News has spiked about loot boxes again, but what are they? They certainly aren’t a new thing; in fact, they have been around since the early 2000s. That doesn’t answer what they are. Loot boxes, as we all know them, are randomized crates that pop out pieces or gear or cosmetic items in-game. They typically cost real-world money or in-game currency. Deciding to go the in-game currency amount, however, can still cost a gamer their hard-earned cash if they are careless (or desperate) enough to go spending it.
The rise of modern-era loot boxes can be attributed to a few different things but as Tomsguide.com puts it, it’s thanks to Overwatch. They also attribute mobile gaming for its part in the rise of this hated mechanic. The game that really put loot boxes on the map is Battlefront II. When it released in 2017, EA came under fire from countless gamers for their inclusion of a loot box mechanic that made players feel as though they had to spend money or get left in the dust by every other player out there. This mechanic caused the infamous boycotting of EA until the issue was fixed. Luckily, EA remedied the mistake in 2018.
To start this section off, it’s important to understand what “loss aversion” is. “Loss aversion” is when someone sits down at a slot machine and puts in a dollar in hopes that more will come out. The human brain prefers gain rather than loss. “Loss aversion” makes it so that that person keeps spending money until a monetary gain has occurred. Loot boxes prey on this aspect of the human mind with duplicate items. These worthless items don’t represent a monetary gain for the money spent and a player may be more likely to spend more money to get something they don’t have.
As pointed out by GameTheory on YouTube, Activision tracks the way everyone plays. They stated that Activision tracks each player’s playstyle. They use this information to match players with people who have items that the player is missing. Every game of Overwatch or Destiny might just match people up who have different items so they spend more money on those loot boxes (or engrams). Another practice gives the player loot boxes fast and early in the game in hopes that it draws them into purchase more of them.
The Good In Loot Boxes
There is no denying that loot boxes can be exciting. Uncovering what goodies lie inside that shiny box can draw anyone in. There is a lot of negativity surrounding this mechanic, but what about the good? Surely there must be something positive to say about them? Currently, loot boxes make up 25% of the gaming market. By 2022, they are estimated to draw in around $50 billion dollars. There is more to it than just numbers.
In an article from PC Gamer published in 2017, Wes Fenlon spoke with a veteran producer. During this interview, the producer stated that games are getting more expensive to make. He also said that older games such as Halo 3 were created by teams of 50-100 people. Nowadays, games like Destiny are created by teams of over 2,000 people. That is a massive spike in numbers and everything they create costs more money. An argument can be made that loot boxes are a “necessary evil” in the gaming industry.
Publishers need to make money in order to survive. That is the essence of how economics works. If a company doesn’t make the required money to pay all of its employees, the ones making everyone’s favorite games, then people lose their jobs. Games are already expected to cost more for the upcoming PS5 and Xbox Series X. This increase is a mild one from $60 USD to $70. Imagine the cost without microtransactions. Likely, it would be a price of around $80-$100 US. Add a season pass and players would be looking at over $130 easily.
Do Loot Boxes Deserve To Stay?
After working at GameStop for three years, I can say that parents seem to have the biggest problem with loot boxes. Mainly because their kids love to spend hundreds of dollars to see the flashing lights as the box opens to reveal their prizes. Tons of studies have been released about the effects of gambling on a child’s mind. These studies are also a part of the argument against the rise of loot boxes in games. They are also part of the reason that companies have been sued over this mechanic.
Newsweek reported on a study that was done on children between ages 10 and 16. This study showed that 49% of the participants believe that “online gaming is only fun when money is spent.” That is accompanied by another revelation from NPR. They shared an interview with Lia Nower who is the director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University. Nower stated during the interview that she conducted “a study on the correlation between loot boxes and gambling.” This study showed that “Forty-six percent of those who played video games also bought loot boxes, and among the loot box players, they were significantly more likely to also have gambling problems and-or problems with video gaming.”
The Big Question
Now it’s time to answer the big question. Should loot boxes be illegal or is there a way to change them? Some gamers believe that loot boxes should go the way of the laserdisc and disappear. Others believe that they just need reworked. Currently, there are legal battles being waged over whether this system of prize-giving should be regulated, banned, or left alone. One thing is almost certain: whatever happens, will shape the future of gaming for a long time.
California defines an illegal gambling machine as “a machine, aperture, or device; something of value is given to play; and the player may receive something of value by element of chance.” Sounds exactly like a loot box system, right? Players give money (something of value) to roll obtain the box and receive something (skins, players, items) of value in return. This is all done through an element of chance from a random number generator that spits out whatever it wants at the player at that time.
Now that the bad side of the argument has been handled. Here’s the way to possibly make everything better. One of the major issues people have with loot boxes is the duplicate items they can receive. What if that element was removed? Blizzard already reduced the chances of receiving duplicates in Overwatch last year. If they cut duplicates completely and added more in-game cosmetics to receive, players may be more enticed to purchase them. Either this or change it to a system that works like standard microtransactions. Allow players to buy the skins they want for a small price. They will receive what they want and there is no gambling involved.