An advertisement for an Overwatch loot box. These boxes are a subset of gacha, a type of business model for video games named after a Japanese toy vending machine. PUBLIC DOMAIN

How much would you be willing to spend to be able to play one character in a video game you enjoy?

For loot box and gacha game players, the answer can be hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Loot boxes are a subset of gacha, a type of business model for video games named after a type of Japanese toy vending machine. Under this system, players can’t buy characters and features directly from an in-game or online store. Instead, they purchase virtual grab bags full of random collectible items that can be obtained through gameplay or by forking over cash. This is called buying a loot box or “rolling” the gacha, as in “rolling” the lottery.

Loot boxes, and by extension gacha, made headlines last year after players raged against Electronic Arts (EA), an American video game company,  for making loot boxes the crux of “Star Wars: Battlefront II’s” progression system. The resulting outrage led to the single most downvoted comment in Reddit history.

What isn’t getting attention is how profitable this system is. In 2018, gacha games are expected to bring in $30 billion in revenue, more than a fifth of the expected $138 billion that gamers spent on video games globally. At its peak, the Chinese mobile game “Kings of Honor” was earning as much as $185 million a month until its value was shot down by comments from the Chinese government.

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Players will push their luck in everything from “Overwatch” to “Pokémon Go” to get that one skin or character they want. They don’t even have to be shady about it. To keep their business in China, the world’s largest gaming market, gacha games like “Kingdom Hearts Union Cross” will post the likelihood of obtaining the rarest and most desirable items from a single loot box or gacha roll in-game on their websites.

These rates can dip well below one percent.

They don’t deter players from buying one loot box after another to get that one thing they want.

“I have spent about $1,036.47 on FGO alone … give or take,” David Tong, a 22-year-old graphics design student at Laney College, said. He has played the U.S. version of “Fate/Grand Order,”  a free fantasy role-playing game and one of the highest grossing mobile games in the world, for two years. He spent his cash over time, trying to get four particular playable characters, but ended up getting none of the four he wanted. He is a relatively minor case.

A Japanese Fate/Grand Order streamer by the name of Sanyan spent the equivalent of more than $2,000 trying to get Merlin, a character considered the most powerful in “Fate/Grand Order,” and failed to get him.

These aren’t standalone cases either. A study by the University of York found that problem gamblers were more likely to shell out large amounts of money on loot boxes to get desired items. Therefore, problem loot box spenders also tended to be problem gamblers. The authors of the study admit that more research needs to be done before major conclusions can be drawn, but it’s already starting to look incriminating.

In this business model, spending is rampant. The value of the purchase itself is almost completely random and the act of it is at least correlated to problem gambling.

Yet, the Electronic Software Rating Board, which is responsible for holding video game companies accountable in their marketing practices, said in a statement that it does not see loot boxes as gambling, comparing them to opening packs in trading card games. Players are guaranteed to get something of value from their purchase, but not necessarily what they were looking for. Similar rulings were made in the United Kingdom.

While this definitely has an element of truth, the difference between loot boxes and trading card packs is that the latter is physical. That means there’s a limit on how many packs a player can open at one time. And while unwanted cards can be sold or traded to other players, gacha games rarely allow players to trade their items.

This is especially true in online versions of card games like Activision-Blizzard’s “Hearthstone.” The cards can only be acquired from virtual card packs whose contents are completely random with the exception of one “rare or higher” card per pack. Similarly to “Fate/Grand Order,” the chances of getting “legendary” cards of the highest rarity hovers around 1 percent.

Unlike “Fate/Grand Order,” the effects and abilities of cards in the game may be drastically changed or weakened at any point by the developers. Because of this, the value of any card in the game is tenuous at best, which can be painful to players who acquired said card through the $50 booster packages or spend weeks or months of gameplay to get it.

In the end, loot boxes are only marginally less of a risk to the player than rolling a slot machine and hoping for a jackpot. Regulating them and curbing minors’ access to them, as Belgium has done, should be a no-brainer.

But big business won’t let it happen. The Electronic Software Association, the largest video game lobbying group in the U.S. which also runs the Electronic Software Rating Board, stands by its declaration that loot boxes aren’t gambling. “Our position remains the same,” Dan Hewitt, the Electronic Software Association’s vice president of media relations and event management, said.

While they’re clearly after their bottom line, regulating loot box and gacha games doesn’t necessarily mean banning them outright. A potential fix would be to simply put an in-game cap on the amount one is able to spend on a single loot box or gacha opportunity.

“Granblue Fantasy,” another top-grossing mobile game, implemented such a cap after a player spent $6,065 in one sitting.

No matter what the industry says, loot boxes are in fact a form of gambling disguised as an in-game purchase. Like any other form of gambling, it should be closely monitored and regulated to prevent abuse.

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