Loot box questions brought up in UK parliament

Spooky loot

“Loot” used to be such a nice word. It brought to mind coffers piled with doubloons. Today it is often followed by the word “crate” and an expression of disgust. After recent controversies over the inclusion of loot boxes in games like Middle-earth: Shadow of War and Star Wars: Battlefront 2, the issue of this psychologically iffy practice has been brought up in the UK parliament in the form of two written questions submitted by a Cambridge MP. In short, they ask the government: what do you plan to do about “in-game gambling”?

The questions were submitted by Labour MP Daniel Zeichner and are both directed at the minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. They’re written in Parliamentese but essentially the first asks “wot you gon’ do about it m8”? and the second asks “why don’t we do what the Isle of Man does, innit?”

“To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, what steps she plans to take to help protect vulnerable adults and children from illegal gambling, in-game gambling and loot boxes within computer games.”

“To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, what assessment the Government has made of the effectiveness of the Isle of Man’s enhanced protections against illegal and in-game gambling and loot boxes; and what discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on adopting such protections in the UK.”

They were submitted on Friday and probably won’t see a response for a while. Reddit user Artfunkel says they helped the MP compose the questions and says that, while they expect a typical “non-committal” response, it is important to “start the conversation”. The Redditor also explains that: “The Isle of Man is a British territory which explicitly defines in-game items as money’s worth in its gambling law. It’s currently the only place in the world that does so.”

I’m not sure exactly what those laws entail and am deffo not qualified to say whether the Isle of Man’s laws are sensible or practical in this case. You’ll have to ask your mate, Derek The Solicitor, or wait to see what the government says.

The Loot Box Question is likely to be brought up again in the political sphere, as a recent petition to get the topic raised in parliament has also just passed the necessary 100,000 10,000 signatures, which means it’ll get a “response”, whatever that means.

As far as I can see, the increasingly noisy furor about loot crates could go in many directions. Here are some possibilities:

  • The UK government immediately panics and outlaws Overwatch, but no other game
  • The Scottish parliament sneakily adapts their own laws to force devs to publish the odds of crates, a la China
  • Absolutely nothing changes for 6+ years, then, in the year 2024, the human race is slowly hunted to extinction by an all-consuming loot box powered by a neural net. When the last person is dead, it decides to open its own head, recoiling in horror as the whole of humanity leaps out, some gold, some purple, whereupon they begin to spread across the planet once again, like a terrible, unstoppable virus

If you want an actual overview of the law, with facts and everything, our pals at Eurogamer have a big article covering the question: Are loot boxes gambling?

As for “loot”, perhaps we can use a new word. “Booty”? “Treasure”? How about: “plunderage”?

77 Comments

  1. Gothnak says:

    This is basically taken from the CCG industry. Does that mean if it gets banned in online games, that physical Pokemon & MTG will have the same treatment?

    • Rack says:

      That’d be amazing. I’d love to see them forced to introduce flat rarity. Though the upshot might well be they simply stop selling it in the UK.

      • Gothnak says:

        Well, it wouldn’t be flat rarity, it’d be just like LCGs, you buy a box and it has certain cards. I guess drafting would be done from cubes rather than random packs. I’m doing a draft tonight, it’s the only way i play, constructed is far too expensive.

        It would make Panini Sticker albums rather boring to finish. ‘I’ll just buy each team’s sticker pack, and… i’m done.’

      • Lacero says:

        Most of these boxes have no rarity published at all, in dota2 you get “rare” and “very rare”.
        Forcing the publishing of the actual odds like China does* is needed and similar enough to fixed odds betting terminals that it has a chance of passing.

        If anything not brexit can get any parliamentary time in the UK today.

        *technically they don’t as the publishers found a loophole in China, but it must be due another crack down soon.

    • napoleonic says:

      Sticking an age gate on MtG would be a good idea actually.

    • Minsc_N_Boo says:

      Nothing will change. Blizzard are giving bribes to our MP’s in the form of in game currency.

    • Pich says:

      for CCG you have the option of buying single cards from secondary market. while in the Lootbox games i think only TF2 let’s you do that.

      • Gothnak says:

        Fundamentally you are still gambling though, the post-opening is immaterial.

        I buy a lottery ticket for £2, i win nothing or up to £1million+.
        I buy a pack of Ixalan for £3, i get a rare worth 25p up to a foil invocation (or whatever they are called) worth £50.

        Whether i keep or sell or trade or whatever, i have just gambled.

