What’s The Score With Loot Boxes?

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Loot boxes… you never know what you’re going to get
Loot boxes… you never know what you’re going to get

Loot boxes have been at the heart of a lot of controversy recently. They are a fairly new method of monetisation, but are they causing problems and, if so, what are the solutions? Here you can gain an understanding of the current situation with loot boxes.

What Are Loot Boxes?

Most gamers will have encountered loot boxes by now, but, for the uninitiated, loot boxes are in-game rewards that are usually unlocked using in-game tokens. These tokens are bought with real money so, in effect, the gamer pays to gain access to the items in the box.

Unlike other micro-transactions, you don’t know what’s going to be inside the loot box. You know that you will receive a randomised selection of in-game items, but you don’t know exactly what the items will be. Will you get a really useless red helmet, or that sword of doom you have always wanted?

There are usually different degrees of rarity for the loot that players gain from the loot box. Again, the gamer doesn’t know whether they will receive two common items and a medium-tier, or whether this time will reveal the rarer treasure.

In any case, loot boxes are a relatively new model for monetisation in the gaming industry. They have been around since 2004, but entered the mainstream with games like Overwatch in the mid-2010s.

Now there are loads of games have loot boxes, from FIFA’s Ultimate Team, to Counter Strike: Global Offensive, to thousands of free-to-play mobile games. In fact, 71% of the top games on the Steam platform have loot boxes, an increase from just 4.9% nine years ago.

The Loot Box Debate

As you may have guessed by now, this new system of monetisation has not gone unnoticed by governments and regulators around the world. Loot boxes have been at the centre of a long debate, one that is still raging on as you read this.

On the one hand, developers generate revenue without even charging for the game of for a subscription. This can suit a lot of players who wouldn’t want to pay for the game, and who don’t have to because of this model. It gives a lot of content for free, with no need to buy anything in order to complete the game. Those who want extra items can pay.

However, loot boxes could be seen as a form of betting, and this is the debate going on right now. The player is paying money for an unknown outcome, and could continue to do so to get the outcome that they desire.

Those betting on sports know that they are placing wagers on particular outcomes. They may aim to maximize their outcomes by studying teams and stats, or by looking around for opportunities for free bets. The gamer, on the other hand, may not even realise that they are wagering in the first place.

The ‘pay-to-win system’ has also been criticised. Some loot boxes contain items that make the game easier to play or win, in effect meaning that the more a player spends the better at the game they can become.

‘Surprise dynamics’ or betting? Belgium are the first country to decide that they fall under ‘betting’, and have subsequently banned loot boxes. China make game developers publish the odds of items appearing in loot boxes. Australia are proposing an ‘R’ rating for games. This is clearly not an issue that has yet been resolved, or one that has a single solution.

Major Titles Make Changes

As countries try to decide how to categorise loot boxes (the issue mainly being one of semantics), the gaming industry itself may decide to respond with its own changes. This could come in the form of tighter age restrictions, warnings, or caps and tracking on spending.

PlayerUnknown’s Battleground (PUBG) is about to make major changes to their loot box system. At the moment, players receive loot box rewards, but it is random whether they are free or require real money to open. This will soon be discontinued, with all reward boxes being free. Players will, however, still be able to purchase real money loot boxes.

Rocket League are taking this one step further. The ‘Blueprint’ update, expected on December 4th, will stop all loot boxes in the game. Instead, players will receive blueprints. They will be able to see exactly what item these blueprints are for, and can choose to build, trade or store the blueprints in their inventory.

This works in a similar way. Players still pay to build their items, but crucially they will know exactly what these items are before they pay for them. Rocket League will also introduce a new item store as a method of monetisation, to compensate for the removal of loot boxes.

Final Words

It’s unclear as to how the loot box landscape will change over the coming years, but it’s definitely looking like the trend is towards regulation. Game developers may respond before new legislation comes into place, by making changes to their methods of monetisation and removing betting elements.

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