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Loot boxes and in-app purchases: A necessary evil or the scourge of the gaming world?

You may have read about the controversy surrounding loot boxes and micro-transactions in full-priced video games. The topic has been a point of frustration for many of us, but it's been getting a lot of attention over the past few weeks, largely due to EA's recent attempts at implementing those mechanics in "Star Wars Battlefront 2." If you need a refresher, our friends over at Windows Central have covered it pretty well.

Not to be confused with the subscription service of a similar name, loot boxes or crates in gaming are used to give the player helpful items, upgrades, or in-game currency. They're opened one at a time, and typically come with a cooldown period between each opening. Usually depicted as a treasure chest or a card pack, they basically function as a means of controlling the player's progress in the game and are almost always associated with some sort of in-game currency or in-app purchase, which can be bought to speed up the process.

While the addition of loot crates and micro-transactions is relatively new to major console releases, mobile gamers are more than a little familiar with the concept. In-app purchases and loot crate systems are key tenets in the free-to-play games on mobile where you are enticed to pay for in-game currency, new player cards, or simply a smoother, ad-free experience. It's less than ideal, but it's a necessary evil that we just sort of accept when you want to play a game on your phone without paying up front.

The free-to-play model works because game developers know that not all players will convert real money into in-game currency, but enough players will to make the system incredibly profitable. It's an open secret that the free-to-play micro-transaction model has been built around the idea of "white whale" gamers — game developers can typically count on a small number of players dropping insane amounts of cash via in-app purchases. Presumably, this group consists of YouTubers who upload epic videos of them unlocking loot boxes, the obscenely rich who have hundreds of dollars to spend on games, and the occasional kid who drains their unsuspecting parent's credit card limits.

Games designed to generate profits

Since it was EA who stirred up this controversy surrounding loot boxes, it only makes sense to use another of their bigger franchises, FIFA, to illustrate the drastic shift towards a profit-driven model. Back in 2013, I gladly paid my $5 for FIFA '13 on iOS, and I played the shit out of that game because it let you actually play the game however and for as long as you want. I started up Manager Mode and played through multiple seasons with my team, trading players and tweaking my line up as I saw fit, and guiding my team to several championships. It felt very much like the console version scaled down for mobile, which was exactly what I wanted.

With the next year's release, EA made the game free — presumably a good thing, right? — as they steadily shifted the game's focus towards the new Ultimate Team mode, which relies on gamers opening card packs to not only unlock new players for your squad, but also player upgrades, uniforms, and your team's logo. Each player had a set number of matches they could play before they needed to be "boosted" with another card to keep them in your line up. The other modes were available after an in-app purchase, but the writing seemed to be on the wall — the traditional gaming I loved was on the way out and building your Ultimate Team through card packs would slowly become the new norm.

Today, Ultimate Team is a ubiquitous mode that's found in nearly every EA Sports title, including the latest version of FIFA Soccer (opens in new tab), which has you unlocking players for your Ultimate Team during the opening tutorial. You can't even play a full online match anymore, given instead something called "VS Attack" mode, which limits you to playing offense-only two-minute spurts. The game is entirely "free to play" and the on-field gameplay itself is still top-notch, but you're going to be spending more time managing your cards than anything else, and Manager Mode is nowhere to be found — even as an in-app purchase main menu.

I used to be able to use my team's funds to buy player contracts from the free agent pool in Manager Mode. You know, sort of like a video game simulation of how player transfers work in the real world. Now, you're stuck opening free player packs every day waiting hoping to land that star player to boost your squad — or give into temptation and spend money on FIFA Points which can, in turn, be spent on more "premium card packs" to help upgrade my team faster. Once you've run into a few super-charged teams in online play, you start to seriously consider buying into the system because you presumably play these games to win and losing is no fun — but there's no guarantee that you'll get exactly what you need each time you open a player pack.

Are loot boxes a form of gambling?

Critics compare loot boxes to gambling — because that's essentially what it is. Some games are intentionally designed to keep you coming back mostly to open and earn more free crates, which only offer the slimmest chance of containing something rare or valuable, while constantly peppering you with ads for "great deals" on gems or diamonds to spend on more valuable crates or packs with higher odds of containing the cards you want. Each crate opening is a big event, of course, with explosions and glitter animations to give you that happy feeling like you've accomplished or won something.

