It’s a little disappointing that we still find ourselves having to write about loot boxes in 2020. By this point, virtually every gamer in the world accepts that they’re a terrible idea. Nobody likes using them, everybody feels that they’re a cash-grabbing attempt on the part of the companies who employ them in their games, and if video game companies listened to their audiences, they would have become a thing of the past a long time ago. Despite that, we still find them included in new games with depressing regularity.
If you’re new to this debate, here’s the fundamental reason why they’ve become so unpopular. To all intents and purposes, loot boxes are gambling. When you buy a loot box, you’re paying a set price for the chance to win something that may or may not be worth the amount you’ve paid for it. That’s the same principle that drives the games you’ll find on online slots websites. In no way do we intend that as a slur against online slots websites. There’s no way to misunderstand what you’re paying for when you’re using an online slots website – gambling is the entire reason they exist. With video games, loot boxes are frequently dressed up as a way to make your gaming experience easier or more run. More importantly than all of that, you have to be an adult to access an online slots website and loading up a casino game like 3 Genie Wishes mobile slots. Loot boxes have sometimes been included in games that are available to children, and we can all agree that’s wrong.
Some of the world’s more progressive countries have grown tired of waiting for the video game industry to clean its act up in relation to loot boxes. In Belgium, they’re banned completely. In the United Kingdom, legislation that would at least ban loot boxes from any game sold to players under eighteen years old is believed to be on its way. The writing ought to be on the wall for game designers by this point, and we’ll likely see the practice banned entirely within the next few years. Some companies don’t seem to have got the memo, though, and they still include the feature in their releases in the hope of capitalizing on speculative players.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board hasn’t been a fan of loot boxes for a long time but lacks the power to ban them explicitly. The point of the organization’s existence is to provide guidance on the content of video games and provide warnings on the packaging to help players (and the parents of players) decide what is or isn’t suitable for them when making a purchase. Since 2018, any game that includes a loot box has come with a label warning the buyer that it contains ‘in-game purchases’ – a warning that you’ll probably have to spend more than the asking price if you want to access every feature the game theoretically offers. Now, they’ve decided to go a step further.
Effective immediately, any label that includes loot boxes will come with a new label that confirms not only does it offer in-game purchases, but it also offers in-game purchases that contain random items. This is probably as close as the organization is allowed to get to saying outright, “this game will try to make you pay for things that have no value.” It probably won’t have a huge impact on the sales of those games, but it does reinforce the message to both players and game designers that the practice is frowned upon, and you may not always get what you pay for if you decide to spend money on the game. In a statement announcing the new labels, the ESRB said that the label would appear not only on games offering loot boxes, but also games that feature card games, treasure chests, or ‘wheels of fortune’ that can be paid for using real money. In short, if you offer players a gamble, your game is going to come with a warning sticker.
This isn’t the only change of policy from within the gaming industry that’s coming into effect this year. By the end of 2020, any publisher that creates content for platforms owned by Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo – which covers all major gaming platforms – will be required to publish the exact odds of any player winning any worthwhile reward from any loot box. Statistics such as these aren’t currently available, and it’s thought that their publication might be illuminating – especially for players who have spent hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars on loot boxes searching for a specific reward in the past, only to be disappointed every time.
While the move is likely to be welcomed by the majority of players, there are some games that could be changed forever by the increasing shift in the tide against the inclusion of random rewards. The franchise that’s most obviously likely to suffer is EA Sports’ FIFA soccer series, which has offered loot boxes for years. The most popular mode in the game is ‘Ultimate Team,’ within which the entire point is to build the strongest team possible from players that are largely gained via the opening of loot crates. If loot boxes were to be banned from games available to under 18s in the United Kingdom – which is one of EA’s biggest markets for the game – it’s almost certain that EA would have to abandon the mode entirely and come up with a new way to keep the game’s massive online community entertained.
The publication of the labels is yet another reminder to publishers that the ‘wild west’ days of loading games full of loot crates and raking in income from players dreaming of winning hard-to-access rewards are over. The majority of video games are expensive to buy as standalone products, and so when additional purchases are factored in their final cost can run into three figures or even four figures in cases where players have become addicted to taking a gamble on the loot boxes. For the companies who rely on loot boxes to provide the majority of their income, it’s time to head back to the drawing board and think of a new, more ethical business strategy if they want to stay afloat.