In case you don’t know, Loot Boxes are paid for random chance loot drops (generally paid). Due to the random nature of them, and the fact you often pay real money for them, they are basically gambling. They can incentivise paying, rather than playing. This is often through fundamental design changes within the game. If we look at Dead Space 3 (which it did not have Loot Boxes, but it paved the way for them), compared to previous games in the series it very much restricted gun upgrades in the game. It was to such a point where buying the microtransactions felt necessary if you didn’t want to grind your way through — remember this is a linear game.
The gambling like aspect comes from the inherent randomness, and luck of the draw. This idea is a core principle of gambling, and being used in this sort of way is predatory to the audience of the games. The idea of preying on the weaker minded, or compulsive natured in order to make them big spenders, without thinking about their financial situation, is being morally bankrupt.
Now, why don’t we…
…take a look at how Loot Boxes are used now?
Let’s compare two games in a series, Shadow of Mordor (SoM), and its sequel Shadow of War (SoW). SoM had a perfect sense of progression, where if you cleared most of the two areas of stuff you would hit max level just before the final mission — but if you didn’t, you would be at a high enough level naturally in order to complete this mission.
However, with SoW having Loot Boxes it is a whole nother kettle of fish. This time around getting skills isn’t hard, with the many challenges just giving you a skill point by completing some of the optional objectives. But, levelling up takes a while once you get to around level 25 if you are not doing the challenges or story missions. This means that hitting the end of Act 3, if you haven’t cleared everything, can be very tough. After Act 3, you get to Act 4 (called Shadow Wars) where you have to defend your Strongholds, not just take them. At this point, I had hit level 45, but by completing the Defence I was only granted a tiny XP gain — that’s with a 31% XP boost.
I had everything else in the world completed, with only the Shadow War missions left. Yes, level 45 is a high level, but you max at level 60. This means I’m now encountering captains who are mostly 1 level or more level higher than me. So, I can’t dominate them right off the bat — which would be fine if there was only one or two, but most of them are higher level and I am not levelling up fast enough to catch up. Importantly, killing captains only nets you a super tiny XP gain. The game design has changed from Shadow of Mordor, with Shadow of War really feeling like it’s pushing you to buy the Loot Boxes to get a 100% XP boost — even getting some captains who are of a high level.
Loot Boxes in Assassin’s Creed: Origins and WWE 2K18
The latest Assassin’s Creed, subtitled Origins, and WWE 2K18 both offer Loot Boxes with a difference. Neither game allows you to buy Loot Boxes with real money. There is a caveat, however, as you can buy in-game money in Origins which allows you buy Loot Boxes. Luckily, the items you find in Loot Boxes are rarely game-breakingly, so buying them doesn’t help you at all. This means you are not directly incentivised to buy in-game currency.
WWE 2K18 takes a different approach to this, where instead of allowing any sort of real money within the game, you can only buy the loot boxes in specific modes. These modes are MyCAREER and ROAD TO GLORY, where you build your own character and get them to the top — there is a separate create a player mode with everything already unlocked.
Both of these systems are similar, where loot boxes are not purchasable directly with real money, only using in-game currency. While this is still almost a gambling type system, the use of in-game currency stops it being exploitative for a player’s real money. The only downside is in Origins, where you can buy in-game currency, but the process of doing so takes multiple stages. It just means that the system is not changing the progression curve, and forcing the player into buying the Loot Boxes — which would be the case if you could buy Loot Boxes directly, as design changes would definitely have been made. This multi-stage process can help remove the feeling of needing to buy the Loot Boxes further, as you are not purchasing them directly.
Trading Card Games and FIFA Ultimate Team
Trading/Collectible Card Games (TCG or CCG) like Magic The Gathering offer random card packs as expansions. These give players a random chance of getting special cards, and some players may open 5 or more packs and get nothing good. Buying more never guarantees good cards, and the Magic system is built around this. While I don’t personally like these sorts of things, it at least it very obvious from the outset how it works.