        • Archonsod says:

          No, you’ve speculated. It’s like saying buying a car is gambling, since in five years time certain models will be worth more while others will be worth less. Speculation isn’t strictly speaking gambling. The key difference is that a CCG booster has a known minimum value at the point you purchase it. A lottery ticket doesn’t.

          • dontnormally says:

            You may be right, but what you’re right about is poppycock.

    • Canazza says:

      I can see two differences off the bat between MTG and In-game Loot boxes

      1) In MTG you can trade with people, most loot-box games don’t allow trading (CS:Go does, but that’s the only one that does off the top of my head), and MTG has actual real-world money associated with cards whereas lootboxes don’t.

      2) The physical act of having to get off your arse and go out and buy packs, or having to wait for real-life delivery of these items in MTG is different from the instant gratification that Lootboxes have.

      On the one hand, MTG packs *are* gambling because you might get an ultra-rare, or an in-meta card, that is worth hundreds of pounds, wheras Lootbox contents are generally worthless. And on the other hand, the instant gratification of Loot boxes preys on the vulnerable who are easilly addicted.

      • Gothnak says:

        There are differences with what you can do with the item you get from the gambling, but they are both gambling. The fact that when you buy a lottery ticket, you ‘get’ the £1million afterwards rather than a £1million worth of content doesn’t make it less gambling.

        Also, you can buy a lottery ticket online from the comfort of your bedroom. You can play MTGO or Pokemon Online, i guess you don’t like them compared to the physical versions?

        All i’m saying is that if you are anti-loot boxes (which is a fine stance to take btw) you have to be anti all CCGs, Sticker Albums, Match Attax, Random Lego figures, Frozen Cards etc.

        • Canazza says:

          First, you can’t compare lootboxes and CCGs to The National Lottery. There’s a clear difference in the size of the prize, and the Lottery is already heavilly regulated as a result.

          Secondly, you don’t have to be ‘anti’ anything to want these things to be regulated. As I noted above CCGs and Loot Boxes have a fundamentally different ‘attack vector’ for gamblers that means you don’t have to want regulation both for the same reasons.

          It also means that any solution – in law – that’s come up with will unlikely work in both the physical and the digital realm.

          Both need to be looked at and treated separately.

          For example, placing a limit on the number of boxes/packs you can buy per day would work online (with items bound to one account) but wouldn’t work offline (ie, you could just go to another store). Conversely, putting an age limit on purchasing would work in real life (require an ID) versus online, where you can easilly hide your age. Age limits also only protect children, rather than vulnerable adults too.

          Gambling – in and of itself – isn’t a bad thing, but steps need to be taken to prevent children and vulnerable adults from falling victim when they themselves do not realise they’re being suckered in to a gambling cycle – that’s when gambling is at it’s most dangerous, when the person gambling doesn’t realise it is gambling.

        • GrassyGnoll says:

          When I were a nipper the Sticker Albums and collectable cards where sold partially on the premise you then traded with friends in order to collect them all. the school playground echoed to the voices of “got, got, got, want. You need anything I have?” so no sticker has any value greater that any other sticker, apart from who has which one, creating the trading market.

      • SaintAn says:

        Loot box items have monetary value too. You have to sell your account to sell the items though.

      • Baines says:

        3) CCGs, at least everyone I’ve played, guarantee specific rarities to be present. Back when I played MtG, you were guaranteed a certain number of basic terrain, a certain number of commons, a certain number of uncommons, and a rare. Other CCGs seem to follow similar formula. With video game loot boxes you might not get a rare at all, unless you spend more for a box that “guarantees” certain rarities.

        4) That rarity formula in CCG booster pack distribution is also designed for a game purpose, in addition to making money. While people trying to complete sets might hate it (at least unless they know how to use it to exploit other buyers,) a beginning player will find most of the contents useful (unless they are just really unlucky.) For example, in MtG they’ll need a good variety and amount of land, and they’ll have a use for multiple copies of commons. Heck, players found sealed deck (plus a set number of boosters) to be a viably fair basis for tournaments. I wouldn’t see that opinion being broached for many competitive video games with loot boxes, as you’d have most people stuck with garbage while the lucky few would end up with something that gave them a significant advantage.

        5) With a CCG, the utility of the items received is at least roughly equal. Sure, you don’t need that 80th copy of the same common card, but at least it is a playable card. In a video game, you might get a weapon, an item for a character you don’t own, a cosmetic, a one-use garbage “spray”, a minuscule amount of junk in-game currency, or whatever else the devs decided to throw in. It’s like buying a MtG pack, but where cards are randomly replaced with other stuff like panels from an MtG comic, sticks of MtG-brand chewing gum, coupons for 10% off the purchase of your next MtG booster pack, etc. And you might not get any cards at all.

