I’m a gamer who enjoys the challenge and entertainment presented by a well-made game, and I’m not alone; the global games audience is estimated to be between 2.2 and 2.6 billion people. Yet wherever large numbers of people are, business exploits are quick to follow.
Enter loot boxes. This game feature has been around for a while, but recently their presence has begun to spread; growing from free-to-play mobile games, into the AAA console market. Video game controversy is nothing new, but the recent news with European governments determining whether loot boxes can be considered gambling raised some questions for me; what constitutes gambling in video games, how will loot boxes affect the market, and what moral impact does this have on video games?
What Are Loot Boxes?
Loot boxes are virtual rewards that players can receive in a multitude of ways, such as completing in-game objectives, or by paying for them with real-world currency. Within these loot boxes a player will receive a handful of random prizes. These prizes, usually cosmetic features, such as new character outfits, are undetermined until the box is opened, they typically frame the prizes into categories (common, rare, ultra rare etc.) to give the player an inkling as to what they might receive. This is what separates loot boxes from simply paying for specific items; you pay for a chance to obtain a virtual item — with real money.
As Keza MacDonald wrote in The Guardian article; “It’s a slot-machine style system where, although you’re guaranteed to get something on every spin, the chance of getting what you actually want is vastly reduced.”
This unpredictable method of obtaining items has the same psychological effect on the brain as any other game of chance. Excitement floods your system and you feel the rush of winning something, an addictive feeling. This feeling shares many traits with that of gambling and can be so influential on some players it can seriously impact their lives.
“You cannot progress without those rewards, they are fundamental components that allow you to ‘complete’ the game.”
The Types of Loot Boxes
There are typically two types of loot boxes that can be obtained. These have different effects on the way the game is played. They are either cosmetic, or have are fundamental and impact the way you as a player play the game.
Cosmetic loot boxes have no impact on the players ability to play the game. They don’t provide strategic advantages, instead they are rewards that personalise the player’s character such as a new character skin (outfit) or colour scheme for their weapons.
Overwatch’s loot boxes are purely cosmetic. They include features like character ‘poses’ that allow the player’s character to distinguish themselves from others. These cosmetic rewards provide no advantage when playing and instead offer a small incentive to purchase if the player wants to.
In contrast to the cosmetic loot box rewards, fundamental loot boxes impact the way you play the game, such as in EA’s Star Wars Battlefront 2. The rewards within these loot boxes are integrated into the progression system of the game. You cannot progress without those rewards, they are fundamental components that allow you to ‘complete’ the game.
EA elected to remove a progression system in Battlefront 2 in which the player earns new abilities, and even new characters, the more they play the game and instead opted to reward the player with a small number of loot boxes upon each level-up. Enough to entice the player into wanting more.
Battlefront 2 offers various types of loot boxes to incentivise players to return to, and keep playing, their game. One example is the ‘Daily Login Crate’; these are given to the players who return to the game on a daily basis. The animations and sound effects that are triggered upon opening a loot box are enough to excite any player; they look visually stunning and feel satisfying when opened — similar to that of someone hitting the jackpot on a slot machine.
“They will learn to love the rush of getting a good card out of a loot box. So please again take a moment to reflect. There are no laws in place to protect the youth of our nation and others like it.” — Kensgold, Reddit
Is It Gambling?
This is what is currently being debated amongst various governments. As of the posting of this article, both the Belgium Gaming Commission and the Netherlands Courts have ruled loot boxes a form of gambling. The UK government however does not currently share this assessment and has yet to pass judgement on the matter. Many countries don’t class loot boxes as a form of gambling, the rationale is that players are guaranteed to receive some kind of reward from each loot box, and they have no real monetary value so doesn’t meet the same criteria as typical gambling.
Just because the rewards have no real monetary value, does not mean they creating an addictive atmosphere towards gamers. One prime example being used is of a Reddit post from a user called Kensgold, a 19 year old who has so far spent over $10,000 on microtransactions and loot boxes. Towards the end of the post, Kensgold pleads with the developers to reconsider the inclusion of these features, asking them to think about who else it will impact:
“I was lucky. Others like me [won’t] be. They will fail out of school. They will use their parents credit cards, causing massive interest and CC debit. They [won’t] have a mother/accountant to teach how to manage their money if they recover. So please take a moment to reflect on my story.
There will be kids playing. They will learn to love the rush of getting a good card out of a loot box. So please again take a moment to reflect. There are no laws in place to protect the youth of our nation and others like it.”
It seems as though these pleas are being silenced by the profit margins. The financial benefit of loot boxes is too strong for publishers to ignore. Juniper’s research forecasts the digital games market will reach $160 billion by 2022, up from $117 billion this year. Loot boxes represent 25% of that market value and will likely increase to 29% by 2022. It seems that loot boxes aren’t going away.
Featuring loot boxes in AAA games is only a detriment to those who play the games, what long term effect will this have on the gaming industry? Loot boxes do little to enrich the experience of the game, they require little or no skill to obtain. They are merely a way of siphoning more money out of gamers who have already paid for the game itself.
“Loot boxes are a lazy solution with only a profit margin in mind.”
A Creative Evolution Example
While some publishers have defended the existence of loot boxes in their games by claiming they extend the life of the game, these seem like ‘plate-spinning’ answers; statements that will hopefully distract or silence you long enough so they can extract as much money as possible before regulations are put in place to limit them.
Other developers have come up with creative ways of keeping the players coming back for more without resorting to gambling tactics. A prime example would be iO interactive’s Hitman. This game releases it’s content in an episodic format; the design of the game is built around replaying levels, getting you, as the player, more familiar with the level design and opportunities available as you replay the episode multiple times.
As the player, you become so familiar with the level you know it inside-out. Then, a month later, the developers release a whole new level for you to explore. They even called these levels ‘episodes’, and the first collection of episodes has been collectively known as a ‘season’.
This is just one example of how games can evolve with the way we, as consumers, absorb content; iO interactive reviewed the way we played games, respected the player base, and created something that built upon what came before. They didn’t try to trick us, instead chose to create a new gaming experience.
There are other examples of creative design that encourage longer times spent playing games, such as DLC packages and daily challenges — look at GTA V, a game released in 2013 and still going strong today. These methods are all infinitely better than loot boxes. As Keza MacDonald puts it; “while games are getting more and more expensive to make, but the video games industry should not need to employ the tricks of the gambling industry to plug the gap.”
What Do You Think?
The way the entertainment industry is evolving to meet our new standard for receiving content presents the games industry with a challenge. This is a prime opportunity to develop some creative design solutions and help evolve the gaming industry. Loot boxes are a lazy solution with only a profit margin in mind. They don’t respect their customers, in-fact they insult them, choosing to siphon their money manipulate individuals. Many gamers are frustrated at the presence of loot boxes in their favourite franchises, and as soon as you start disrespecting your customers, it won’t take long before they start leaving.
I certainly agree loot box features should be removed from games played by children, but I argue that doesn’t solve the problem. Loot boxes mirror the psychological intent of a slot machine; a quick rush that has a strong, but short, high and long-term negative effects. Many gamers would welcome the removal of loot boxes. Feeling forced to spend money to keep-up in a video game, especially when spending your money doesn’t even guarantee you the item that you want, can de-incentivise you to return to the game.
What do you think about the presence of loot boxes in video games? Should they be classed as gambling? Are they good for the games or is this the natural progression for the industry? I’d love to hear your thoughts.