In defence of video games' loot boxes

Tackle addiction with education rather than outright ban on developers' revenue stream

Loot boxes have been getting a pretty bad name lately due to the controversy surrounding Electronic Arts' latest game Star Wars Battlefront II - not exactly good publicity for the latest Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, which opens here tomorrow.

In video games, a loot box (sometimes called a loot crate or prize crate) is a consumable virtual item that you can earn or buy (such transactions are sometimes called micro-transactions), in order to redeem in-game goodies such as a character's costume, better armour, a more powerful weapon or a new character.

In some cases, the items inside a loot box are a random mix. It is like playing Japanese gashapon - those capsule toys in vending machines. You never know what you're going to get.

Loot boxes and micro-transactions have been around in video games for the longest time, and are generally more prevalent in free-to-play games where they allow developers to earn a constant stream of revenue.

Loot boxes have also slowly found their way into AAA game titles such as Blizzard's Overwatch and Activision's Destiny 2.

Battlefront II gamers have complained that buying loot boxes has become almost essential in order to advance in the game.

The complaints attracted international media coverage as well as investigations from the Belgian Gaming Commission. Even US senators have chipped in as they felt loot boxes are akin to gambling. Electronic Arts has had to pull all micro-transactions from the game until further notice.

I feel the gamers' uproar came mostly because these AAA games already have an upfront cost unlike free-to-play games.

Yet, many AAA games these days have loot boxes. For example, the popular Fifa football games allow you to buy Card Packs that give you random players and other perks to build your own Ultimate Team.

Some say buying loot crates is like gambling or can be as addictive as gambling. Yes, it is like gashapon and might entice you to keep spending in order to get the items you want.

However, I feel this is no different from marketing tactics that offer mystery gifts to attract consumers to buy a product.

I concede that excessive buying of loot boxes is a problem that needs to be tackled.

But like all things in life, be it excessive shopping, smoking or gambling, it is the lack of restraint that results in addiction.

Educating gamers about the potential pitfalls of loot boxes and to exercise restraint, which should be done by both consumer protection groups and developers, is far more intuitive than an outright ban.

At the same time, people should realise the large amount of money needed to develop and maintain top video games. Many of these AAA game titles cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop.

Not to mention, there are also servers to maintain for games with multi-player modes.

With most gamers not willing to pay an online subscription fee, having loot crates and micro-transactions has become a good way for developers to generate revenue.

Gamers want longevity for their games, yet bring out their virtual pitchforks whenever they are asked to pay a wee bit more.

They need to understand that the programmers, artists, developers and others working on these games all need to put meals on their families' tables.

I have spent quite a bit buying loot boxes and in micro transactions in many games. For example, I bought many Card Packs in Fifa 2017 in order to get Lionel Messi in my team. I also paid to upgrade my in-game avatar's shooting stats in the NBA 2K games.

Some might say this is cheating. But time is money.

If you want to save time, you have to pay money. If you want to save money, you have to pay with your time. If you really feel so strongly about having to pay for the loot boxes of these games, maybe it is better for you not to buy and play the game at all. No pay, no play.

SEE DIGITAL: One to keep the Star Wars fan 'battle-happy'

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2017, with the headline 'In defence of video games' loot boxes'. Print Edition | Subscribe