Unlike other forms of gambling, you aren't actually winning anything in a game with loot boxes, even though you can still drop tons of cash on it.

The thing is, unlike other forms of gambling, you aren't actually winning anything in a game with loot boxes, even though you can still drop tons of cash on it. That's okay if you're only unlocking superficial upgrades for your character, like a new hat or outfit, but when the loot boxes contain significant player upgrades or other advantages that have a massive effect on the gameplay itself, it becomes more than a little problematic. When you spend money on loot boxes, you're really only paying for a better chance at winning something valuable, and that perceived value, again, only exists within the confines of that app. Worst of all, these games are often targeted at young, impressionable minds who are just looking to play free, fun games on their phone or tablet.

I hate to be so cliché, but back in my day, it used to be that when you bought a game, you got the whole game. These days I'm more inclined to pay up front for a game rather than play a game that's free but relies on in-app purchases to turn a profit. It's also why we clearly state it when the games we write about include in-app purchases, because it's often an indication as to whether a game has been designed to be fun to play or designed to generate profits for shareholders.

What happens next?

I just want to be clear here that I'm not trying to disparage game developers from implementing in-app purchases, nor the players who buy them. I understand that developing games isn't cheap and that the "freemium" model has proven itself to be a much more reliable stream of cash in a climate where consumers may be wary of shelling out money for a mobile game in advance — a reason why in-app purchases for unlocking the additional game content or to remove ads has always felt like a fair compromise.

Up to this point, regulation of in-app purchases in mobile games has been left to Google or Apple to monitor within their respective app stores, as no existing laws specifically address the in-app sale of loot boxes — but that might change.

That's the ruse — gaming companies can use tie-ins with popular brands we all know and love to draw us in, only to then peddle the same in-game currency systems and methods designed to get us hooked.

Hawaii State Legislator Chris Lee recently called a press conference to discuss the issue of loot boxes in gaming. He's now gone a step further and proposed legislation to prohibit the sale of games with "gambling mechanisms" to anyone under the age of 21. We've also seen a legislator from Belgium mention a potential ban on loot boxes in Europe. Perhaps we'll see more legislators will jump in on the debate, as it feels extremely deceiving to sell a game for $60 and then expect players to shell out more cash for in-game upgrades and expansions.

Meanwhile, you can track how EA's mobile gaming division has managed to generate massive profits with the free-to-play monetization scheme, ever since first striking gold with The Simpsons: Tapped Out (opens in new tab). That's essentially the ruse — gaming companies can use tie-ins with popular brands we all know and love like "The Simpsons," "Star Wars," or a popular sports brand to draw us in, only to peddle the same in-game currency systems and methods for getting us hooked. And it feels more and more exploitative the more times you come across it.

What can you do?

Well, for starters, it's more important than ever to support indie developers who are actually putting out games that buck this trend by creating unique gaming experiences that focus on storytelling and gameplay as opposed to adding a veneer to cover the same free-to-play/pay-to-win trappings. Off the top of my head, games like Penarium (opens in new tab), Kingdom: New Lands (opens in new tab), and Death Road to Canada (opens in new tab) are all examples of great games I've played in 2017 that are well worth the price of admission, and yet won't ever reach the same heights as free-to-play games that aren't nearly as fun to actually play.

I always try to highlight some great new indie games on my weekly gaming round up and will continue to do so, and just remember that the Google Play Store has a pretty decent refund system where you can get a full refund up to 2 hours after buying a game. There are so many smaller studios producing great games on the Google Play Store that flounder because they can't reach the mass audiences the same way that big-developer games can.

So the next time you're browsing through the Google Play Store, take a risk on that paid game that looks really interesting — you'll be supporting more quality games for the future, and just might find your next gaming obsession that won't bleed you dry.

Where do you stand on the issue?

We want to know what you think of the current state of gaming. Do you think loot boxes and microtransactions have become a problem worth addressing, or is it just how the free market works? Let us know in the comments!

Marc Lagace was an Apps and Games Editor at Android Central between 2016 and 2020. You can reach out to him on Twitter [@spacelagace.

