Your first question may be what exactly is a loot box. Quite simply it is a micro-transaction that offers you a chance at exclusive content. This content can be for decorative purposes for your in game avatar, provide some bonus that helps you gain an edge over your opponents, or some other variation on those concepts. However the purpose of a loot box is very clear you are being asked to pay for a CHANCE to receive some reward. It is in that promise/chance that the problem arises.
What is the problem facing the pay to win gaming industry, in terms of loot boxes you may ask? The answer is fairly simple. Loot boxes meet all the criteria to easily be categorized as a form of gambling. For some exchange of in game or real world currency a player is offered an opportunity to perhaps obtain an item of some special and unique value. It is in the fact that there is no guarantee of obtaining an item where the problem arises. In most pay to win gaming micro-transactions the terms of the agreement are clear and concise. For this much money you will obtain this much of an in game item and as such the gamer can make a clear and informed decision in terms of value. In the loot box example the gamer is pulled into a cycle of gambling where each purchase has the potential for reward or loss depending on luck. However it is assumed that the more you play the better your chances are at winning and thus a pattern develops where the gamer is constantly rolling the dice in hopes that they win whatever is being advertised.
At this very moment the Australian senate is debating the issue.
Recently a study published by David Zendle, Cade McCall, Herbie Barnett, and Paul Cairns is attempting to draw the correlation between loot boxes and gambling. The study can be found here: https://psyarxiv.com/6e74k/
After reading the study and relating it to my own gaming experience I was able to determine that not only have I come into contact with loot boxes but I continued to purchase loot boxes in the same way and for the same reason that a gambler might take another roll of the dice or play one more hand of cards. Loot boxes convince a competitive gamer that held inside is something that is critical to their success. The truth is that held inside is usually something of little or no value and you are left with the sense that perhaps if you just by one more box you will get what you were hoping for. In my current game they recently ran a promotion where if you bought 3 loot boxes you would be guaranteed some item. However, every loot boxes makes the same “guarantee”. That makes the problem even worse because you purchase the loot boxes mainly to get to the guarantee but shouldn’t all in game content be guaranteed. If it is not then how can the industry rightly claim that they are running games of chance. Another big problem is that most pay to win games do not have an age limit in order to play. This allows minors to play the game the same as adults. Whereas, governments and gambling authorities have age limits strictly adhered to. It begs the question, is the industry engaging in the corruption of minors? It would seem that the pay to win gaming industry lacks a fundamental moral compass pertaining to underage gambling.
I recall an instance in game where an alliance member started talking to us. Actually his father was and explained that he did not know his son was even playing the game and had made some automated charges on his card. The items in question were of course loot boxes. As an adult I tried to explain what his minor son had purchased but it occurred to me that parents don’t often know what their kids are doing or how easy it is for them to purchase.
I recall another instance in which the developer actually was shamed by their legal team to disclose the drop rates of loot box items. They had been charging $99.99 – $399.99 for what would later be disclosed as a 2% drop rate. A week after that they announced that all drop rates would be increased and now the only time that pack ever sells is when they do a double the drop rate promotion. We know this as it is announced to the server each time everyone buys such a pack. As players discovered the ruse they were outraged. Some had spent upwards of $6,000 USD without getting a single winning hand. If that doesn’t illustrate a gambling problem then nothing will.
I had a great deal of trouble with chasing the loss. In terms of player equipment we have a crafting system, an upgrade system, and loot boxes. I recall spending around $12,000 dollars for the top gear in the game. If the system had been more fair and less of a lottery I would have spent something around $600 but they created a system where you would get close and fail. So either out of stubbornness or the incorrect perception that I might succeed with just one more pack I continued on buying. Why would one spend that type of money, while simply put this equipment is what separates the top tier players from everyone else. Even now they have started an equipment refining system. This system allows a player to upgrade the gear they have with one catch. If you are attacked and the gear is taken the upgrades that you do go back to zero. In this game the chance of making even a small mistake is so common that its almost laughable to think that we would even spend on gear refinement but of course we continue to do so as everyone wants that edge over the next player. That perhaps is the most flagrant abuse of all. We have seen it in professional athletics frequently. A competitive player will take a banned substance to gain a competitive advantage because he or she is so driven to win. That desire interferes with rational thought and the stakes are just as high for them as putting the deed of your home on a spin of the roulette wheel. In gaming, we often spend thousands not thinking about how we will pay our rent, feed our families, pay our bills but how can we guarantee a win. It happens to most the day you spend the first dollar. Micro-transaction gaming and pay to win is merely a undercover casino where every player regardless of age is invited into the gaming house for a roll of the dice and sometimes the stakes are high and the impact changes lives often for the worse.
I think it is safe to say that the gaming industry will try any combination of tricks and ploys to get regulators to become distracted from regulating loot boxes as they are very profitable. So the question really isn’t if loot boxes will ever become illegal or regulated. The question is when will we wake up and see loot boxes and pay to win gaming for what it really is. It is a casino that has absolutely no regulation and it hides in the form of entertainment but the impacts are no worse than the person who loses everything in Vegas. As for myself I allocate a certain amount each week now to my gaming that falls within my budget. If a good sale comes up I will most likely take advantage but the reality is that I know I am gambling but I am trying more than ever to hedge and control my bets.