Hearthstone is a game that takes advantage of the pay-to-play loot system. (FOX 8)
The modern-day gamer is always looking for that edge, something to push the competition or sometimes just stand out in the online crowd and these days nearly every type of game offers a quick way to get that boost, it’s called the loot box.
“They're buying into loot boxes, spending hundreds, thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands of dollars for some individuals and not getting much of what's being promised,” Rep. Chris Lee, a democratic state legislator from Hawaii, said.
Rep. Lee held a press conference earlier this year, decrying games that use loot box mechanics, essential a random prize gamers can buy with currency earned in the game or real cash. Lee thinks some of the loot boxes are essentially the same thing as sending your kid to the slot machine.
“With a loot box or some other gambling kind of mechanism you're buying a chance at winning something with no guarantee that you get anything meaningful at all and that's where the concern comes,” Rep. Lee said.
He points out one game in particular, Star Wars Battlefront II, a game that drew virtually universal scorn from the gaming community, creating what Lee called a Star Wars themed casino for kids, with a pay to win atmosphere, and no decent odds to get the player you wanted without shelling out extra cash or playing the game for hours.
“The amount of time that you had to spend to get those characters without paying for it was just ludicrous,” Jeff Clark, a competitive gamer said. “You would have to play the game for hundreds of hours to get the players.”
“In this case it's been clear that what has been very successful as a moneymaker, basically gambling, has been placed into our kids games to take advantage of them,” Rep. Lee said.
Tulane researcher Daniel Mochon, who studies consumer behavior and decision making specifically in online marketing, said while he’s not sure it's gambling, similar tactics are used across the business world; from lotteries like McDonald’s Monopoly game or booking sites like Priceline or Hotwire, where you don’t know what you get until after you’ve paid for it. In fact he said the loot box outdates the first video game by decades.
“Baseball cards, you buy a pack of baseball cards and they could just sell you each baseball card for a fixed price, but it essentially was a loot box. You paid some money, you got some random subset of players, you hope you got the rookie card of the next superstar, but the odds are you get some shortstop benchwarmer that you've never heard of before,” Mochon said.
He thinks the real trick is convincing consumer that the odds aren’t usually in their favor.
“With these types of lotteries people often have unrealistic expectations about how successful they will be. I think they often pay too much attention to the best case scenario and often don't think through their decision and realize that quite often they're not going to get what they're looking for or the worst case scenario,” Mochon said.
That’s not exactly how Clark and fellow gamer, Dylan Smith, see it, for them cracking open loot boxes or card packs doesn’t always mean shelling out cash.
“If you want to yeah you can empty your wallet into it and buy those packs or you can just play the game,” Smith said. “You do your daily quests, you get the in-game currency to buy, there's no need to buy the actual loot boxes or packs or anything like that unless you're just really impatient in my opinion.”
Smith and Clark are play free-to-play games like Hearthstone, an online card game, or Fortnite, a battle royale game. In each of those games loot or cards are on the table and if speed is what you seek, cash is king.
Some gamers are willing to roll the dice for a chance at a legendary item. (FOX 8)
“It's absolutely faster to buy it and that's the model because as a video game company your two goals are one to make a fun game for your player base and two to make money doing it,” Clark said.
Smith and Clark agree, if the loot is purely aesthetic or can’t be traded there’s no harm in letting people break the bank.
“If you really want the legendary skin than you can just grind for loot boxes or you can pay money and potentially get disappointed,” Smith said. “They’re literally doing that or dumping money into a game just for a cosmetic item. It's not going to make you any better at the game.”
But in some cases it could make you a richer.
“Counter-Strike [is one]. What you have been able to do for a long time, knives can be worth up to $1,500 real money,” Smith said.
And that’s where for most gamers the grey area of loot boxes becomes more black and white.
“At that point you're dropping money into it actually hoping that you can spend $20 on a loot box and hoping you can pull out an item that's worth $3,000,” Smith said.
That’s exactly what Rep. Lee thinks could poison the mind of a child hooked on loot. It's why he's taking steps to keep games with loot box mechanics out of the hands of what could potentially be a large group of gamers.
“In Hawaii we started a conversation about prohibiting sales with games with loot boxes in it to people under 21 specifically because of the health problems that long-term exposure of kids to gambling creates,” Rep. Lee said.
Hawaii isn't the only one with their eyes on loot boxes, just last month Belgium and the Netherlands declared the boxes games of chance, in violation of gaming law, and demanded games like Overwatch, FIFA, and Counterstrike, remove them from their products.
Mochon thinks here in the states consumers just need to understand, what you want isn’t likely what you’ll get.
“I think in these loot boxes, if we could get some how people to think about while I might get that star player or that perfect object that I really want, but if they really think about that they might get something they have no interest in then these might seem a little bit less alluring to them,” Mochon said.
For gamers raising an age limit just won't work, instead they say teach your kids the value of a hard day’s work over a paid shortcut. Even if that hard work comes from the thumbs.
“It's a lot less disappointing when you're just playing the game to get the loot boxes and don't get what you want compared to spending money into it,” Smith said.
“Loot boxes are completely harmless for the most part as long as parents do a good job of keeping track of the money,” Clark said.