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Loot boxes are ruining video games — and only you can stop it

Assassin's Creed: Origins

"Loot boxes" are, unfortunately, becoming the norm in the gaming industry. This isn't a good thing. Gaming is a medium that has allowed me to spend thousands of hours in virtual worlds escaping real life. While microtransactions have a place in free-to-play titles, game publishers are now attempting to absorb as much money from consumers as possible with in-game gambling, a.k.a., "loot crates."

Loot crates have been around for some time, though mainly in free-to-play mobile games. With free games being released on PC, as well, companies are no longer relying solely on optional cosmetics, but now loot crates (or gambling). The system works by using an in-game currency (or real money) to allow players to unlock random crates, boxes or even chests that house a selection of randomized "loot." Some you may already own, others you may not. In instances like Overwatch and League of Legends, the system is done rather well and only really contains cosmetic items. It also supports the developer to roll out more content on a regular basis, but it doesn't negate the fact it's still gambling.

You used to be able to go to your local game store, pick up a physical copy of a chosen title, and fork out anywhere up to $60 (or your region's equivalent), and that would be it. Unlimited enjoyment for a price most people comfortable paying. Over time, the digital age brought in new ways to get games installed on a PC (or console), and publishers opted to include a whole manner of extras to make more money.

When done right — The Witcher 3 (opens in new tab), for example — downloadable content (DLC) can add countless more hours of entertainment for fans of a game. When done wrong, it's easy to feel cheated into parting with more cash to unlock parts of the game. Then you need to consider season passes (where you pay for content you cannot yet enjoy) and exclusive unlockables that require a purchase from a specific retailer or for you to preorder. Already the gaming industry was tainted, but this was just the beginning.

Psychological warfare

Forza 7

Companies need to make money. However, it's how a company goes about making a return on investment that can enhance or break the trust between it and the consumer. I referenced The Witcher 3 and I shall rely on my CD Projekt RED example further. This Polish studio and publisher opted to release a full game and huge DLC packages. Not only that, but a bunch of free, additional content was released alongside the latest Witcher installment. That's good business, and it incentivizes customers to support the company by paying out for further content.

I gladly paid for all The Witcher 3 DLC and thoroughly enjoyed multiple playthroughs. The best part was it's optional. Nothing was removed from the base game, nor was there a cliff-hanger that required a piece of DLC to complete the story.

Loot crates are not only gambling but can alter the design of a game.

Loot crates are a different story. If you seek a specific item you will fork out for countless crates and unlock each and every one in hopes you will be rewarded with that item. The need to unlock this item could slowly manifest into an addiction, whereby you will begin to crave that feeling of unlocking something you can use. Things become even more concerning when publishers look to work in more than just cosmetics, but actual items that give an in-game advantage to those who pour cash into the randomized number generation (RNG) system. This is considered "pay-to-win," in which the more money you pay the stronger you become.

Shadow of War

Loot crates can completely change the way a game plays. Forza Motorsport 7 altered the way mods work for cars, not to mention difficulty settings for races. Middle Earth: Shadow of War is another culprit, where more powerful Orcs are locked in crates and you need units like these to progress through the later game. Then you have the more recent Assassin's Creed: Origins, and even Star Wars: Battlefront 2, where loot crates could have the potential to ruin a great game. EA promised to tweak the system ahead of release, but you cannot ignore just how far the industry seems to want to push in-game gambling.

Finally, you have Call of Duty: World War 2. This game not only allows you to unlock loot crates, but everyone in the game session can see what you're unlocking as the crates themselves are dropped in from above. The game also rewards you by watching other people unlocking loot crates. While others are merely pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable in games, Activision has leaped over the wall of sanity. For example, take a look at this patent the company filed. It's designed to gather as information on players to sell them pretty things in-game.

Putting aggressive loot crates in games will force the consumer to leave low ratings on Metacritic. However, by pushing the system into games at a slower rate, it could be possible that these things become the norm in future games. That's not a good thing, especially given that randomized loot boxes aren't strictly pay-to-win because you could be the richest player on this planet and still get stuck with terrible rolls of the dice.

Kid-friendly gambling

Shadow of War

Call of Duty: WW2 loot crates.

Make no mistake, loot creates are a form of gambling, they're just not yet classified as such by law — a UK petition to have this altered is underway, though the British Government provided a rather vague response. The issue with gambling in games is the audience who buys and plays titles, which has a large chunk of young people, many under the age of the legal requirement to gamble at a casino. By law, it's illegal for someone underage to gamble at a casino, but they can legally gamble in a video game, spending money to spin an RNG wheel.

The issue with the gaming industry is the big companies are run by people who aren't gamers. An executive who doesn't enjoy games isn't going to care much about how this gambling system affects gameplay, nor would they necessarily take feedback from the community seriously. The end goal is to make as much from consumers as possible. This is where the supply and demand issue comes into play, whereby gamers continue to spend money on loot crates and thus companies want to move forward with this approach.

