Right now the game industry is aflame over loot boxes and their impact on games and the industry as a whole. Loot boxes have become the catalyst for a larger discussion and concern surrounding games, predatory practices. While consumers have been largely willing to overlook these practices in free to play (F2P) titles, once they entered traditional full price games the discussion changed.  What was something that was once ignorable has now reached a point that must be addressed. Otherwise, we are doomed to normalize this when it is anything but. It is time to do what many other industries have been forced to do when reaching a point that society has deemed imperative that consumers be informed about, put a warning on it.

What Lurks Beneath the Shadows

What makes Loot-Boxes so insidious as a mechanic in games is the fact that they are unknown. The rate of receiving them, the breakdown of equipment, the value of that equipment etc. It is all unknown to a certain and very important degree. Developers might opt to provide information on the exact percentages, but even then, on some level, you must take them at their word. The validity of that claim doesn’t go through any process, isn’t verified by anyone, its just what they say and we as consumers just have to accept it.

This is an obvious problem, we know this is a problem because it’s existed with RNG since its inception. Many MMO veterans, especially those from World of Warcraft (WoW) should know it all to well first hand when it came to acquiring raid equipment. During the early years of WoW, raid gear was randomly dropped (derived from a loot table) by each boss when it was defeated. Because of the many drops, classes, and types of equipment, it was incredibly difficult to get certain pieces if luck wasn’t on your side. Without that piece of gear, you simply wouldn’t be strong enough to advance to the next raid so you were forced to continue grinding until you received it. It served as a way to extend the life of raids and thus the game, a reason to keep coming back and roll the dice in hope of acquiring that piece of gear you were hoping for. This is essentially the same with Loot-Boxes, keep on playing until the random item you want/need appears so you can finally get/do what you wish. Except now, if you would like, you can pay.

Example of a Loot Table

Japan faced similar issues with online games involving this unknown randomness, so much so that it earned a nickname, Kompu gacha. Games would be structured in such a way that many of the items would be easily earnable except for a small handful of items. Players wouldn’t know the odds of receiving them so they would be forced to pay for more random drawings in hopes of earning the one or two items that needed to complete what they needed to advance. Japan eventually outlawed this practice 2012 citing the model resembled gambling. Unfortunately, in the US we don’t have such laws…and…we could use some.

The Darkness Grows

In the West, we haven’t seen the same exploitive game mechanics such as Kompu gacha, but that doesn’t mean we managed to miss the iceberg. Instead, something far more insidious is potentially in the works, and it comes from our “friends” at Activision.

Activision recently was granted a patent on a new system that includes a way to adjust matchmaking to improve micro-transaction purchases. According to the patent,

“For example, in one implementation, the system may include a microtransaction engine that arranges matches to influence game-related purchases.”

“For instance, the microtransaction engine may match a more expert/marquee player with a junior player to encourage the junior player to make game-related purchases of items possessed/used by the marquee player. A junior player may wish to emulate the marquee player by obtaining weapons or other items used by the marquee player.”

This might not be the same as kompu gachas, but it is certainly insidious and predatory. It potentially creates a system that is actively working against you for the sake of producing more micro-transactions. What even worse, is that potentially, all of this is happening without your knowledge. As a gamer, you don’t know the interworking of matchmaking systems, and frankly, you didn’t have to because there was nothing at stake besides your enjoyment. With a game that has Micro-transactions you now no longer know how the system is working, be it against your wallet or actually for your enjoyment.

Southpark on Microtransactions

If such systems are going to exist in games, then we need to know the facts as consumers.

What We Need

Consumers need to be aware of what games with micro-transactions entail, they need to know how their games are being altered to entice them, they need to know the rates of which items can be earned, and how those micro-transactions alter gameplay. There are already numerous studies on how loot-boxes and the way games promote them can bring about the same feelings as gambling, and while it’s not exactly the same as gambling, the effects are largely the same. Couple this with games promoting micro-transactions by creating an environment that promotes them and you have a real need for actual warnings.

The ESRB has been the governing body in the US when it comes to rating video games for many years and it is time for them to step up, and finally, start forcing game developers on the following:

  • Displaying the chances involved with loot before purchase
  • Informing consumers how matchmaking is derived
  • Where and how microtransactions exist within the game

Until this information is available, consumers are at a disadvantage and are forced to consume products with questionable practices at best and predatory practices at worst.