If you’re somehow unaware of the controversy that’s suddenly surrounding the relatively recent concept of loot boxes, allow me to fill you in.
Loot boxes have been around since somewhere between 2007 and 2010, appearing in many free-to-play and paid games, but they didn’t become well-known until Blizzard Entertainment released the popular first-person shooter Overwatch in 2016. Loot boxes are a consumable commodity that can be ‘opened’, or traded in, for a number of random items in whichever game you’re playing. Sometimes you need a secondary item called a ‘key’ to do this, but not always. The items you receive from loot boxes can be anything from aesthetic items that only change your character’s appearance to in-game weapons and armor that affect their performance, and the boxes can either be earned through normal play or purchased using real, actual money.
The loot box controversy has been going on for quite some time; China, Japan, Australia, and the Isle of Man include loot boxes under their gambling law, and several more countries have ongoing investigations into the psychology behind them. The recent release of EA’s newest title Star Wars Battlefront II, and more specifically the game’s loot box system, brought the discussion into the limelight.
Basically, EA was criticized for allowing players to receive Star Cards, a prominent item that is necessary for character development, in their loot boxes. These Star Cards, which come in four levels of rarity and power, can be used to upgrade a player’s abilities and stats, making them more effective on the battlefield. All four iterations of Star Cards, from the Common to the Epic, are included in loot boxes, which means that if one were to buy enough loot boxes, they would eventually stumble onto a Star Card that could drastically improve their chances of winning a battle. This model of gameplay, in which real-world money can be used to ensure a player wins almost every encounter, is appropriately called pay-to-win.
But what’s the difference between loot boxes and gambling? Is there a difference? Should loot boxes be outlawed in games, especially games that are played by minors?
That depends on the game.
See, not every loot box is made equal, and not every loot box system is set up the same. There are several factors and outliers that need to be taken into consideration, but it basically all comes down to the pay-to-win concept I outlined earlier, and the argument can go one of two ways because of it.
If a game’s loot boxes includes items that affect the effectiveness of characters, i.e. something that could turn the tide of battle in your favor, then that is a bad setup and should be either changed or taken out completely. For example, if there’s a small chance that a loot box could give you a gun that does 9,000 damage to every character on the field except yourself and pretty much guarantees your victory, then players are going to be tempted into buying more and more loot boxes until they get their hands on said guarantee. Even if there’s only a small chance of them getting it, that still resembles a lottery, which is of course gambling.
This is the model that most game publishers are going to want to use. Maneuvering people into buying more boxes results in more profits for them. Unfortunately, this could mean a drop in the quality of the game as developers are forced to tilt game mechanics in favor of purchasing more boxes. Limiting how often one gets new items through just gameplay is one way this is done.
If a game doesn’t include items that can be used to win the game and instead only gives out items that change your appearance, then that’s fine. Appearance doesn’t affect gameplay, so people won’t be drawn into buying more and more loot boxes; sure, people might really really really want that super cool skin that looks like a cross between a flaming skull and a smoke machine, but it’s not going to be super drawing because a) you can earn that same skin through regular gameplay, and b) the appeal will be lessened because it won’t do anything substantial for you even if you do get it. It just makes you look cool.
This is the model most game developers would lean towards. It allows people to support the game they love by buying items that make their character look cool without sacrificing gameplay and progression quality. Prompting people to buy boxes isn’t as effective when it doesn’t impact gameplay, so better to leave it to the players.
Now, that’s not to say developers won’t go for the pay-to-win structure, or that publishers won’t go for the cosmetic items only structure, but these are the most likely.
The one factor I can think of that might change these rules is in-game currency. If either the loot-boxes or the items inside them can be purchased with currency that you obtain through winning matches or battles, then that lessens the appeal of using real money to buy loot boxes across the board. It doesn’t mean that pay-to-win items should be included in loot boxes anyway, but it does mean that less people will be drawn into using real money because they know that they can get it for free if they just put enough time into the game. And really, if they use months of their time to win some shiny new gun that explodes an enemy’s face off in seven different dimensions at once, well…
They deserve it, don’t you think?