Video Game Loot Boxes: Innocent Fun or Greedy Gambling?

Are game studios taking advantage of unsuspecting wallets?
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A loot box is a delicious thing. It doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. The loot boxes in “Overwatch” emit a golden glow and a shower of adorable sounds when opened. “Middle-earth: Shadow of War” loot boxes open with a flash of light, an earthquake effect and cheers. But whether you cheer, too, after opening that loot box -- that’s questionable, at best.

These digital treasure chests have become endemic to triple-A games, but while loot boxes offer the promise of incredible goodies, all too often you'll end up spending real-world money on a loot box that gets you nothing but disappointment. So are they innocent fun or greedy gambling? Let’s take a look at the gaming industry’s loot boxes in their current state: prolific, often cruel, and always expensive.

The Promised Goods Not Such a Promise

Star Wars Battlefront 2 Loot Box

Loot boxes can hold a variety of things. For “Overwatch” loot boxes, you can receive anything from a rare skin to a junky spray for a character you never use. The “Star Wars Battlefront 2” crates can offer up Star Cards, which help to unlock weapons. Other boxes accelerate gameplay with high-level goods and stats. Some microtransactions even fast-forward actual parts of the game, making it easier to win without the typical amount of effort and time.

However, regardless of what it claims to have inside, your loot box probably isn’t going to give you what you want. For example, according to numbers released as part of regulations from China, the “Overwatch” loot boxes offer up a legendary item after a player opens around 14 of them. That’s a lot of loot boxes. Given the sheer number of characters and possibilities in "Overwatch," even if you do invest in 14 or more loot boxes, you still might not get what you want.

The Problem with Not Getting What You Want

Overwatch Halloween Loot Box

But loot boxes are optional, right? And the vast majority of games with a loot box system also make it possible to get loot boxes by just… playing the game, right? Hypothetically, you could just keep playing and eventually you would have enough in-game currency to purchase the cosmetic you wanted, even if it never appeared in a box.

The key word there is eventually. “Overwatch,” for example, regularly releases seasonal events that come with a smashing array of new and delectable goodies. The problem is that these items are typically only available during the event.  And how do you get those event-specific goodies, you ask? By opening loot boxes. And when you only get a legendary shiny after 14 or so boxes, using real money to buy more boxes suddenly becomes more than just a wishful option. It becomes a necessity.

Two Halloween loot boxes will run you $1.99, five for $4.99, and all the way up to 50 for $39.99. That’s right -- for the same price as what you pay to get the Game of the Year Edition of “Overwatch,” you can have 50 loot boxes, which, yes, have absolutely no real-world value whatsoever.

In-Game Gambling

Overwatch Lunar New Year

Confession time. Yours truly is an avid “Overwatch” player. Last year, Blizzard Entertainment ran a Lunar New Year Event that boasted some particularly spectacular skins. One of those skins was for Zenyatta. I play Zenyatta. I needed that skin. I held my nose and pulled the trigger on spending the $39.99 for the 50 loot boxes.

Guess what didn’t show up? The Zenyatta skin. I opened 50 loot boxes(!) and not one of them contained the legendary Zenyatta skin that I absolutely had to have. And this is the crux of the matter. The odds are astronomically against you. But, frankly, as much as it pains me to admit, it has to be that way.

When loot boxes are done right, they don’t offer any game-breakers. They offer piddling goodies that look amazing, but have nothing to do with how you progress through a game. They’re tempting, but not necessary.

And, yes, they provide an additional source of revenue for the studio making and supporting the game you’re playing. Is it gambling? Sure. Lawmakers in various countries have tried and failed to designate loot box systems as actual casino-style gambling. And in reality, it is basically gambling. The loot boxes are designed to convince you to spend your hard-earned real-world money on them, and to keep you spending that money on them, even though the chances of getting something special is really, really low.

Probably Morally Unscrupulous, But…

Middle-earth Shadow of War Loot Box

Game studios go out of their way to make you want loot boxes. But is that really so different from what “Magic: The Gathering” or “Pokémon Trading Cards” tried to do, and continue to do?

They promise the chance of getting something unique and valuable in each pack of physical cards. In reality, you’re mostly getting garbage and fluff. But you’re still getting something, right? The same is true of loot boxes in video games. You spend the money, and you do get a little something for your trouble. You might even get a big something.

Of course, some games fail miserably with their loot box systems. Any system that forces a “pay to play” mindset is a failure, pure and simple. Systems like the one in “Overwatch,” however, are simply brilliant. Blizzard Entertainment doesn’t have to give out free content for seasonal events. They don’t have to create new skins, new maps, new characters. They don’t have to keep supporting the game the way that they currently do.

I’m a little ashamed that I spent $39.99 to try and get an event skin from “Overwatch,” but, frankly? Blizzard deserved that money. They went out of their way to earn it from me. No, I didn't get what I wanted, but it wasn't impossible, and, heck, I’ve been dealing with this sort of gambling disappointment since “Neopets.”

And if you’re fiercely against loot boxes that you can buy with real-world money? Don’t worry. A good game won’t force you to need them. A truly good game will make you want to buy them, and to ultimately buy them as a donation to help the studio create even bigger and better games. Not every studio does it right, but here’s to hoping more will look to Blizzard’s system in the future.


What do you think? Do you find that the loot box systems ruin your gaming experience? Do you enjoy getting the chance to win a prize, like at the fair? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.


Featured image and screenshots courtesy of  Blizzard Entertainment, Monolith Productions, and LucasArts

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About the Author
Taryn Ziegler Contributor

Taryn Ziegler is a localization writer working in the greater Seattle area. She graduated from the University of Washington Bothell and harbors a deep love for all things related to literature and indie gaming. She is happily married and owns altogether too many pets for her own good.

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