Now is the time to act to get loot crates out of full-priced games.

It's encouraging to see kickback from the gaming community over loot boxes and inappropriate micro-transactions in full-priced AAA games, but consumers continue to spend money on in-game purchases. There's demand for loot boxes and gambling in games today, so publishers take full advantage of the trend. To make an effective U-turn, we need to show these companies that we don't want loot boxes in full-priced games, by simply not spending money on crates.

Forza 7

Consumers need to band together and resist the direction publishers are taking, reducing demand and subsequently the supply. Games will soon no longer be developed to entertain you but to make you spend money on virtual slot machines. Think carefully about how you spend money in-game because this could be the last chance you have at reversing the damage.

Rich Edmonds
Rich Edmonds

Rich Edmonds is Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him over on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

25 Comments
  • In short; f**k loot crates and micro-transactions in 60 dollar triple-A games.
  • Exactly, and best way is to vote with your wallet; simply refuse to buy any AAA game at full price if it includes microtransaction or any other form of loot crate gambling; you can still play the game just wait until its $10 or less and don't give the publisher a chance to profit from you;
  • Get over it. If it’s a way for publishers to make more money, without increasing the price of the standard game, go for it. The cost of making games keep rising, yet the cost has stayed the same.  The same people who cry over IAP also **** their pants if an app cost more than 99 cents. Loot boxes have yet to ruin my experience in any game.  To say gaming heads don’t game is also a little absolutists. Of course they want to make as much money off consumers. So does Microsoft, Apple, Toyota....
  • Completely agree with you.  No one makes anyone buy loot crates or even buy a game that includes them.  If you're that upset about the practice then simply don't buy the game. More to the point, however, if you are someone who hates the 'loot crate' approach to monetization then I assume you are prepared to pay $120+ for a base AAA game that does not include them?  AAA games have been in the $60 range for at least 10 years now and have seen no adjustment for the cost of production.  Said costs have most certainly risen exponentially.  Publishers need to get paid to develop and market these new AAA games...it is a business afterall.  You can either pay up-front or pay over time...pick you're poison.
  • It's kinda a good point that if you aren't sucked into buying loot crates (I never have, and they've also never ruined a game for me) then it's a good thing....for you. Reason being, all the suckers (consumers who are free to do as they wish with their money) and subsidising the games for us, keeping them around the £50 mark for even longer - It could become a problem where people are getting addicted and overspending on them, and maybe they should be considered gambling and be regulated somehow but that's not something you can force through as a consumer yourself.
  • Of course you can force this disgusting practice to be clasified as gambling; just pressure your politicians and rating agencies like ESRB or PEGI to clasify loot crates as gambling, if enough consumers do this you can be sure it will happen sooner rather then later;  
  • I have to disagree. The cost of games has gone up, significantly. The average "AAA" game now costs between $90-$110 once you include the "season pass" tax. Sure, you can pay $60, but than you tend to miss a 3rd of the game, or more.  And as for not ruining your experience, well I'm glad for you. But its hard to argue that the last 3rd of Shadow of War wasnt purposely made worse in order to push consumers towards purchasing loot crates. Its a bad trend, and all sign point to it becoming worse and if we dont take a stand now... I cant even begin to imagine how devs will force micro transactions in the future. 
  • Yeah I beat the game but the end. Is it harder? Yes you can either buy loot crates or grind the **** out of the game so yes in this instance it blows.
  • First and only rule, vote with your wallet.
  • Well done article. Microtransactions are terrible. 
  • I guess I've never played the kinds of games that have this ridiculous "feature".  This is the first I've heard of the trend.  I agree, it's horrible.
  • I'm fine with loot crates where youre still able to get the item via in game money ala halo 5 (and it supports the devs, and they release free dlc in turn). when you're forced to buy an item, that's shady practice. Is this what we are talking about in this article?
  • What makes it even more interesting, is that online gambling is forbidden by law in many countries. I wonder if anyone will care eventually to filter these products from online stores in selected countries.
  • Well, it's not a secret that the publishers want us to pay around $100-$150 for a full game. They were quite successful in it by splitting the full game into a base part and multiple DLCs; however, over the year this practice has become very annoying and outright frustrating for users. So they're changing the rules of their game. And as loot boxes allow them to milk even more money from the users, they will finally make us pay even more.   Anyway, I'm more than willing to pay.
  • The easy way to solve this is to put pressure on rating agencies like ESRB & PEGI to clasify loot crates as gambling and thus any game that contains them must be 18+/adults only; this will mean many stores will refuse to carry it and thus ggreeedy game publishers will have to abandon the disgusting inclusion of gambling in AAA $60+ games;  