This is not the case with the likes of FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT). Where the entire system incentivises paying as much as you can. While you can earn everything by spending in-game money, this process takes a long time when compared to spending real money. The aim of all of this is to get your team to 99 chemistry, so that you can go out with the best possible players. However, some of the best players — known as Team of The Season players — have very short contracts (while all players have contracts, the rarity decreases the length of these contracts). These are consumables, which by themselves are fine, however, there is no guarantee that you will get one from opening a loot box. When the contract inevitably ends you lose that player — they are no longer available to you after that, unless you buy them again.
The entire principle of consumable items is fine on its own, but bringing real money into it makes the whole thing scream pay to win; bearing in mind this is in a paid game.
Overwatch is the worst example
Overwatch is a wildly successful game that many players love, this fact cannot be argued against (even if you are like me and don’t like the game). The gameplay, to the variety and diversity of the heroes, to the team play, and even the amount of maps and game modes has meant players stayed with the game for a long time. However, the game does have the Loot Box curse and has it worse than most other games.
The system doesn’t only allow you to buy the boxes directly but also places items in them which are only available temporarily (during special events). In order to gain these items, you must beat the odds. Beating the odds with playing is possible, but very time consuming thus once again preying on the weaker minded. The fact these are cosmetic items doesn’t matter, as people see these items and want them.
Remember, we are talking about completionists or people with OCD who have a compulsive nature and a need to complete sets. These people have far lower self-control when it comes to this sort of collection system, and may not have the time required to gain all the items through playing, so they pay. They keep paying until they have all of these temporary items. Then when the next event happens within Overwatch, these people are back again, and paying more. While this is not limited to people with OCD, people on the autistic spectrum, and many other learning difficulties, as well as age of the person come into effect, but the effect is the same; a lack of control on the part of the player through predatory design. When talking about younger players (often in school) friends may be boasting about having ‘better’ gear, and some may even get bullied over not having this gear.
This isn’t a question of having no willpower, either, it’s a question of being negatively mentally affected by the onslaught of sets and the compulsion to complete these sets. It’s a constant battle against a difficulty these people have, it’s a battle they didn’t want or ask for. They have bought a game, and then get mentally bombarded and exploited to spend money. It’s a gradual breakdown of willpower, not that lack of it.
Loot boxes are gambling, here is why
While the contents of a loot box are not actually worth any real money, the reward for putting money in is getting an item (where the reward in gambling is getting money). The lack of monetary reward may make the Loot Box not feel like gambling, but you are still getting a reward. The Loot Box randomness means if you were to only spend real money you could spend a little and get everything, or you could spend a lot to get everything. Isn’t this also gambling? You can put a very small amount in, and if you are lucky with how the cards are drawn, you can win a lot — if we are talking about poker. Only, you are playing against software which you can’t bluff. It’s cold, and calculated, and designed to make you spend — much a slot machine but less predictable.
There is one massive exception to this, the popular game and esport Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO). With weapon skins being sellable. Only the selling of these items is not within the game and is sold from gamer to gamer.
Belgium, and looking into the Loot Box
Belgian gambling regulators have recently started looking into microtransactions, but while they have not specially said Loot Boxes are gambling, they are investigating into systems were money and gaming collide — this includes Loot Boxes but was not expressly said. The boss of the regulation body separately stated he thinks Loot Boxes could be gambling.
While the question remains if Loot Boxes are legally gambling or not, what is clear is that multiple countries regulatory bodies have started looking into them — and Star Wars Battlefront 2 has removed them for now. As just said, Belgium, but also the UK, US and Holland (where online gambling is already illegal) have started investigating. Only time will tell if the regulators will step in or not, or if they will even declare Loot Boxes to legally be gambling. Legal definitions are often years behind technology, but hopefully, we don’t get another more insidious and predatory method of getting money out of players without goodwill ‘donations’ before then.