34 Comments
  • If the game is free for me there is no issue. Now, if you have to buy the game AND there is a very immersive loot box system, then we have a problem
  • If you have to pay to compete in a "free" game then I have a problem with it. Or as was said above you buy the game and still have in game purchases just to compete.
    I hate in game purchases. I don't download any games with it anymore.
    Motorsports Manager 2 is a great example. You have to buy the game and do in game purchases just to compete.
  • The best model is free to play X amount of levels. Pay one off price to unlock fully. Gives you a chance to experience it before shelling out. In an purchases usually are **** since you have no gauge of what you are actually getting.
  • Back in my day, when I were a lad, we used to call this a "demo". And yes, it is the best model. It's a bit unfair that they said "****" in the article, but you're not allowed...
  • Demos were the best. Playing the first segment of Abe's Odyssey was ace.
  • Haha I can remember, and I got that gene on the strength of it! I also remember playing the demo for "Soul Reaver" approximately 37,000 times while waiting for the release!
  • If people don't buy them, devs will stop making them.
  • That's the promlem with the white whale thing. The average Joe can boycott all they like. People who have enough money to not even think about dropping £100 on anything will still just buy and buy and buy.
  • That's true to a point. But the blowback on Battlefront II proves that it can be done. Black Friday I was at a few stores (later in the day, I avoid that insanity) and the featured games were all sold out, EXCEPT for Battlefront II. Plenty of copies of that left. I refuse to buy games that make me pay to progress, or progress faster. DLC that adds levels/boards or new story lines are acceptable to me, but that's it. Paying to get the upper hand is the little *****'s way out. Let the spoiled kids play their games, I'll be minding my own business playing real ones.
  • EA is the scourge of the gaming world. That they even have these "micro transactions" in retail games at all it's frankly offensive. Whatever soulless marketing man decided to do this deserves to be fired... From a canon, into the sun. (Though EA surely aren't the only ones doing this) The only thing that's worse is the "don't you think the devs deserve to make a living?" Apologists. Now, I'm not talking in general, I don't have (much of) a problem with this stuff in snake l small free to play games, or even big ones like Pokémon GO. But I doubt any of the money from crates in BF2 ever make it to the actual devs your. It stays with the publisher. Greedy, greedy EA. And yes, crates are gambling, and should be regulated as such. The fact their is no actual prize is pretty terrible, but what's worse is that there are people who won't be able to stop themselves from emptying their bank account. I may have feelings about this lol, I could ramble for several more paragraphs!
  • The answer is: If you take away loot boxes, something else WILL take it's place.
    And it's gambling
  • Best loot box model for me is over watch. You get them for free. The game costs 60 yeah but they give out a sluew of freebies in updates. So I don't mind throwing out 5 bucks at an event when there's a skin I really want and I haven't gotten it from grinding.even then it's cometic not an advantage. Free games I can give or take. If it's a really good free game I don't mind throwing the developer a couple bucks here n there. For pay to win games I tend to just avoid them all together
  • My problem with overwatch is that it may be 5 bucks or 50 bucks to get that skin you want. Which isn't as big of a deal for normal skins that could all be eventually earns for free, but gets worse because that game offers so many skins that can only be purchased during special events. If I had one tweak for overwatch, I would say keep the loot system the same for account leveling, but allow me to purchase skins/gold with real money instead of more loot boxes. That way I can grind out for a lucky box or gold by playing the game, but I can spend a set amount for the event skin I want.
  • heck even if the amount of gold for duplicates was higher it wouldn't be so bad. Maybe 75% of the items sale value. so if I pop a couple duplicates then I can at least buy my items
  • Overwatch certainly strikes the right balance by having a relatively low up-front cost, so in-app purchases don't need to be overly aggressive. That said, I don't suspect Blizzard is making a ton of bank from IAPs in Overwatch.
  • Why does everything have to be regulated? How about people stop being so weak minded? As a society we need to develop human minds to fight against these type of exploitation's and addictions and not just regulate everything.
  • News flash. Gambling regulations have been around for long before loot boxes (and even video games as we know them) were even a thing. The regulations just need to catch up.
  • Microsoft isn't clean either, with forza 7....
  • In app purchases need to be cosmetic only AND you have to be able to buy a skin directly before I will take a game seriously. My only exception would be for mobile games that make use of in app purchases to follow the old demo model. (play x levels then unlock full game) But I wish app stores would build some type of trial system instead. Did windows phones have this? Do you think people would be more open to 10 or 20 dollar phone games if people could try them first? As a kid every game on my bday/christmas list was a game I rented or played at a friends house first.
