Loot Boxes: Is the Tide Starting to Turn?

Cast your minds back, if you will, to roughly this time last year when Star Wars fans everywhere were starting to get excited about the release of Battlefront II. Now also remember, about the same time, when loot boxes were thrown into the spotlight and laid bare for the money-grabbing scheme they were.

This wasn’t news: microtransactions and pay-to-win crates had come crashing into the gaming scene, mainly through online shooters, some time before. Although they had been present in mobile gaming as a way for many developers to actually generate some income from their games, bigger companies – which we won’t name *cough* EA *cough* – took advantage of the formula and decided to pop them in every game they published. Even though they have been at it for a few years, it seemed that on this particular occasion we just couldn’t let it lie and, as a community, we kicked up a stink about EA’s use of the loot crate mechanism.

If you are unsure about what happened regarding Battlefront II, I will fill you in. The game offered loot boxes whose contents were random but which could contain items to help players progress and level up. However, after the beta concluded, many players fed back that they felt the game was encouraging them to pay for boxes so as to level quicker, the biggest gripe in this regard being that some of the playable characters were locked behind this format. No one wants to play a game where the main playable characters need to be paid for. Now, as with all things, if you don’t want to buy these items, then don’t. But the fact that others do means you can potentially lose out and, well, just plain lose. Anyway, this “scandal” put loot boxes firmly in the spotlight for both gamers and regulators, and there have since been attempts to make loot boxes illegal on the grounds that they are a form of gambling. Also, and possibly most notably, a year on EA are yet to reinstate that part of the game.

EA are now in the spotlight again with FIFA 19 and their refusal to remove, or at least change, the way loot boxes work in the Ultimate Team gameplay. Belgian officials are taking legal action, investigating a potential conflict with their gambling laws. EA’s stubbornness in this case seems a little strange, considering that relatively little pushback from gamers over Battlefront II apparently saw the company reassess its position on loot boxes. Yet when it comes to FIFA, probably the most well-known football franchise of all time, they are refusing to back down. Ultimately I assume it will mean that the game just won’t be sold in Belgium if EA don’t change the game, but perhaps they feel that is a sacrifice they can make. It’s probably worth noting that it was mentioned that the fine for non-compliance on this matter is not much short of £700,000, putting into context perhaps just how small an amount EA deem that to be. November release Battlefield V, EA have told us, will not have loot boxes, so it seems that they simply can’t decide which way to fall. Or perhaps they are keeping them in the games which will make them the most money; I dread to think how much money they make from Ultimate Team loot crates for this to have become such a point of contention.

In the wake of the move by the Belgian authorities, there has been a call for more countries to step up and challenge the way loot boxes work. Despite the UK and New Zealand ruling that they aren’t seen as gambling under their particular laws, some states in America and several other EU countries may potentially challenge the mechanism and change their gambling regulations to help eradicate the crates. There is also a lot of talk from gamers themselves wanting these items to have age restrictions or, at the very least, be more heavily regulated.

A recent development has seen the UK Gambling Commission release a joint statement along with sixteen others have produced a joint statement calling upon companies to address the risk which loot boxes may pose to children and for them to work with gambling regulators to mitigate these risks.

I’ve nothing against the crates themselves; in fact, I think that this kind of reward system is fine if you’re getting the chance to get new characters or a high-stat football player because you’ve met objectives or got a high score. As a free reward they can be quite successful, but as soon as real-world money is involved it starts to sour. Loot boxes are not yet illegal; publishers have simply been asked to amend or remove the function from their game – hence the legal action against EA.

It is also worth noting the recent troubles of 2K Games, best known in the arena for their outrageous loot box offers in the NBA series of games. Once again, Belgium has banned the use of boxes in the country as they are in conflict with their gambling laws. Unperturbed, 2K have all but begged fans to write to the government there to say they in fact want loot crates in their games and can they perhaps bypass this particular law just this once just for them. I can’t imagine postbags in Brussels were overflowing on this occasion.

Other than having to pay real money for them, but the fact that you are lured in with promises of a decent haul for your cash but may then end up with repeated items and little else to show for your spend. To some this could potentially lead to a cycle of ‘one more purchase won’t hurt’, thus the reason many see them as a form of gambling.

It is perhaps hardly unsurprising that this year a big selling point for a lot of games appears to be the absence of loot crates, or at least in the format discussed. I saw earlier this week that the new Bioware title Anthem will be one of them. And as mentioned previously Battlefield V will also forgo the crates, perhaps signs that EA are learning from past mistakes and cling to some hope of redemption.

Hearing these bits of news got me thinking: Has the time of loot crates as we currently know them over? Are we seeing a turning of the tide towards a more benign offering?

For once, it would seem, as a community, we are starting to be heard by publishers. We are stuck with microtransactions and quite gone are the days of games being completely free of them, but perhaps their nature is at least changing to become more ‘gamer friendly’. Take popular online shooter Fortnite. Many of the extras available to purchase are simply the cosmetic character and weapon skins, nothing that can give a paying player the advantage over one who doesn’t want to splash the cash, plus you know precisely what you are getting for your money. The only downside being that you stand out quite a lot if you’ve not got a custom character, and to some, this could make you feel a little left out of the gang.

Overall, I think publishers are learning from the Battlefront II backlash and want to advertise themselves as listening to gamers, giving us loot box-free games. I don’t think that these types of extras will ever be completely killed off, but there has certainly been a shift thanks to consumer outcry and national legal action. Personally, and I can’t for one moment imagine I’m alone in this feeling, I would love to see the back of any form of real-world money transaction in gaming – especially in AAA games. This, I fear, is just pipedream, but if we keep being vocal and, just as importantly, keep talking with our wallets, then perhaps we could see a genuine transformation of publishers’ attitudes and finally be rid of those pesky loot boxes!

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