What’s The Big Deal With Loot Boxes (An Explainer)?

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What Is A Loot Box

Most people that are gaming will know what a loot box is, so you can skip this section if you want. For everyone else here is a quick rundown. A loot box is a sequence of animations where a player unlocks gear within a game. You  either earn points, or pay physical money, to have a “loot box” which contains random items for you to use. As a player you have no control over what items to work towards or what the loot box might contain. Normally these boxes contain 3 random items, with more expensive boxes offering more valuable “rare” items for the player. The system is extremely easy to implement into any game because you are simply unlocking anything from cosmetic upgrades (clothing, helmets, skins, etc) to actual game changing mechanics (perks, weapons, abilities, etc). The second tier is often the more controversial, but we will discuss that later.

Why Its Bad

We can break down why they are bad into many different categories, but let’s just break it down into two. First they are bad because they offer an unfair progression system, second they are outright gambling.

Starting With Being Gamers

The first thing we want to look at is the simple fact we are gamers and publishers should be making games for us. We play games, we want to enjoy games, and we are having that ability impaired by publishers. The fact that these boxes are a scam or cost money, whatever, are second. The first issue is that it simply hinders the gaming experience.

A few years ago you could jump into a game, get good at it, and unlock everything you needed. Top tier players had the best gear, they could tweak things to their liking, and a community evolved from it. Sure eventual DLC might ask for additional money, but this kept games going and players often adapted to it. Above all else the core game could still compete with whatever new things were thrown at it. Basically the formula was release a game, let the community evolve, then release map packs or “expansions” to further advance the game. Easy.

Then loot boxes came in and that progression system vanished. Sure you could still level up and unlock things, but a lot of the “good stuff” is locked behind a loot box. Better abilities, weapons, attachments, and perks are all locked in these boxes. This creates many issues such as the inability to simply get what you want, and players being able to compete on levels they shouldn’t be competing on. If a terrible player randomly gets the best gun in the game, which allows him to “be the best” because of it, is it fair? No. And this is a problem in many games with this system.

Look at sports titles right now such as the Ultimate Team modes in EA titles. You could have a player that doesn’t even know the basics of a game be somewhat decent because their latest loot box gave them some superstar players. Meanwhile a player that has actually spent time, but not money, in the game has a roster of lower league players and can’t keep pace. For example I play the NHL series and for some reason my bad luck is the fact I can never land a goalie in that mode, ever. I have a great line up of forwards, defensemen, and some decent skill, but the second another player shoots at my lousy goalie they score. I’ve had the deluxe editions, I’ve even tried my hand at some pack openings, and can never get a damn good goalie. It’s like a tease, constantly being asked to spend more money so I can get that one player I want/need.

For many gamers this is called “pay-to-win,” which covers a big group of money machines in the industry. This style is very familar for anyone that has played any mobile games since most games consist of “paid content” that will make games easier, or allow you to level up faster. Battlefront 2 got a lot of heat for this by hiding Star Cards behind loot boxes, which are special abilities in the multiplayer.

And this is a problem with all loot boxes. You simply want to unlock that gun everyone seems to be using, and it sits grayed out in your user screen, but there isn’t a way for you to get it. Why? Because luck isn’t on your side and you’ve opened 30 boxes already with nothing but random skins for things you don’t even use. This is a big problem with games like Overwatch where you may favor one character in a roster, but all the loot boxes are tossing items for characters you never even played. So you might have all this cool stuff, but you wont ever use it.

It’s frustrating that you simply can’t just earn what you want. Some games handle this properly, and I’ll always return to Rainbow Six Siege because they are the only ones that seem to have done the system so well. Everything is not only balanced, but everything is unlockable with skill. You don’t want to wait for a loot box to unlock something, then simply spend your points on it instead. And it isn’t an absurd “you might as well open your wallet for a boost” amount either. Everything is very attainable with some effort, and I don’t mind that one bit.

Games have gone to a point where we are spending over $60 to get in, $40-50 for the content they stripped from the game and now call “DLC,” and now another $10-100 to get content that’s in the core game, but locked behind mystery boxes. The publishers will advertise these features, maybe even let you sniff them in “beta” then lock them behind loot boxes to “extend gameplay” instead of putting effort into actually making games lengthy. They are testing the water to see how far they can go, and clearly they’ve gone too far. One more game that shoves a loot box in my face and I may give up.

Which Leads Us To Gambling

This is where the gambling mechanic comes in. Loot boxes are dancing on a fine line where publishers can defend themselves against gambling acquisitions, but these acquisitions still come in and have a logical standing ground.

Lets define gambling: 1 Play games for a chance at winning something, or 2 take a risky action in hopes of a result.

