Loot boxes on the agenda as bans spread

FIFA Ultimate Team allows players to use real currency to get the chance to get top players.

By NGAU KAI YAN

In a space of just three months, 23-year-old sports coach Bryan Ho spent $800 on loot boxes in one video game, while 22-year-old Sam Henry* spent close to $1000 on another over two years.

As the boom in spending on these in-game transactions faces increasing scrutiny around the world – an estimated $30 billion was spent on loot boxes last year – Australia is considering whether it should also be banned here. 

On September 17, a Senate committee will deliver its findings on the use of loot boxes in video games – looking specifically as to whether these micro-transactions are harmful and if they should be classified as gambling. Loot boxes give players the option of using real currency to open “chance crates”, which contain in-game items with varying levels of scarcity. 

Mr Ho said he spent $800 on loot boxes in the mobile game The Walking Dead: No Man’s Land over three months, because it made a huge difference in game progression. 

“I was able to climb to a high rank in just four days of opening loot boxes. My girlfriend played for a month without purchasing any and was still unable to achieve what I did in four days,” Mr Ho said.

Loot boxes are popular because they allow faster progression in a game.

Mr Henry said he spent close to $1000 in FIFA in two years, and was tempted to spend more in FIFA’s Ultimate Team mode after seeing other players achieve more much sooner.

In FIFA’s Ultimate Team mode, players are able to obtain soccer players through packs (chance crates), build their dream squad, and battle other players on the pitch.

“I was jealous whenever I packed an average player at best after opening 20 packs, while someone else could pack a Cristiano Ronaldo or a Lionel Messi by just opening two packs,” he said.

Mr Henry said the “special feeling” of opening a pack was “irreplaceable”.

“Every time you open a pack you experience either a sinking feeling of disappointment, or the pure euphoria of joy. In most cases, it was the former, and that was why it felt tempting to keep trying and hopefully achieve the latter,” Mr Henry said.

Despite regretting his own spending, Mr Henry said it would be unfair for the Government to interfere on how the gaming industry was run.

Mr Henry is just one of many FIFA players who contributed to one of Electronic Art’s most successful cash cow models.

In 2017, the Ultimate Team mode in FIFA and Madden NFL helped the video game company generate 17 per cent of their total revenue. From 2017, the mode has racked up $800 million annually and analysts predict that by 2021, it will rope in more than $3 billion annually for EA.

Digital marketing and forecasting  company Juniper Research said players worldwide spent $30 billion on loot boxes this year, and this was predicted to hit $50 billion by 2022, according to a report in gamesindustry.biz. 

The first instance of loot boxes appeared in Maplestory in 2004.

Ron Curry said microtransactions are becoming increasingly popular in the gaming industry.

Interactive Games and Entertainment Association CEO Ron Curry said the early adoption of the digital delivery of games in Asian countries could have prompted Western countries and Australia to follow suit.

“Microtransactions within games and free-to-play models have increased in popularity due to games being delivered digitally and business models evolving, which is why they have captured the attention of legislators in recent years,” Mr Curry said.

Game developers have been successful at integrating loot boxes and microtransactions into their game without any regulatory pushback. 

Monash university video games and culture unit coordinator Dr Daniel Black said the waves of regulations focused on loot box mechanisms could be a result of loot boxes being introduced in a larger number of games and genres.

Dr Daniel Black believes lootboxes impact on fair gameplay is the main concern for players. Photo: Ngau Kai Yan

“I don’t think this outrage among players was focused on the question of whether or not loot boxes were a form of gambling, but rather on their perceived impact on gameplay and fairness,” Dr Black said.

Opinions are mixed regarding the outcome of the Senate inquiry.

Monash video. games and culture lecturer Farzad Parsayi said the game industry was already profiting enough without the use of microtransactions.

“Game developers make money selling their games and that’s enough considering the developing costs. I think we should make a distinction between profit and greed,” Mr Parsayi said.

Gamers and game developers will find out on September 17 if lootboxes will stay in the Australian gaming industry.

* not his real name