How Star Wars might make “loot box” mean gambling.
Though 2017 has been one of the best years ever for gaming, it may also be one of the most infamous thanks to the rise of loot boxes.
Not to be confused with well-regarded subscription services like Loot Anime, video game loot boxes have gone from a mere grievance among gamers to an all out war against major video game companies. Now, if you’re not a gamer and you’ve tried to follow this confusing series of events, then you’ve… probably already given up, because so much has happened in just a couple of months. It’s hard to understand at a glance why, say, a PR comment by Electronic Arts has become the most downvoted comment in Reddit history, but worry no more! Below, we’ll walk you through this convoluted controversy, and you too will have your pitchforks ready faster than you can say “who actually plays a Nintendo Switch on a rooftop?“
Make no mistake, even though this is a gaming controversy, the end result could potentially impact collectibles that have nothing to do with video games. We’ll explain more later, but for now, here’s everything you need to know about loot boxes and why gamers are so upset with them.
What is a loot box anyway?
A “loot box” in gaming is a mechanic that allows players to purchase a random assortment of in-game items for real money. That is to say, you spend $5 or $30 as a microtransaction, and the game awards you with either new equipment, new power ups, or new character customization options. This varies by game, but the principle of “spend real money for random virtual items” is constant.
This mechanic is also known as “gacha,” particularly in mobile games in which players roll for random playable characters to use. This term comes from the Japanese term “gachapon,” which is more or less another word for what we know as toy capsule machines. Nintendo’s Fire Emblem Heroes is an example of what is often referred to as a “gacha” game.
So why are gamers so mad about loot boxes?
Gamers have long been outraged over microtransactions in video games, particularly in full priced $60 titles. Loot boxes are, in essence, a way to make gamers spend even more on microtransactions. In many loot box / gacha games, items are distributed into tiers, such as “common, rare, and legendary.” The rarest tier of items will contain the most desirable items, while the most common tier will generally contain mildly desirable items at best. In other words, whereas before a gamer might have been willing to splurge for a $5 weapon or item to enhance their experience, a loot box game will see gamers paying $3 a pop on a chance to get an item they want… which could have as little as 1% odds of even appearing.
While loot box games do usually award loot boxes to players for “free” with general play, this is often limited to encourage players to spend for more chances to get the items they want. And even if a gamer doesn’t want to spend money, these games are often balanced in ways that deliberately encourage players to buy loot boxes to win. So not only are these games seen as greedy, but they’re also perceived to be psychologically manipulative by promoting gambling addiction.
Are loot boxes really psychologically manipulative?
I don’t really want to draw a hard line on the issue, but… yeah, they are.
There’s really no other way to read the evidence here. Studies have shown that over 70% of microtransaction income comes from 10% of spenders. These big spenders are often called “whales,” a term coined in the gambling industry. There have been many stories of people spending well beyond their means on these games, going so far as to drop over $10,000 on loot boxes. Some may argue that this is the player’s fault and not the game’s, which is a valid argument. To be honest, the question of “who is at fault” remains divisive even now.
The point is, loot boxes primarily profit from a small subset of players, they make the gaming experience worse for those who don’t spend, and this trend has continued despite years of backlash against the practice. The fact that loot boxes may very well pray upon gambling addiction adds fuel to the fire.
If loot boxes aren’t new, then why are they such a hot topic now?
Here we get to the straw that broke the camel’s back: the November release of Electronic Arts’ Star Wars Battlefront II.
With the imminent release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, there was a lot of hype riding on Star Wars Battlefront II. However, that hype quickly defused when gamers discovered that this latest Star Wars game contained a shockingly malicious integration of loot boxes. Despite being a competitive multiplayer game, Battlefront II featured a “star card” system that let players become wholesale stronger than their competition as they collected more cards. While cards could be earned in-game, the fastest way to get cards was – you guessed it – buying loot boxes. In other words, despite paying $60 or more just to play the game, players could find themselves literally unable to compete with other players who spent hundreds to make themselves more powerful.
On top of this, despite being a Star Wars game, the ability to actually play as iconic characters from the franchise was also effectively locked behind a paywall. In this Reddit post, user “TheHotterPotato” discovered that a player who refused to spend money on loot boxes would have to play for over 40 hours to just unlock Darth Vader. This led to an incensed outrage against the game from its player base, and one post by Redditor MBMMaverick actually got a direct response from EA themselves.
Needless to say, this didn’t go well for EA. As of writing, the comment by EA has at least 672,000 downvotes on Reddit. To put this into context, the previous record holder for most downvoted comment was at 23,333, and that was from a Redditor literally asking for downvotes. This post’s notoriety was the spark that got Star Wars Battlefront II – and loot boxes at large – attention from mainstream news outlets like the BBC. The outrage became so wide spread that Disney actually reached out to EA to address the issue, as this grew to a point of damaging the Star Wars brand.
So Star Wars: Battlefront II slipped up, what’s the big deal?
So sure, since the controversy blew up in EA’s faces, Star Wars Battlefront II has since removed the option to buy loot boxes. In addition, in-game rewards were also bolstered to, say, lower the requirement to unlock Darth Vader. However, loot box mechanics are still at large, and the Battlefront II saga has gotten politicians to look into whether video games can be legally qualified as gambling.
Belgium’s Justice Minister has expressed interest in classifying gaming loot boxes as gambling, though whether that will be the official conclusion of Belgium’s Gaming Commission remains to be seen. And in the wake of that announcement, Hawaii Representative Chris Lee released an official statement to address “predatory practices at Electronic Arts and other companies.” Needless to say, this video made waves across the internet, and Lee garnered widespread support from the gaming community. At one point, state representative Sean Quinlan even compares Battlefront II‘s promotion of gambling to Joe Camel promoting cigarettes to kids.
In the meantime, it seems the gaming industry may be taking some preemptive actions to regulate themselves, specifically to avoid any legislative action from occurring. Most notably, Apple is now requiring developers to disclose drop rates of “loot box” purchases in App Store games, so players better know their chances of actually getting the items they want. Some game developers are even capitalizing on the controversy to take a hard line against the practice, such as CD Projekt Red, developers of The Witcher series. Exactly how far this will go remains to be seen.
Can video games be legally considered gambling?
Who knows! China and Japan already have laws in place regarding gacha titles, so it’s not far fetched to assume the rest of the world will follow suit. That said, it’s unlikely that loot boxes will be going away anytime soon. Even if regulations are put in place, developers will likely find loop holes to continue what is ultimately a very lucrative practice.
For everyone else… well, just make sure to watch out for what you and your loved ones play. Remember, a game with loot boxes can be enjoyed responsibly. Overwatch has loot boxes, for example, and the vast majority of players aren’t complaining about overspending. Even if video game companies are guilty of predatory practices, the best thing for us to do in the meantime is to remain knowledgeable on the issue and to keep tabs on what any potentially vulnerable gamers may be playing. As a wise man once said, knowing is half the battle.
Click here to check out our follow-up article on this subject. You may be surprised to see how the legislative results of this controversy could impact collectors at large. Especially if you collect trading cards.