Just what the heck is up with loot boxes?

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It’s been a bad week for EA…

If you haven’t been paying attention to the release of Star Wars Battlefront II, basically it’s been one huge garbage fire.

They’ve locked off content previously available from the start, created a pay-to-win system and corked-up the patches that were supposed to fix all of this.

But central to all these issues were the loot boxes at the heart of Battlefront II’s online economy.

How hard is it to get not screw up Star Wars – Source Star Wars Battlefront 2

A senator from Hawaii called them predatory and Belgium, yes the country, wants to get rid of them entirely.

Considering all the controversy this topic has stirred up, I’ve attempted to gather all the arguments, both positive and… less so, to piece together just what the heck is up with loot boxes.

But before that

It’s always good to specify the terms you’re talking about, especially before you make grand sweeping statements about a billion-dollar industry.

So, when I say loot box I mean supplementary content (i.e. extra skins or weapons) packaged with a full price game that can be purchased with both real world and in-game currency that has some element of chance to it.

Hopefully I didn’t lose you there.

Now, there are a few important qualifications in this description.

Firstly, the content must be supplementary. That means you can play through the whole game without explicitly requiring any of the items you can get in loot boxes. However, they do add to the game experience in some way.

I’ve seen people go to dark places over these skins – Source Overwatch

Secondly, you have to be able to buy them with real money. That also counts in-game currency like gold, jellybeans or whatever, if you can get it with cold hard cash.

And lastly, there has to be some element of chance. You can’t just buy the skins you want. You can only purchase the actual box which will have a chance of getting the skin/armour/weapon that you want.

That last part is going to be real important in a bit.

Now that we got that cleaned up…

Why loot boxes are ruining the industry

The biggest criticism leveled at loot boxes is that they are a form of gambling, one that specifically targets children. And while many countries have as many rules, stipulations, and guidelines as one of Donald Trump’s prenups to hold casinos in check, video games have so far gotten a free ride.

And at face value, there is a lot of truth to this.

It’s pretty easy to draw a line between all the flashing lights and colours when you pull down on a slot machine and all the flashing lights and colours when you open up a loot box.

If you get lucky and finally nab that Zarya skin you’ve been craving, the rush is intoxicating. It’s enough to make you forget about all the hours you spent grinding to get there.

Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff – Digital Fox Media

On top being psychologically addictive (allegedly), you have publishers and developers actively targeting ‘whales’. These customers are the rare few that are willing to invest hundreds and hundreds of dollars more into a game. With the return on investment being much greater in the case of these ‘whales’ it makes fiscal sense for publishers to target them.

The only problem is that if you believe the loot boxes are akin to gambling then these ‘whales’ have a different name.

They’re problem gamblers.

Why loot boxes are saving the industry

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of the arguments in favour of loot boxes are coming from the publisher’s side. And really, these arguments fall into two categories: loot boxes aren’t gambling, and they’re needed because making games are more expensive than ever, while the retail price has stayed roughly the same.

Arguing that loot boxes aren’t gambling only has one point of evidence behind it. With gambling, there is a chance to win money. With loot boxes, there isn’t.

And as for why we just can’t have everything in the game from the start, well let’s move on over to the second argument.

Games have gotten more expensive. I won’t disagree with that. It is often hard to determine by how much (because the big publishers are notoriously stingy about letting that information out), but given that studio sizes and marketing budgets have all dramatically increased since the 1990s, it ain’t a long shot to realise that this means games cost more to make.

Saving the gaming industry, one microtransaction at a time – Source Shadow of War

However, game prices have stayed around the same mark.

An N64 game would have put you back around $70 USD in 1998. Today, you can buy Shadow of War on Steam for $59.99.

Now, given that games now cost more but still sell for the same, developers need to make money from somewhere else. Cue loot boxes.

So, who’s right?

This is where things get a little murky because not all of these arguments can be right. And while I encourage every diligent gamer to do their own research, my own investigation into psychology, addiction, and the gaming industry has lead me to a conclusion.

The gaming industry is lying to us about the effect and need for loot boxes.

Firstly, that little ol’ fib about loot boxes not being counted as gambling because you’re not winning any money.

Nearly every psychological definition of gambling I came across takes deliberate steps to point out that is it not necessarily about the money. If anything, contemporary models of gambling treat the problem similar to drug addiction. However, instead of pot, booze or coffee being the indulgences of choice, gambling addicts are all about risk.

It’s the rush that comes with risking something valuable for a chance of winning that’s the danger. And as long as people continue to want what they get out of loot boxes, then it fulfills all the important elements of gambling.

Now, there is an argument to be had that the risk/reward from opening loot boxes is nowhere near that found in a hand of blackjack. But the big publishers haven’t been making that argument. They’ve doubled down on their statements that loot boxes aren’t gambling. And sorry, but the science just isn’t with them.

But what about the cost?

So maybe loot boxes are gambling, but we still need them to save the industry. The fact that games are more expensive to make hasn’t changed after all.

If the company line about gambling hasn’t made you angry, what I’ve got next for you definitely will.

Let’s jump back to EA and Battlefront II.

I’m not done with you yet – Source Star Wars Battlefront II

As part of the backlash to the game, EA decided to temporarily remove all microtransactions (including purchasing loot boxes) from their game.

Now, according to the publishers, this will have a major impact on the profitability of the game. However, according to a statement EA released to its shareholders, turning off its microtransactions will have no “material impact” on its earnings.

No material impact.


Then what the hell is this all about?

Well, what the big publishers won’t tell you is that while games have indeed got more expensive to make, they’ve also reached a much larger audience. Coupled together with ad revenue, sponsorship deals and other forms of gaming monetisation, it’s not hard to see why a company like Square Enix are posting record high sales.

So really, the difference between not including or including loot boxes is the difference between making a lot of money or a crazy amount of money. And if it tempts a few kids into gambling along the way, EA certainly doesn’t mind.

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