Opinion: Not all loot boxes are bad, nor are they gambling

There’s been a lot of hubbub over loot boxes, ever since Star Wars: Battlefront 2’s beta came out. Are they or are they not gambling? Are they or are they not predatory? Do they belong in any sort of game, or just free to play games? Should AAA titles have them at all? What about AAA titles that are single player only?

And before people assume, no, I am not employed in the games industry. I do not work for any developer, publisher, publication, marketing agency, or any business that operates in video games, or even in the entertainment industry.

These questions, and more, have been raised frequently over the past several weeks.

Why is it as big an issue as it is? Not all loot boxes are bad. While there’s certainly issues pertaining to loot boxes, mainly caused by EA and their complete lack of anything resembling competency, but it’s true: not all loot boxes are bad, and they’re not gambling. You’ll probably disagree with me — you will disagree with me — but it’s true. But let’s go back in time a little bit first.

Toy capsule vending machines. Source: Wikipedia

If you’re over a certain age, you’ll remember those capsule games that you’d find everywhere. Convenience stores, grocery stores, movie theatres. They were everywhere. You’d put in a quarter, maybe a loonie (that’s our version of the $1 bill in the U.S.), and you’d get a plastic container with a little toy inside. Maybe you wanted the red guy, but got the blue guy, so you put another coin in. Green guy! Neat, but still not what you wanted. Put another coin in, and you got another green guy. Fifteen dollars later, that red guy was finally in your hands.

Was this gambling? Yes and no. It’s gambling in that you would put a coin in hoping for something and maybe getting something else, but it’s not gambling in that your money went to waste. Whether you wanted the item you received or not, you still got something.

On a fundamental level, are loot boxes in games any different? No.

Let’s look at Overwatch. Loot boxes in Overwatch are all cosmetic, you will never receive an item that gives you an advantage, nor will you ever be put up against somebody with an advantage, because it simply doesn’t exist. You can get new skins, emotes, voice lines, graffiti sprays, poses. None of these items give you an advantage, and serve only to customize the characters to your liking.

Overwatch loot box prices. Specifically states cosmetic, and you can earn them in game. (James ‘CrazyCanuck’ Paterson)

I played a lot of Overwatch when it first came out, then slowly tapered off as other games came out, however I cannot remember the game ever harassing you to buy loot boxes, or even mentioning them. You get one every time you level up, and for certain outside bonuses (like the Twitch Prime promotion that’s fairly recent). They never once said “HEY WANNA BUY SOME STUFF”? Regardless of how you feel, it’s not gambling in Overwatch. You will always get something. Not receiving something you wanted does not gambling make.

Star Wars: Battlefront II specifically has items that will give you an advantage. Admittedly, this is a bigger issue in a multiplayer game, because you’re potentially given a one-up on an enemy, or, again, you’ll be at the mercy of someone who has spent money and you haven’t. Is this gambling? No. Sure, it makes the game “easier” if you buy something, but just like in Overwatch, you will always get something.

Now, what if that is something you already have? Well, you’ll receive credits, which you can then use to further buy things. In the case of Overwatch, you can buy specific items with enough credits. In Battlefront II, you can put those credits towards crafting items (and also buying characters and other boxes). Is this gambling? No, because you’re still receiving credits, the in-game currency, from your loot box purchase.

The ability for someone to buy something to give them an advantage, or to have something better, is not new to gaming. It is found in pretty much every industry on the planet. People with means will buy a Mercedes over a Toyota. They’ll buy a 6,000 square foot house in the middle of a major city, over an 800sqf cardboard box. They’ll fly first class to Hawaii instead of coach class to Ohio.

Why are games exempt from this? Not to beat a dead horse, but games are quite expensive to make. Destiny 2, for example, cost $140 million to develop. (Source: Kotaku, https://kotaku.com/how-much-does-it-cost-to-make-a-big-video-game-1501413649) The last numbers I can find show that Destiny has around 1.3 million players. Assuming those 1.3 million people paid $60 for the basic version of the game, that’s $78,000,000. That’s almost half of what the game cost to make (granted, people have bought deluxe editions, which are more expensive).

Bright Engrams in Destiny 2 cost Silver; items are all cosmetic. (James ‘CrazyCanuck’ Paterson)

Multiplayer games have additional costs associated with them, most notably server maintenance and upkeep. Would you rather spend $60 on a multiplayer game with no loot boxes, only to have that game close down in a year? Probably not. Just look at Marvel Heroes on Xbox One. Ongoing server support requires money: money for salaries, equipment, and support.

Buying loot boxes in Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. (James ‘CrazyCanuck’ Paterson)

Now, let’s take a look at single player games. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War and Assassin’s Creed: Origins are the two most recent titles. Both are single player, both are triple A games with large budgets, and both feature microtransactions. In the former, you can buy orcs, with a chance of a legendary quality, or you can buy boosts that cause your character to earn experience at a quicker than usual rate.

In the latter, you can buy cosmetic items, new mounts, and what Ubisoft calls “time savers”, which is basically allowing you to progress quicker. Need 1000 drachmas for that sword but don’t want to grind for them? Buy some! Or buy a pack of materials to upgrade that last gear piece to legendary.

Time Savers sold for Helix Credits, which cost real money, to purchase. (James ‘CrazyCanuck’ Paterson)

How do these affect anybody but the person considering them? They don’t! Neither of these two games have a multiplayer component. They do have an online component (attacking and defending in Shadow of War, and taking and viewing pictures in Origins). If you buy 1000 Helix Credits so you can stock up on materials, who does that affect? Just you! Nobody else. You playing a single player game in Toronto and spending $30 will in no way affect Jane Doe playing the same game in Georgia! How this is an issue is beyond me. If people want to spend money to boost themselves, they’re helping support a game further, which, in theory, goes into development of future games, as well as fixing issues with existing games.

With all that said, my opinion is, loot boxes are not gambling. Whether the game is single player, multiplayer, or a combination of the two, you will always get something in return. You will never spend money to buy a loot box, only to get nothing in return.

Yes, they can be shady and predatory (see: anything Electronic Arts has done). Even Activision’s patent to match players without bought content with players who have purchased said content can be considered predatory.

Is there room to figure out a better method of implementing loot boxes? Yes. Should they be worked better? Yes. Are there games that have a bad loot box policy? Yes. Are there games that implement loot boxes in a better manner? Yes. Are loot boxes are here to stay? Yes. Considering the money that publishers make from them, I don’t see them going away any time soon.

Ultimately, we all have to keep in mind

  • People with means will buy things, and them buying things will help keep a game running
  • Until loot boxes get the ability to NEVER give us anything in exchange, they are not gambling
  • Loot boxes are entirely optional: while you may like that super rad skull and flames for your ship, you don’t need it and it doesn’t affect you

Unless the industry drastically changes over the next few years, this will be the new normal. You can either vote with your wallet, or accept loot boxes for what they are. Considering how well the last several big loot box games have sold, people are much happier being Twitter activists than actually voting with their wallet and refusing to buy what they’re so steadfastly against.

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