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.
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.
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.
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.