’t play games now, you might in the future! Plus, with how many people play games, you probably know a few gamers. Don’t use this opportunity to berate them — just try to understand why they buy loot boxes and maybe help them find games that aren’t pay-to-win. Come at this from a point of love, not control.
Loot boxes are relevant in almost everyone’s life now. If you don’t educate yourself, you are going to get left in the dust as you wonder how your kid spent $70 in a single day (if you’re lucky it’s not more) when playing a game on your phone.
Want to learn more about loot boxes and microtransactions?
- https://www.tuw.edu/psychology/psychology-behind-microtransactions/ — the psychology behind microtransactions
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vJf52TYxwY — the moral bankruptcy of surprise mechanics
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptGeWu8pMRw — EA’s exploitative practices
- https://www.extremetech.com/gaming/277317-study-loot-boxes-are-psychologically-akin-to-gambling — “psychologically akin to gambling”
- https://www.theverge.com/2019/2/19/18226852/loot-boxes-gaming-regulation-gambling-free-to-play — the impact on “free-to-play” games
- https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2019-05-06-study-sees-link-between-loot-boxes-and-gambling — even people buying loot boxes know it’s gambling
- https://www.reddit.com/r/Overwatch/comments/5ly5ek/the_probability_of_opening_549_loot_boxes/ — the results of opening hundreds of loot boxes