A lot of products have found loop holes around gambling, such as claw machines making that one opportunity where you might actually win that cheap stuffed bear require skill. Since this requires skill, and not 100 percent luck, they get away with it even though that opportunity might only pop up 1 out of 100 tries. (the other 99 times will have the claw not grasp an item at all, thus no chance at winning) Then these companies have also worked with the government to find a “standard” across the board where there is a “fair advantage” for consumers. For example a claw machine might have rules that it can’t have less than a 30 percent chance of winning. (Most claw/crane games are a 1/18 chance, so way less than that.) If these companies don’t cooperate, or do something to find a way to not be considered gambling such as making their product “skill based,” they get in trouble and go out of business. Both mechanics are why companies like Dave and Busters or Peter Piper, are able to exist when they basically replicate casinos. These companies also offer low cost “rewards” so more players are “winning” to increase their stats.

The problem with the video game industry is that we have no one telling them where this line is, and no one telling publishers they have gone too far. The ESRB is not a government run program, so the video game industry itself sits alone untouched by the government. Normally the industry will get attacked by politicians for “being violent” or whatever, but the ESRB and industry professionals find a way to get them to back off and leave us alone. Gambling, however, might be the one thing that makes the interference happen, and gamers won’t like it. This is when restrictions and harsh changes will be made across the industry, and politicians will use “for the kids” to get away with it. Our industry, sadly, still has a stigma that “games are for kids” and politicians don’t help.

But where is the line? What percent of loot boxes need to provide value for it to be okay? That’s the problem and this is where publishers found their loophole. Since loot boxes “never provide nothing” that means you are not technically gambling since there is always “value” in every opening. Getting the same skin for the 20th time might not be “value” to you, but the publisher can toss in some trading program and let you trade that skin for a small amount of coins, and bam you just got value. Not a lot of value, but it’s something and thus it isn’t nothing. So while you might spend 200 dollars on loot boxes and still not get a valuable item to you, the publisher can still say they gave you something in return even if it isn’t worth 200 dollars TO YOU. In other words there really isn’t a “risk” and you “paid to have fun.”

A secondary issue as of now is the fact the ESRB has no real power to change this. This is new ground for them and they can’t just step in and tell all publishers to remove this machine that is generating tons of money for them. It won’t make publishers happy and it will cause a lot of havoc across the industry. EA alone has stated that a loot box style system in games like FIFA has generated more money for them than DLC has, and thus the reason they are implementing it in more games. In fact loot boxes seem to be taking center stage in a lot of new releases, which is sad, but there is very little we can do. Adults with money, and kids, are buying these things and not realizing how much money they are wasting trying to get one item that may never trigger. It’s very similar to walking past those claw machines that are conveniently placed right next to the door in a grocery store, and your kid begins to exclaim to you that they want a stuffed bear. That bear nudges on one try, and now your kid “just needs one more turn.” Next thing you know you spent 5 dollars trying to get a bear you’ve seen at a local Dollar Tree. The difference between that claw machine and the loot box system is that “grocery store door” is now their favorite video game, and the claw machine is a generic animation where 3 cards appear on the screen.

The ESRB has softly asked to meet somewhere in the middle, but hasn’t had luck. They seem to be somewhat avoiding the conflict for now because there is no real way to get this resolved. This has led to politicians taking notice, and questions regarding how much this industry has been getting away with. We’ve had free roam to do as we please, but it seems this could trigger something bad.

Are loot boxes gambling? Well if they aren’t, then we’ve come as close as possible to gambling without crossing that line and I don’t think there is very much room to go further. But personally, I do see it as gambling. There is no difference between pulling a lever on a casino machine and pressing square to open a loot box. No difference at all. If you walk into a casino, drop 100 dollars and the casino goes “but hey, you won 10 pennies” you wouldn’t be happy, and the government wouldn’t say “okay, I guess this casino isn’t considered gambling then!” I mean 90 percent of the machines in a casino look EXACTLY like loot box screens we are seeing in new games, and they have very similar odds. So yes, in my opinion, loot box systems are gambling and they need regulations by either the ESRB or somewhere else.

There needs to be a way for publishers to have a level of value placed across the game that the game can’t dip below. Then loot boxes need to supplement that value with odds favoring the gamer. Now the question is, will publishers find a way to work it out with the ESRB and gamers? Or will politicians need to slime there way in and take matter to extremes? Let’s hope it’s option one.

Overall the issue with loot box formula’s is that it isn’t for gamers, it’s for publishers. The idea came up, the publishers saw money signs, and it’s been slowly expanded upon since Counter Strike made them popular years ago. Now there is money flowing through this idea and publishers will not let it go. The thing is, the loot box system can be fun for both parties, it’s just a matter of finding that option of it being fun, while also generating enough money for publishers to be happy.