With Belgium’s announcement that it has found loot boxes in several games to be legally gambling, a large step has been taken in the loot box battle. Something that amazed me though when I read through several articles were the amount of people defending loot boxes in the comments.
Why would people go out of their way to defend an exploitative and predatory practice? Do they genuinely enjoy the addiction and dopamine rushes that come with it? Do they feel that the poor publishers will have to stop releasing big budget games without the extra money loot boxes bring in? Do they truly believe they are just add-ons that don’t effect the fundamental design decisions of the game? I really don’t know.
None of the arguments made much logical sense to me but the sheer amount was staggering. As such, I figured I would counter these arguments in a nice, succinct manner to save others from having needless debates.
Trading cards is the argument that I see pop up the most. The two are far from comparative though. While it is true that in both cases you are purchasing a collection of unknown items from a limit prize pool, that is where the similarities end.
Why do you buy trading cards? For the most part people buy them to either collect the cards or to engage in the associated card game. While everyone bought Pokemon cards with a hope to getting that rare shiny Charizard card, nobody bought the packs purely because off this. I bought packs because I loved Pokemon and thought the cards looked cool. I bought packs of Yugioh cards because I enjoyed playing the game. The cards were always the intended object.
Think about it like this: Shows like Storage Wars demonstrate people buying large boxes that they don’t know what is inside. It could be a trove of antiques, someone’s rubbish, or absolutely nothing. It is basically extreme loot boxes. Like with trading cards though, the purchase of a storage unit is the game itself. If you aren’t interested in buying units then it doesn’t effect your life in any way.
How loot boxes work in games though is more like the following. You lay down the money and buy yourself a house. The house is empty though and the only way you can get furniture is by going down the the storage yard and buying a storage container. Whatever is inside is what you can use to furnish your shiny new house. Want a sofa? Well you have to keep buying containers until one contains a sofa you like.
Like the people who argue that you don’t need to buy loot boxes to play the game, you also don’t need the furniture in your house. You bought a product designed to house you, to shelter you from the elements. This barren house still provides this while comfy seats and framed posters or flowers are superficial extras to improve the experience.
In card games, lucky dips, etc, they are literally the house itself. They don’t facilitate something greater. It is the one and only output of money. There is a product that you decide to buy on its own merits, not as a leg up or improvement to something else that you have already bought.
But then should they be illegal or regulated?
I’m going to avoid the ethics and opinions on government regulations here because if you are pro-loot box then these aren’t things that you will be swayed on. Instead I will explain why you should want them removed or regulated in terms of the games themselves.
Looking at the figures, loot boxes are racking in the money. Like, real big profit increases. More money for game companies is great, right? More money means more investment, bigger studios, better technology, more teams working on more games! Right?
Well, no. What motivation does a publisher have to finance game development when they have their bank-breaking cash cow. We have already seen large publishers release fewer, less diverse games in favour of a handful of microtransaction stuffed heavy hitters. Designing a game takes a lot of time and resources. Why bother if you have a continuous revenue stream that requires next to no effort to implement and maintain?
And what about the games that they do put out? If your number one design note is to get people to buy in game items or experience then that is reflected in every element of the rest of the design. Games become increasingly about resource gathering and management. Areas become more of a grind. Cool things become harder to get. And this is just the surface level stuff. Reading through the Activision patents is downright scare at times.
The developers know this too. Monolith, the company behind Shadow of War, openly admitted as much when they rolled back loot boxes after a controversial launch. Granted, they had already reaped most of the money by this time, but the admission that the boxes undermined the core of the gameplay is something that shouldn’t be ignored. If they can come out and say that instead of the usual corporate spiel then you know damn well that other devs are perfectly aware of how damaging the concept is to the overall design of games.
Yes, we live in a capitalist society and these game publishers are businesses designed to make money. They don’t have to make ALL of the money though. Increasingly each game is striving to get players to invest more time, to keep coming back, stretching out the tailend of games. Games as a service is the current term thrown around. Players only have limited time and disposable income though. Very soon, games and player-bases will begin to cannibalise themselves until only the the biggest games survive, or the industry collapses.
There is simply no question that loot boxes are bad for games in the long term. Whether you believe them to be gambling or not is a matter of perspective but their damage to the industy’s quality and image are clear for all to see.