Cognition Dissemination: Whoops! Loot Box Mania Went Too Far

There’s been plenty of news and discussion about loot boxes in video games lately, and for good reason. The concept was innocuous enough when it started in Overwatch, where despite it raising eyebrows when players could pay for them, the random items and bonuses included were cosmetic materials. Players tolerated them because they weren’t tied to the main game, and that also went for others that used the concept. But at the time, anyone aware of the gaming industry’s practices should have known where things were headed, but there was still hope publishers wouldn’t force developers to tie these to basic progression in some titles. Recently, that hope has evaporated.

Loot boxes have appeared in several games released this fall, including Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Forza Motorsport 7, and Call of Duty: WWII. Despite some goofiness involved with them, especially on CoD, the implementation in those games didn’t compare to how exploitative they are in Star Wars Battlefront II. In fact, I felt a little bad listing the other titles within the vicinity of EA’s newest Star Wars title. But in Battlefront II, they contain materials required for players to strengthen their characters, which makes multiplayer sessions a grind for those unlucky for those who don’t happen to get good loot several times.

This was worse when players could use a roundabout way to spend money for more loot boxes, and before they adjusted the feature to remove the best equipment from them. But it can still become monotonous when players don’t get what they need. Notably, EA had to adjust how they worked in Need for Speed: Payback after criticism, too.

The Battlefront II fiasco was a big deal not only because of how the constant negative press nudged EA into changing some aspects and temporarily pulling the microtransactions, but because it also attracted the attention of several watchdog groups around the world.

I think I’m running out of Battlefront II screenshots to use.

The results of this weren’t initially encouraging when the ESRB, America’s game ratings organization, concluded that loot boxes weren’t gambling. But it was a long shot to expect them to make a decision that went against the desires of large gaming companies. After all, they work hand in hand with the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which has frequently demonstrated how they’re willing to defend big corporate gaming companies and the pockets of their execs. Heck, the ESRB recently made a decision regarding how companies need to obtain ratings for physical games that will save large publishers money and screw over smaller outfits. PEGI, Europe’s rating organization equivalent, said they would leave the decision up to gambling commissions to conclude.

Fortunately, others could come through. Earlier this month, Belgium’s Gaming Commission confirmed it was investigating whether loot boxes were gambling, and could be subject to regulations. Belgian Minister of Justice Koen Geens thinks they are and believes Europe should ban them, but contrary to other translations posted by sites that jumped the gun, the commission is still investigating. Meanwhile, Hawaii state representative Chris Lee wants to take steps to combat them and the “predatory behavior” of companies like EA. He mentioned how “it’s a trap” (well, I giggled a little) that could lead to players, particularly younger players, developing gambling habits, and that Hawaii’s state government is looking into legislation that could curtail implementation like Battlefront II’s.

The UK government also released their findings. They concluded that loot boxes aren’t gambling since players can’t actually exchange in-game items for actual cash, and that you always get something in return, but did mention how they’re too close for comfort. They said they’ll consider stepping in and doing something if this goes too far. French senator Jérôme Durain echoed the same concerns, considering there are no regulations for what companies can implement in these titles, so anything goes without overhead scrutiny.

Need for Speed: Payback shows how EA wants these everywhere.

Loot boxes are receiving a significantly larger level of backlash than expected, mainly because of EA and Battlefield II, but it’s too early to tell whether regulations will actually be imposed on them. Some countries, for instance, have governments that couldn’t be more against regulations of any kind unless they’re for select matters they like (note: I’m talking about the good ol’ USA), and legislation could be hindered nationally. But plenty of gambling regulations have been passed at the state level, so some like Hawaii could impose something if this gets too far. That also applies to other countries better at this whole “consumer protection” thing.

Even if game publishers eventually phase them out, I don’t have confidence that developers at the whim of their money-hungry higher-ups will stop concocting money-making schemes for their games. This is not sustainable, and something will have to give if publishers stop making the money they feel they should make back due to rising development costs. But logic tends to be trumped by the potential for short-term profits too often for many companies.

It appears that EA is willing to scale back for now, but the new implementation of the microtransactions  in Battlefront II will determine whether they’re going to be humbler (but not humble per se) in the near future. This is a victory for now, but watch out for other companies that could try to take this to another level, or the creation of another microtransaction scheme that I can’t think of.

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