With both Star Wars Battlefront II and Middle-earth: Shadow of War encouraging players to pay extra to progress, a renewed focus has been brought upon the presence of loot boxes within paid-for retail games.
Commonplace in free-to-play games on mobile and in the MMO and MOBA space, loot boxes allow players to purchase a randomised reward for a set amount of money.
Contents may be purely cosmetic or have a more direct effect on progression through a game; paying players may be able to play more frequently, or obtain character perks, permanent or temporary.
What’s important is that players can pay for the opportunity to receive an unknown reward.
In paying, they contribute towards a valuable form of income for developer and publisher; in participating in the receipt of an unpredictable reward, they are subject to variable rate reinforcement, a powerful behavioural training mechanism that in turn encourages further spending.
But while players are used to microtransaction payments powering free-to-play games, a quartet of recent releases are instead tentpole, full-price retail titles for their respective publishers.
High-profile action games Middle-earth: Shadow of War and Star Wars Battlefront II both feature Loot Box systems, as did basketball game NBA 2K18 and racing title Forza Motorsport 7 upon their own recent releases.
Battlefront II publisher Electronic Arts moved to assuage concerns that “players who are short on time and would like to move faster in their progress towards various rewards” were being placed too close to the center of the game’s business model; the endgame content of Warner Bros’ otherwise widely praised Shadow of War has been portrayed at review as a stark contrast between hours of menial task completion or making optional payments to zip swiftly towards a satisfying, story-capping conclusion.
For now, North America’s video game regulatory organisation, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, does not view loot box systems as analogous to gambling — even if some players do experience their psychological effects in the same way.
“While there’s an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player unfortunately receives something they don’t want),” it told Kotaku and IGN in identical statements.
For now, the Board is drawing comparisons to collectible card games, while noting that it does label “gambling or gambling related mechanics” as either Simulated Gambling (no real cash or currency involved) or an automatic Adults Only-rated Real Gambling (using real cash or currency.)
Given that the ESRB is a form of self-regulation by larger publishers from the traditional video game industry, perhaps it’s not surprising that it is reticent to apply AO ratings to some of this year’s most high-profile releases. — AFP Relaxnews