Microtransactions, Gambling and Video Games

How did we let this happen?

Firstly, let’s define these terms so you can understand what they mean.

Microtransactions (in video games) — anything a consumer pays for in a videogame outside of the initial purchase price.

Loot boxes — an in-game purchase consisting of a virtual container that awards players with items and modifications based on chance. Inside are usually costumes, skills, gear, or random items specific to the game.

History of Microtransactions

· Microtransactions have been around since the beginning of video games in the form of… ARCADE MACHINES.

· Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion released around March of 2006 was a major success for Bethesda and in April, Bethesda announced they will add DLC to the game. They started by adding a horse armour pack that was purely cosmetic that cost $2.50 cents at the time or 200 Microsoft points.

· Bethesda received backlash at the time because what is the point of buying something just for looks that don’t affect the horse’s ability to ride.

History of Loot Boxes

· In China and Korea, MMOs and free to play games started the loot box trend.

· The first known instance of a loot-box system is an item called “Gachapon ticket” which was featured in the Japanese version of Maple Story in 2004.

· Tickets were sold at the price of 100 Japanese yen per ticket.

· Players received random in-game items when they used the ticket on “Gachapon”, which was an in-game booth that was accessible around the world in-game.

Loot Boxes in the West

· In June 2011, Valve transitioned Team Fortress 2 to a free-to-play business model after the launch of the Mann-conomy update in 2010, which introduced crates and item trading.

· Star Trek Online and Lords of the Rings Online followed behind as these MMOs were not doing well for their company.

· Paid games that added in the loot box feature were: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive added ‘weapons cases’ which needed keys to unlock and retrieve your item and FIFA Ultimate Team in 2010 the publisher started offering the mode for free, relying solely on card pack sales to generate revenue.

Popular games with Loot Boxes

1. Overwatch

2. Apex Legends

3. Call of Duty: Mobile

4. FIFA games

Backlash

· The case of Star Wars: Battlefront II. While the game sold as a full-priced retail title ($60) but had a microtransaction system that asked players to invest extra time or money to unlock major playable heroes. The community reaction resulted in the world record for the most downvoted comment (by EA) in the history of Reddit. Consequently, this led the company to temporarily pull the microtransaction system very close to the game’s release.

Loot Boxes Go Mainstream

EA’s vice president of legal and government affairs Kerry Hopkins, appeared before the UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee and insisted that loot boxes aren’t similar to gambling but are instead “surprise mechanics” like Kinder Eggs (WTF?), the popular chocolate candy with toys inside.

· Hopkins added that loot boxes have no connection to gambling. “We think it’s like many other products that people enjoy in a healthy way, and like the element of surprise”.

· China has reduced the number of loot boxes players can open each day. Sweden is also in the process of investigating them.

The Science

· Many psychologists agreed that loot boxes and slot machines use the same tactics to grab a player’s attention. In an article written by CBC News, an expert in people’s addiction to technology claimed, that loot boxes are ‘literally’ a slot machine in so far as they both share ‘the same basic fundamental behaviour pattern’.

· The expert continued to say, ‘when people cannot predict how much they’re going to get, they often get very focused and fixated on it, and want to do it over and over again, past the point of rationality.’

· The loot box interface has been carefully designed both visually and audibly to create player anticipation, excitement and heighten the appeal of opening them similarly to using gambling apparatus like slot machines. Psychologists highlighted the way in which buying in-game currency is similar to buying casino tokens to use those machines.

· It is stated that 31% of children from ages 11–16 had paid for loot boxes, while one gamer told MPs that he was spending up to £1,000 a year on the football game Fifa hoping to win better players for his team.

Loot Boxes in Parliament

· In the Netherlands on April 2018, the Dutch Gaming Authority issued a concerned that video games that sell loot boxes and allow the “transfer” of yielded items are illegal.

· In its report “Study into loot boxes: A treasure or a burden?”, the authority stated that four games of the ten it studied violated gambling law. It concluded that while the loot-box systems in the six remaining games did not meet the threshold for legal action, they “nevertheless foster[ed] the development of addiction”.

· In April 2018, shortly after the Netherlands’ decision on loot boxes, the Belgian Gaming Commission completed its study of loot-box systems in four games, FIFA 18, Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Star Wars Battlefront II, and determined that the loot-box systems in FIFA 18, Overwatch, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive were considered games of chance and subject to Belgium’s gambling laws.

Loot Boxes Today

NBA 2K20’s MyCasino Feature

· On August 26th, NBA 2K published a trailer for NBA 2K20’s MyTEAM which featured a wheel of fortune, pachinko machines, and slot machines which caused huge outrage across game’s media and the wider gaming community.

· The video currently has 33 thousand dislikes and 3.8 thousand likes.

Meanwhile, loot boxes are being reviewed and banned in countries, game developers must find other ways to continually monetize their full price AAA games.

Rocket League’s ‘Blueprints’

· Rocket League developed in 2015 by Psyonix (now owned by Epic Games) are in the process of replacing their loot boxes with ‘Blueprints”.

· Loot boxes in Rocket League drop at the end of matches but have to be opened with keys which you have to pay real money for like in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

· Blueprints will begin to drop at the end of matches instead and they’ll display items and upgrades on them, which you can’t get unless you pay real money for them.

· The difference between loot boxes and blueprints is the removal of chance which is associated with gambling. Instead, players can see what’s on the blueprint and you choose if you want to buy it or not. This update is scheduled to be released in December.

Counter Strike’s ‘X-ray Scanner’

· Just like Rocket League’s Blueprints, the x-ray scanner gives players the ability to see inside loot boxes before opening them.

· The scanner is available right now to players only in France because there may be government regulation against loot boxes soon.

· The catch is the item you revealed must be claimed before using the scanner again on another case to prevent exploiting the system.

· It has also been reported that French players can’t buy cases from the steam community market but they still have the ability to sell them.

Expect a lot more methods like this to pop up in the coming months as game publishers still want to be able to profit from players after paying for their games.

What is the Video Game police doing about this?

If you play video games, the words ESRB, ESA and PEGI might sound familiar to you. But what are they exactly?

According to their website, the ESRB is a non-profit, self-regulatory body for the video games industry. They are supposed to help parents make informed decisions on what games are being provided for their kids to play. Similarly, the ESA gives information and support to help members show video games have a positive impact on society. PEGI or Pan European Game Information provides the same information like the ESRB but in a more simple and digestible form for European parents.

It seems obvious that games which have loot boxes or microtransactions should have a factor into the overall score or rating of the video game but this is not the case until fairly recently.

The ESRB announced they will label games that sell loot boxes, boosts, microtransactions and DLC with the label ‘In-Game Purchases’. This is an extremely vague term that will consequently lump all games with any sort of add on with the label.

Finally, what can I do?

Well, honestly there isn’t much you can do. Governments around the world are now taking this issue seriously and are reviewing and passing legislation to protect against this exploitive system. As always, show your stance to game developers and publishers by choosing to buy their product or not. It is proven that action is taken when sales do not meet their expectations and solutions are brought up that can probably save their games.

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