The idea that all you’ll play for a video game is the price shown on the box or the website has been dead for a long time now. We’re deep into the DLC era, where players have been conditioned to accept that when they buy a brand new game, it isn’t a finished product. The most extreme example of that is probably ‘No Man’s Sky,’ which was so incomplete when it was first released that many of its players took to the internet to say that they felt like they’d been scammed. The reception the initial product received was so negative that the producers found themselves apologizing to mainstream newspapers.
As we said, though, that’s an extreme example. A game is now no longer a one-off event. Big releases come out with a certain amount of content, and the general expectation that more content will be released further down the line. That content can come in various forms. Sometimes, it will be one or two new characters. Other times, it will be a whole new levels or challenges. The process extends the shelf life of a game for months beyond the time it takes to complete the original ‘story mode.’ In some cases – for example, the most recent ‘Street Fighter’ – it can extend it by years. In the process, it can also double the cost of the game in real terms.
It’s no surprise that parents buying games for their children sometimes feel like this is a scam in and of itself. Video gaming has been around for generations now, but the parents of our current generation of teenagers grew up with the Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and the original PlayStation. They bought a game, they played it, and then it was finished. When their children come to them asking for another twenty or thirty dollars to spend on a game they’d already paid full price for at Christmas, they understandably question what their initial expenditure actually went on.
There is another side to that coin, though. In a lot of cases, the additional material released for a game via downloadable content takes the place of a sequel. There’s no need to release a whole new game if you can release sufficient content to offer players of your existing game more of what they love. It’s less strain on software developers, and it’s easier for the players. When looked at this way, you could even come to see it as a win-win scenario.
Not all the money that’s spent on games that people already own goes on downloadable content, though. Sometimes – and increasingly more often – the money is spent on ‘loot boxes.’
Cross Your Fingers And Spend
The idea of a loot box, in the early stages of the concept, wasn’t all that far removed from the idea of downloadable content. Opening a loot box generally meant spending a small amount of money to access some helpful content that would improve the game experience for a player. It might be a $5 payment for a highly charged weapon. It could be quick access to new characters or new levels, as a way of shortcutting hours of playing time.
Some game developers have taken the idea a step forward, though. Their loot boxes are sealed. Players have no way of knowing what’s in them until they’ve paid their money to open it, and therefore no way of knowing if they’re going to get value for their money. At that point, there are those who feel that players are no longer being asked to pay for fresh content at all. They’re being asked to gamble.
The Loot Box Lottery
It’s difficult to argue against the idea that sealed loot boxes are really a form of gambling when you look at the way they work. Many major editorials have been devoted to asking that fundamental question, and the majority of them have come to the same conclusion.
If you put money into something in the hope that you’ll get more than what you paid for in return – but have no idea or control over the value of any rewards you receive – then by definition, you’re gambling. The process is no different to visiting an online casino or it’s sister site, and placing a bet on the spinning reels of a slot, or the next card to be turned over on a table. There’s nothing wrong with that of course – online casinos may never have been as popular as they are right now – but they market themselves honestly, and they’re clear about the odds that their players will receive in return for their stake. Most importantly of all, they don’t market to children.
In almost every major nation in the world, it’s illegal for children to gamble. You have to be over 18 to enter a virtual or physical casino. No such restrictions exist on many of the games which offer loot boxes. Perhaps if loot boxes were reserved purely for those games which are restricted to adults only, the issue wouldn’t be so problematic. They aren’t, though. They can turn up in any game, marketed to any age group. As a result, they could be construed as encouraging children to gamble. It may not be breaking the law, but it certainly looks like an attempt to circumvent it.
The Line Of The Law
Right now, the only place that loot boxes are banned completely is Belgium, but the issue is under constant scrutiny in both the United States of America and the United Kingdom – both huge gaming territories. Any law passed in either country would likely have ramifications for the global market, and ultimately decide the fate of loot boxes in the long term.
Eventually, a ban – or at least a requirement to mark loot boxes clearly for what they are and what they represent – seems inevitable. That could force developers and providers to rethink their strategy towards monetizing their products. Will that result in a higher price being charged for games on the initial purchase? Will it mean the type of rewards we currently receive in loot boxes become redefined as downloadable content, with a marked-up price to compensate for it? Who knows. We’ll likely find out soon, though. Hopefully, the end result will be that we can let our children play video games unsupervised without the fear that they’ll be spending their pocket money on random rewards – and we can leave the gambling to the casinos once more.