If you are as old as I am then might just remember the day when investing in a new game meant a visit to your local gaming shop and the handing over of a set amount of your hard earned cash in exchange for full and complete gaming experience. Alas, those days are gone. Rare is it, these days, when a game releases without an accompanying season pass, for the pre purchase of upcoming additional modes and story chapters, or the inclusion of an in game store selling in game weapons, items or cosmetics for real money. Go back a few years, and games with such features were viewed with prominence with additional purchase options a rarity. These days, this is reversed with games choosing to pass up such additional revenue options attaining fame for their player friendly attitude. One such game which released in 2017 was Persona 5 which to the delight of fans contained no DLC addons.
Despite this, on the whole, DLC has been widely accepted by the gaming community as a way of getting more enjoyment out of their favourite games, and by developers as a way of extending the lifespan of their titles by staggering the DLC releases over a period of a year or more, and to help fund rising development costs. What has caused controversy is the inclusion of loot boxes and in game stores to AAA titles. Loot boxes/crates/stashes are redeemable in game items that award in game equipment, items and cosmetics at random and are often attained for in game progress, but also purchasable for real world money. Loot boxes, themselves, have been around since 2007 but until recently were only featured in free to play games, where the store purchases directly funded the development and upkeep of the game. Only over the last few years has the phenomenon made it into AAA games territory to a rather chequered reception.
So are loot boxes gambling? Well, that’s a surprisingly tricky question. Purchasing loot boxes for money gives you a chance to get certain, extra in game items. However, the items you get may not be the items you want, so may not result in the intended outcome to were hoping for in handing over your cash. But, does this, alone, constitute gambling? Let’s take something non game related, say liquorish allsorts. Many people only like certain sweets in the collection and not others and so buy the packet based on the hope that it will contain a decent number of their favourites, but this is not guaranteed or regulated by the producer. I’m sure you, like me, have opened a packet to the disappointment of seeing only a couple or none at all of your favourite sweets. So is this gambling? Well no. The sweets have no trade or resale value. You’re simply buying a product packaged at random. Is this the same for loot boxes?
Collectible trading card games have been around for decades, now, and have not attracted controversy for the random contents of their booster packs. Many loot boxes mimic this longstanding mechanic of providing items of different rarity levels and guaranteeing set levels of items of different rarity levels. For example, a guaranteed two rares and one epic in each box, but they don’t give any guarantee as to which item of each rarity you will get. It may turn out to be one you didn’t want or one you already have. And this is where chance really starts to bite. If you pay out £10 on loot boxes and still don’t get the item you wanted, the instinct would be to buy more in the hope of getting it next time. Eventually, a player would get to a point that they had invested so much in the hope of getting this item that they may feel it a waste of money to stop short of their goal. Is this really so different to chasing the jackpot on a slots machine? To avoid this trap, many but not all games offering loot boxes also offer the ability to purchase an item for a special currency attained from the loot boxes, so that after a set number of failures a player can attain their desired item, irrespective of the element of chance. Overwatch, one of the more popular titles to include a loot box system, includes this feature but not all games are that responsible.
Over the last few years, a few games have become infamous through the miss-integration of in game stores and loot box mechanics in their games. The inclusion of items that boosted the performance of the player’s characters in Star Wars Battlefront 2 caused a massive controversy at the titles launch. This effectively meant that players willing to pay extra were being rewarded with more powerful characters and therefor led to the opinion that the company was providing a pay to win service, giving significant advantages to players willing to pay extra. This led to a large chunk of its player base boycotting the game, reducing overall game sales by about 10% according to its publisher, EA. Middle Earth: Shadows of War is another title that was accused by players of having a play to win mechanic in its loot box system. However, complaints also pointed out that the fantasy setting didn’t lend itself to the believable integration of a loot box system which was the reason cited by the developers when they finally announced their intention to remove the loot box system from the game.
All in all, loot boxes is a very grey area in terms of legality. There is currently no legislation to prevent or regulate companies including these paid services in their games. As a result you have both good examples, of responsibly integration, and bad, which can be seen as blatant cash grabs by greedy developers targeting consumers who have already paid a hefty price to purchase the base game. *cough, EA* It’s worth remembering that lootboxes are not the only forms or cash grabs. Destiny 2 became infamous shortly after launch for the inclusion of its cash shop and even more so when the release of the DLC locked out owners of the base game from completing certain achievements that became locked behind the newly released paid content. This was, eventually, rectified but not before spreading mistrust through its player base to the point that many have chosen to boycott the franchise in future.
All in all, the truth of the matter is that development costs of AAA games are soaring, and with the cost of game locked by publishers, developers are having to look at alternative ways of funding new titles. In my mind, DLC is a better way of doing this than in game shops and loot boxes. However, there are examples where even these are being used in a responsible manner. The development team for Overwatch, for example, decided that they wanted to sell the game for a fixed cost and yet continue to support the game by introducing new maps and characters for free, rather than as paid DLC to give all players an equal footing in the PvP combat. This has been done by the implementation of their loot box system which pays for the server and ongoing development costs in exchange an optional paid loot box service.
The important message is to spend sensibly and to set limits on monthly in game purchases that you know you can afford. Some countries have already outlawed loot boxes with many more looking into ways of regulating the service, to make sure gamers are not taken advantage of by unscrupulous developers. Those developers who do overstep the bounds have, to this date, been met with criticism and boycotts by the gaming community which does show that some self-regulation is happening, even if it is limited to consumers voting with their wallets. So stick to your principles, and if you don’t agree with the inclusion of micro transactions, loot boxes or otherwise, then don’t spend. I, personally, don’t mind loot boxes and micro transactions, as long as they are kept to vanity items and don’t affect the main game, but everyone has a different opinion on this new direction in gaming.