  • I would be completely fine if the base price of AAA games went up. They haven't been following inflation for years, which is why they resort to these sketchier profit methods (well, that and general greed). But who is going to be the first publisher to raise prices and have everybody hate them when they could make as much if not more through DLC systems? I was very stubborn in my hundreds of hours of NBA 2K that I did not ever buy VC to speed things up - it helped that I enjoyed the game enough that I didn't mind grinding for hundreds of hours, but there was a strong temptation frequently. I tried that Marvel game that is free but then you have to pay a lot if you want the different characters. I did the math after a few hours of play and it would have taken far too long to grind my way to unlocking everything, then deleted the game. No point of getting more invested in it. I'm happy to pay up for expansions on games that do not require the DLC but give some more fun on top of a good game: Dragon Age Inquisition, Witcher 3. That model seems like a win-win for the publisher and the consumer. But I am done buying games if I can't enjoy it and finish it without paying more.
  • Yeah, if it gets out of hand then people should get the right persons involved to maybe forbid this kind of gambling. I like Overwatch and feel glad that loot boxes are purely for cosmetics and even in Heroes of the Storm they are acceptable, but other titles are just annoying. Games got more expensive and I am not willing to pay 100€ and then only get a truncated something; loot boxes could give a little extra, but sometimes they affect the gameplay too much. Or more content later via DLC is also fine, as long as the game feels complete without them. If it is to keep alive the long-term motivation to play, it is fine. And then there are the bugs and problems some games had during their release. Meanwhile, I simply wait for Definitive Editions or its equivalent of games to get an idea of the whole game. I do not care if it is bad for publishers, if they cannot develop a game for under 100€, I deem them overstretching their capabilities. I do not agree with their recent publishing politics, and that is my reason to refrain from buying a game at day one.
  • Personally, I'm not a fan of loot boxes that contain gameplay altering items or give advantages to people who open their wallets.  Cosmetics don't bother me, but I'm also really not feeling the inclusion of loot boxes in full-priced games either.  I feel that if a company wants to add microtransactions, then the game needs to retail for a much cheaper price, especially considering that these sort of things are carry-overs from free-to-play games.  This is big publishers trying to have their cake and eat it too and it's pretty off-putting honestly.
  • It's all sickens me how games are doing this Bull ship and I personally have never payed for loot crates and never will. Even season passes I don't buy til they go on sale. Witcher and fallout 4 and evil within and resident evil 7 are all the season passes I own. What worries me are the young kids whose parents but their kids these loot boxes cause they don't know any better. I know my brother spent quite a few bucks for his kid on loot boxes and $100 on skins and snoop dogs voice on call of duty ghost now that's ridiculous. Point being their will always be people buying them and in good time it will be in every game. When that happens my 25 years of gaming will come to an abrupt end. It's fucing sad
  • I guess its a good thing I have a backlog of games to last me decades from all Humble Bundles and other places; I simply stopped buying any games that include any anti-consumer BS such as excessive DRM, or loot crates; I can wait years and buy it for penies in the discout bin :D  
  • Like getting the games from GOG. A couple of years ago they had a "May the 4th Be With You" sale, and I purchased every single Star Wars game there was - over 20 of them. I don't recall for sure, but I'm sure I didn't pay over $5 for any one of those games.  :-) I recently purchased DOOM 3 and Quake 4, and with tax I think it was maybe $11, and they also included all the previous DOOM games and threw in a couple of other free games. I guess I'm lucky I'm an old fart that still LOVES those old games!  :-)
  • Honestly we can't do anything.
    Why? Because microteansactions aim for a golden piggy. Golden piggy doesn't care about our opinion... So they will keep spending ton of money on it and so publishers will push it further. I hate microtransactions a lot, but honestly it will not make me not buying a title where it does not make worse experience for me besides those shiny buttons everywhere... But if it will affect my experience I will not buy it. Even if the game is superb overall.
  • I realize that they must make money to make more games and the risk of failure can be quite high, so I don’t really mind the seasons pass but is splits up the community because, so many won't buy the full game. $120 for a game that you enjoy for 400 hours is cheap entertainment when you consider the cost of going to the movies, a concert or a professional sports game. Pay for cosmetics is fine, but pay to win isn’t. I refused to play the “free” to play games because it’s all about pay to win. I know people who have paid hundreds of dollars for games like Need for Speed and World of Warships. Sorry, I like to spend my money upfront and not dribble out the money in an effort to be more competitive.  
  • As an ex game developer, I say it's fine. Just like any other game, if it's integrated well, it should only enhance the game for those willing to fork over the cash.
    It shouldn't be a faster or easier way to win, and it shouldn't give advantages over those who only paid for the base game.. It should maybe be unique looks, or weapons that aren't overpowered (for instance)
    Again, it comes down to design and implementation.
    Game development costs have risen, so pay $150 per game, or allow in game purchases and micro transactions.
    Vote with your wallet
  • Completely agree......i should be able to buy individual items i want, buying cards that randomly give you items which most often is not what you need is annoying. I thought i was the only one feeling such because i dont have enough money. But to see an article on WC about this gave me strength to talk about it now as now i am not shy any more to day that these are not fair. Thanks