If there’s one phrase that dominates the gaming news in this last half of 2017 it’s “loot boxes”. Whether we’re discussing their inclusion in an offline-singleplayer game, or their effect on a billion dollar franchise, it’s the word on everyone’s mind lately. Love them or loath them, and many gamers find themselves in the latter category, loot boxes have become an unfortunate mainstay of many games, the newest form of DLC intended to take money from gamers to “enhance” their experiences.
The latest and greatest controversy over loot boxes is EA’s Battlefront 2, where things got so bad that EA’s post on Reddit has become the most down-voted comment ever by a factor of 28x and reportedly Disney themselves requested EA remove the feature for the time being. The backlash became so big that it hit mainstream news and more specifically several governing bodies said they would be looking into whether or not loot boxes should be regulated as gambling. Now the Belgium Minister of Justice has released his report, and he’s not very happy with digital prizes.
“The mixing of money and addiction is gambling” the report reads (the translation isn’t perfect), “mixing gambling and gaming, especially at a young age, is dangerous for the mental health of [children]”. This comes from the Kanspel Committee, headed by Justice Minister Koen Geens, and is only the first of such reports to be released, with the Dutch Gaming Authority also looking into the legality of the situation. Not content with just condemning the practice, Geens has also said he’ll be appealing to the EU to outright ban loot boxes in gaming, however he admits that this will take time.
Belguim isn’t the first country to have an issue with loot boxes. Earlier this year in May China’s Ministry of Labour declared that any game in China must reveal the odds of players receiving items in loot boxes. This forced titles like Overwatch and CS: GO to reveal the drop rates of in-game content, which gamers had only previously guessed at. This ruling also demands that the publisher of the game must keep records on any purchase, including what the player received from the purchase. Finally publishers were told to limit how much money a gamer could spend in the game, specifically to combat “whales”, gamers that spend thousands on in-game purchases. However unlike Belgium, who want the practice banned everywhere, China’s law only affects games sold and played in China, and there’s no guarantee of these rulings having any affect outside the country.
In North America, the ESRB conducted their own study into whether or not loot boxes are gambling, however their stance is that while there’s an element of gambling to them, since the gamer is guaranteed to win something from a loot box it’s not quite gambling. This comes from their email to Kotaku, where they go on to liken the process to collectible card games. EA themselves have looked into the legality of loot boxes and have openly protested that they are not a form of gambling, citing that players can earn the loot boxes using in-game credits and the loot boxes don’t affect gameplay. The former point is technically true, although crunching the numbers has revealed that it would take upwards of 40 hours to unlock the in-game content. As for their latter point, many gamers have pointed out that the loot boxes clearly unlock better abilities and weapons, some even accusing the game of blatant pay-to-win mechanics.
So the big question is what does this mean for loot boxes in the future? If Belgium does manage to get the EU to ban loot boxes in games it’s unlikely the practice would continue, as it’d be a hard sell to convince North America gamers to continue using them when they know EU gamers don’t have to. Not to mention what affect this could have on the free-to-play market, where loot boxes and microtransactions are necessary for games to be profitable. Regardless the report does set a new precedent, meaning now there’s legal context to back up complaints against loot boxes. Publishers will always find a way to make their games more profitable, there’s no worry of that, but we may soon see a future where you won’t need to guess as to what you’re spending your money on anymore.