Loot boxes are a huge topic in the games industry today and with their excessive implementation that become more egregious each year, we have to talk about them and discuss their practical uses in order to bring forth a comfortable balance. There’s a lot of questions that arise from them, whether they’re an ethical business practice or whether they should be regulated as a form of gambling. With the ESRB’s recent designation of stating that they aren’t gambling, I feel like it’s the perfect time to explain why they’re wrong. Let’s talk about one of gaming’s worst obsessions; their love of legal gambling.
So games have been $60 for quite a while, while creating games has become so much more expensive. To cover the costs and actually come out profitable, they have to sell DLC and sadly in some cases, loot boxes. Now, loot boxes aren’t inherently negative, but they’ve garnered quite the awful reputation for how they’ve been used. The right way would preferably be for them to not be intrusive on the player’s experience if they don’t buy them and not offering them as a pay to win option if the game is multiplayer. Sadly, we’ve been doing exactly that. Most recently in the case of games like Battlefront 2 and Shadow of War, the objective of loot boxes is to skip the grind and pay up front for the more powerful advantages. Shadow of War is a very odd case due to its loot boxes enabling players to skip the grind and make the game a lot easier. This essentially undermines the actual game, making the statement that it’s not worth playing through regularly so here’s an option to get through it faster. The game is also mostly grind, so what’s the point of buying the game to buy the option to go through it faster? There’s also the pay to win loot boxes in Battlefront 2, where players that are willing to submit their funds into virtual goods are rewarded by having more powerful weapons and characters much faster than those who are grinding their asses off. The credits are distributed evenly in Battlefront 2 as well, it doesn’t matter whether you were good or bad, giving players no incentive to do better. Battlefront 2 is possibly the most egregious example, it’s worse than Shadow of War, which was worse than Forza, which was worse than Destiny 2. It’s just getting worse.
Now let’s talk about how they compare to gambling. From the aspect of giving money for them to the very design of them, everything about them screams gambling aside from the fact that players don’t get any real life value from loot boxes. Let’s take a look at how their very design is meant to get you hooked. A loot box takes a second to open, usually having the player hold the button and wait for an animation to play out before seeing what they got. Let’s take an Overwatch loot box for example. You hold the button, the box lights up, shoots your rewards into the air, building anticipation until you see what you got. Everything about this was meant to feel satisfying and therefore addictive. The lights, the flare, the animation, even down to the sound. Compare that to a slot machine. You pull the lever, the wheels stop, and while you’re waiting in anticipation, you don’t realize how hypnotized you are by what you’re looking at. Both of these are meant to evoke the same reaction from you, both are meant to feel satisfying enough for you to want to do it again and again.
Now in the literal sense, gambling in the real world allows you to put money into some sort of game of luck for an even bigger reward. In gaming, you pay money for a box of rewards that range in rarity, but you don’t get any real world rewards. The fact that you get no real world value is most definitely the reason the ESRB didn’t classify loot boxes as gambling, not even with their similar, manipulative mind tricks. Even when you lose or get something unfavorable, the combination of their design and the desire to get what you want make you want to keep trying. Sadly, no matter what you get out of the loot box or how much you get from a slot machine, the house always wins.
So how do we combat the growing obsession with this currently unregulated gambling scheme? Do we continue to play these games, just not buying the loot boxes? People still buy them and sales are, in essence, still advocating the product. I’m not 100 percent sure what will prevent further abuse of the loot box system besides supporting games that don’t use them. Praising good business practices and championing them should put other businesses on notice of what formula they could follow in order to not be made the next negative news story, like Battlefront 2. We should be drowning out the bad practices with the good ones. Go support good DLC, which in turn, supports the game.
Example, Witcher 3 had 2 DLC expansions and no microtransactions. The DLC were fully fleshed out, even feeling like standalone stories due to having more content than some $60 titles. CD Projekt even supplied players with regularly scheduled smaller DLC like alternate outfits, quests, armor, and weapons all for the low, low price of free. Of course this is one of the better examples and it’s single player, it would be hard to screw it up.
There are plenty of multiplayer games with good business practices, most of them free, such as Smite or Brawlhalla, because an upfront price should prevent the player from having to be nickel and dimed during their time with the game. Even the free-to-play game Dauntless have taken them out, in favor of wanting the player to feel encouraged through enjoying the game, rather than playing mind tricks for their money.
Now some of you will understand what I’m saying, but some will say, “The microtransactions in (insert game here) don’t affect the game. I haven’t bought any, so it isn’t a problem.” If a game has microtransactions and loot boxes in it, it affects the game. If it’s in the game, it affects the game. If loot boxes weren’t in Overwatch, what would you be leveling up for? The answer would preferably be unlocking skins or gaining money through gameplay, which is a much better option than a box of sprays that nobody cares about. If Destiny 2 didn’t have microtransactions, Bungie wouldn’t have started charging us for the now single use shaders that were free in the first game. If Shadow of War didn’t suddenly have microtransactions, it certainly would have gotten a more positive reception than the first game. They don’t need to bend and twist these games to fit some garbage, unnecessary economy in them. Loot boxes are gambling, we should stop making excuses for them and get them under control before these publishers keep pushing their luck. With the more recent news of Activision patenting a matchmaking system that’s based on micro transactions instead of player level, we’ve got to stop this now.
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