  • Yes it is time.
  • Yes loot boxes are gambling and yes they should be regulated.
  • I don't care in free to play games. I typically avoid them and only agree with them when they are for cosmetic items. In full priced games I hate them. It feels like they are double dipping and a lot of times release a less finished game knowing they can nickel and dime you. Games like battlefront or destiny 2 are the worst. They aren't mobile but are good examples of the worst cases in microtransactions.
  • Is it time for the Federal Gov to tell us what games we can play and how to play them and what developers can do to support the games? No, it will NEVER be that time.
  • It will be a hard thing to legislate. Microtransactions aren't inherently evil, but they're easily used in abusive ways. You're looking at so many variables to determine if IAPs are employed in anti-consumer ways: difficulty curve, reward power, reward price, reward probability, competitive landscape... Without a degree in game design, lawmakers will have a hell of a time determining if any given game is being too aggressive with microtransactions. Personally, I resent games that have exclusive reward tucked behind a premium currency. You should be able to crack open worthwhile boxes using only the currency earned in-game. A lot of players get hung up on not being able to unlock every single little thing without shelling out cash, which I think is a little overboard. So long as I can still play and have fun, I don't really care if I'm "competitive".
  • Oh please. No one is forcing you to participate. If the costs outweigh the benefit, no one will pay and the model will have to change. There's no "exploitation" in a voluntary transaction.
  • You're failing is looking at addiction or compulsion with logic, it doesn't work like that. The hope with these boxes is that people will pop a few free ones, then just buy a couple more... Then a couple more... Then a few more... Then more, more, more! It's exploitative in that it literally exploits human nature. No one gets addicted to things on purpose, and most people who are addicts would quit if they could. The human psyche is a bítch.
  • My Favorite part of the article...so true:
    [QUOTE]"I hate to be so cliché, but back in my day, it used to be that when you bought a game, you got the whole game. These days I'm more inclined to pay up front for a game rather than play a game that's free but relies on in-app purchases to turn a profit. It's also why we clearly state it when the games we write about include in-app purchases, because it's often an indication as to whether a game has been designed to be fun to play or designed to generate profits for shareholders." [/QUOTE]
  • At least with Crossy Road, Shooty Skies and Disney Crossy Road you can buy the character you want directly. To stick another fork in EA, they have two lots of gambling in Bejeweled Blitz - a loot box system (there's 3 different types - including a free one that resets every 8 hours) and an in-game currency slot machine that you pay real money to spin (though you get one free spin per day).
  • Yep lets get the state involved in even something this petty so we can let them ruin another good thing.
  • Microtransactions need to die a quick horrible death.
  • I don't mind them as long as free/base price, productive gameplay is still possible AND the game matches players according to level. If other players wanna pay to get ahead and then get annihilated at the upper echelons by grinders with far more experience, more power to them.
  • Microtransactions allow gamers to craft their experience through in-game purchases. If one wants all the extra skins, and superficial stuff to complete their collection, they should have the option to pay for it. What has been voiced here several times is that microtransactions should not award players a competitive advantage. Call of Duty WWII allows for these (as many of the previous ones) with randomized drops. Outfits, weapon skins, calling cards, emblems, weapon variants (same stats) can be purchased or earned through playing. What we do see alot of with video game releases are standard versions ($59.99) and deluxe editions ($99.99) - If you plan on playing the game alot and want access to all of the promised DLC, then why not pay $100 up front instead of $150 to buy everything separately?
  • Free or cheap games with extra content is fine but any AAA games should contain all the content
  • I despise games where gambling makes the difference between players, especially so much that it almost does not matter how good one can play. I take Overwatch as a positive example of a system with loot boxes and Perfect World International, Neverwinter, Star Wars Battlefront II are three of the bad examples of such a system. Also bad, in my opinion, is when a story seems a bit shallow and only gains depth with many DLCs that amounts to nearly the same price as the original game. It is so disappointing to only get a half-finished game for a full price, and it feels like a cheap trick when you have to pay again almost the same amount to get the rest of a game that was missing from the start.