If you have to clarify publicly that something in a video game you designed isn’t in fact ‘evil’, gamers may have a legitimate gripe against you.
Such is the case with Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan, who finds himself embroiled in a gaming scandal surrounding his title’s use of allegedly addictive and predatory ‘loot boxes’.
While Kaplan says, “I think on the big spectrum of loot boxes, between ‘really good’ and ‘really evil,’ I’d like to think we’re more on that ‘really good’ side with what we’re trying to do,” others claim that the feature is actually gambling-in-disguise that preys on vulnerable or otherwise money-reckless individuals.
What Loot Boxes Are and How They Work
Even if you’re not a big PC or console gamer, you’ve likely come across loot box-inspired mechanics in mobile-based games, other ‘freemium’ apps, or on slot machines.
Video game loot boxes are what they sound like: boxes of random in-game items such as skins, weapons, stat upgrades, and other items of varying usefulness, scarcity, and value.
Often, these boxes reveal only common items that have little value to the player. Other times, extremely rare items that can’t be acquired through any other means are uncovered.
For instance, the odds of getting a rare ‘epic’ item (at least in the Chinese version of the game) are 1 in 5.5 loot boxes on average, while the odds of revealing an even rarer Legendary item is 1 in 13.5.
In Overwatch, these boxes are given to players as a reward for leveling up or completing other in-game accomplishments. However, this system can be bypassed by purchasing loot boxes with real money.
Rates begin at $1.99 for two boxes, which many view as much more economical than putting in the many, many hours required to earn them the good old-fashioned way.
The Problem with Loot Boxes
While $1.99 here and there might not seem like much, detractors say that the principles loot boxes operate on–their small microtransactions, the element of surprise, and dramatic reveal scenes–are eerily reminiscent of the tactics slot machines use.
Even if a loot box doesn’t reveal anything valuable this time around, knowing that the next one is only a few play hours or a few bucks away keeps players itching to open the next one.
The enticement is so strong that there are YouTube videos showing nothing but the opening of loot boxes in different games with millions of subscribers.
Like seeing stories of seemingly ordinary-lottery winners, it’s hard not to think, “that could be me next time.”
Even if developers won’t outright admit they drew their inspiration for loot boxes from slot machines, it’s hard for them to argue otherwise when they make comments like Overwatch senior game designer Michael Heiberg did recently to Kotaku about the game’s loot reveals:
“When you start opening a loot box, we want to build anticipation,” Heiberg said. “We do this in a lot of ways — animations, camera work, spinning plates, and sounds. We even build a little anticipation with the glow that emits from a loot box’s cracks before you open it.”
Beyond just the gambling undertones, loot boxes can create a “pay-to-win” type dichotomy in games, where players that want to stay competitive with one another must acquire some of the game’s rarer and stronger items. The most efficient way to do this of course, is by buying loot boxes and hoping for a big winner.
In November 2017, it was revealed that in Electronic Arts’ new Star Wars Battlefront II title players would have to play up to 40 hours or simply pay real world money (on top of the full game’s $59.99 price tag) to unlock some of the game’s ‘hero’ characters (Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, et al.).
The ensuing social media firestorm was so great that Star Wars parent company Disney more or less ‘encouraged’ EA to disable all in-game transactions until a better system was figured out.
The Unknown Future for Loot Boxes
Quickly, the stigma against loot boxes has spread from gaming message boards to the offices of policy makers.
In May 2017, China’s Ministry of Culture began requiring that the probabilities of all special in-game items and services must be made public and also banned the random item drawings in games.
Other Asian countries including Japan, South Korea, and Singapore have had similar laws in place for several years.
The Western world is now beginning to catch up. The UK, Netherlands, and Belgium are actively looking into whether or not the loot box systems in games like Overwatch and Battlefront II fit the legal definition of gambling.
Belgian Gaming Commission Director Peter Naessens has already commented that if you are paying in hopes of a certain outcome, but don’t know what that outcome is, it is gambling and a license from the commission is required.
Overwatch and Battlefront are far from the first games to use these systems. But given the blowback they have received, it’s hard not to wonder if they’ll be some of the last.
With EA’s stock price plummeting 2.5% the day microtransactions were removed and Overwatch‘s potential ban in many countries, game designers might, ironically, decide the model is no longer worth the risk.