Microtransactions and loot boxes are a major part of the gaming landscape, but will that continue to be the case?

Monetization is a BIG part of the current gaming landscape.

After years of controversial loot boxes in video games, the industry might be on the cusp of change. Loot boxes have arguably been the most divisive monetization method this generation, yet numerous high profile games still include them. Microtransactions, while less controversial as gamers can generally choose what they’re buying, have similarly come under fire. It’s a concern the gaming industry has to contend with as MTXs are the main source of revenue behind some of the most popular games in the world today. This is especially free to play games like Fortnite and Apex Legends.

Where the situation gets really sticky is when free-to-play games end up becoming pay-to-win, something games like Star Wars Battlefront II know only too well. As profitable as loot boxes and microtransactions are for game developers, major shifts are happening right now that could alter how they’re implemented in future games. The state of microtransactions (and loot boxes in particular) in 2019 is quickly evolving, so let’s take a look at what’s happening.

Loot boxes and microtransactions in gaming

  1. The state of loot boxes
  2. The future of microtransactions
  3. Riley’s take


The state of loot boxes

Loot boxes have earned a bad rep, mainly because you never know what’s inside. They can consist of any number of customization options for an in-game character and are similar to buying a blind pack of cards (e.g. Pokémon cards). The chance to score something rare standing is the most tantalizing aspect of the purchase. But since your rewards are left to chance, this has led to comparisons of loot boxes and gambling.

Given the backlash from gamers believing the model is exploitative, it was inevitable elected officials would get involved. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley recently introduced a bill called “The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act” to the Senate floor, and it may have major repercussions for the industry. According to Forbes, this bill aims to protect children under the age of 18 from microtransactions by limiting access to loot boxes and pay-to-win mechanics. The bill is still working its way through the legislature, but momentum for the regulation of loot boxes is gaining steam.

Meanwhile, games featuring the controversial microtransaction have started to be pulled in Belgium after the Belgian Gaming Commission ruled that loot boxes constituted gambling. Their recommendation? For game developers to be criminally processed if they utilize such loot boxes in their games. Gamesindustry.biz has reported that Nintendo is now taking its mobile games Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp and Fire Emblem Heroes offline in the region as a result. It’s a safe assumption that more games will follow.

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The future of microtransactions

Microtransactions in video games have a large role to play moving forward. Entire business models are built around them, with Epic Games proving that a free-to-play design with paid-for cosmetic items makes the game more accessible to a wider audience. Other games like Apex Legends are now following suit, but these titles rely on the use of microtransactions. Without them, the model wouldn’t be sustainable, new content wouldn’t be rolled out, and free-to-play games would cease to exist.

Downloadable content packs (another popular microtransaction) can keep us engaged with games for years after their release. This increased longevity caters to a wide range of games and genres, ranging from Super Smash Bros. Ultimate through its Fighters Pass to Devil May Cry 5 and its Deluxe Upgrade DLC. These types of microtransactions are so ingrained in modern gaming, it’s unlikely they’ll go anywhere.


Riley’s take

There are rightful concerns about loot boxes. Namely, the ability developers have to shift the odds of getting something of value, but I see broader issues in addressing them. Loot boxes are the digital equivalent of blind packs, a concept that’s been around for decades. They’ve existed through real-world items like capsule machines and trading card packs. Buying such a card gives you a “chance” of getting a preferred item or rare card, not a guarantee. The same logic can be applied to loot boxes, although presenting the stats and odds to us beforehand should be essential.

On the other hand, loot boxes under a play-to-win model are exclusionary tactics that lessen the enjoyment for gamers like you and me. The backlash from fans about Star Wars Battlefront 2‘s use of these mechanics demonstrates how adding a chance element to abilities in-game can backfire. Fortunately, the game’s publisher EA did right by gamers and removed this element entirely prior to its launch in that example, but these types of microtransactions still exist and are problematic.

I think microtransactions as a whole generate unearned ire in some cases. Mobile titles are infamous for requiring money just to play the game after a few tries, but there can be value in different versions of the model as well. Older games can find new or prolonged life through DLC, which I love after my initial investment. This is often only possible through additional revenue from add-on sales that are then utilized to fund the extra development time.

Unfortunately, time travel doesn’t exist yet, so we’re not able to go back to a time where gaming existed without loot boxes or microtransactions. But now games are able to grow post-launch as a result of these paid-for additions. There’s now a precedent for laws against loot boxes, so it’s possible that the model will have to change. As a result, a lot more games could be pulled or shut down alongside Nintendo’s mobile games in Belgium. With all of that said, it’s clear that the current state of loot boxes and microtransactions remains divisive.

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