      • Tigris says:

        You forgot the biggest difference:

        6. Real life boosters cannot know who buys them! So they do not use machine learning to choose what you get!
        They have fixed (known) probabilities.
        In lootboxes machine learning can be used to maximize the chances, that you are buying lootboxes.
        Exactly at the right times there can be a good item, to encourage further to buy more, and for people who are known to spend a lot of money, you can “hide” the skin for their favorite champion in the 50th lootbox, since you know they will buy lootboxes until they have that skin.
        This is a HUGE difference.

        Also about point 4:

        At least in Magic the limited (playing with unopened boosters) tournament scene is HUGE.
        2000-4000 player tournaments are held several times a year.
        Lots of local shops have a draft every friday etc.

        And for limited the rarity is needed for balancing purposes.
        Even player designing their own boosters sometimes make their own rarities to balance their draft and sealed formats better.

    • msimionescu says:

      It’s different from CCG’s or any other physical card game that offers random packs. With physical products you pay for a physical item, and the cards contained in the pack each have value, can be resold, or traded. It is different for digital loot boxes as the value is hard to prove, but more perilously you cannot trade/sell what you get. It’s a slot machine. Put in a quarter, hope for shiny.

      That’s why FIFA Ultimate Team is off the hook, sure drops in packs are random and hidden, but you can sell every single drop (almost) and earn coins to buy the players you want.

      • Gothnak says:

        So, by your definition, the National lottery is fine because the money you get from winning can be traded with other people?

        • noodlecake says:

          No. The National lottery is fine because it supports tons of important institutions like The Arts Council that don’t get anywhere near enough government support anymore since the government made tons of cuts to bring our budget under control and clear the national deficit.

          • Gothnak says:

            Ah, i see, so gambling is fine if some of the proceeds from those addicted to it, go to help paying for paintings and music (After of course the company that runs it makes around £70mil a year profits)?

          • stringerdell says:

            Tory spotted.

    • dahools says:

      I was trending towards the opinion that games are using it the same as sticker/CCG games etc…

      However the more I think about it. Devs and pubs, fought so hard to tell us games and software are sold as a service and not as ownership. Therefore you never own the item and the servers could be shut down at any time and any “loot” taken away from you without your say.

      If you buy a pack of Pokémon cards, they are yours for life to keep,trade, deface, sell or do what ever you want with. So I see the value in ownership.

      • dahools says:

        Plus I can’t get banned playing a real card game and access to what I have paid for removed.

        Not that I condone bad behaviour, but equally removing someone’s access to something they have paid a small fortune for is still a grey area too I believe.

        So just ban the mechanic altogether.

    • Archonsod says:

      CCG’s already had this problem – it’s one of the reasons most publishers now do things like guarantee one rare per pack. What’s likely to land loot boxes in hot water is that the publishers don’t acknowledge them as gambling – important to note that in most countries gambling in and of itself isn’t illegal, it’s how it’s done that tends to be the problem.

    • April March says:

      Sure, it seems that you’re arguing that banning lootboxes is as silly as banning CCGs.

      But then you stop and think: what do I gain from having to buy cards in CCGs from random packs, instead of just buying the cards I want? The only good thing to come out of it are formats that depend on opening boosters, but I don’t think that’s even five percent of how CCGs are usually played. And yeah, you can get very expensive cards for cheap, but you can also spend a lot of money and get nothing of worth, or nothing you won’t use at all. As a consumer, it’s all downside.

      Suddenly, the argument becomes: CCGs are as silly as lootboxes, and the former only exaggerate it so they become more visible.

      • Tigris says:

        In magic depending on country it is more in the 50% range, than in the 5% range.
        It is not as extreme as it was some years ago (where i live there was 80-90% limited (playing with unopened boosters) in the tournament scene.
        However, it is still really dominant.
        And even if on the kitchen table you play less often with unopened boosters, the amount of boosters opened for limited play is still quite big.
        Even in magic online drafts (where you use boosters) is about 50% of the play.
        Even in high stakes tournament in magic you often have the formats, where you play with the boosters provided.
        Actually Limited (playing with boosters you receive) Grand Prixs are the tournaments with the most players.
        You get 2000-4000 players regularly at such events!

  2. napoleonic says:

    Good to see Labour on the side of the people again after all those years of Blairism.

  3. Kefren says:

    Scenario three is the Pandora’s Lootbox scenario.

  4. Gothnak says:

    Oh, other point…. I LOVE the mechanic in Fifa Ultimate Team, and i mean i wouldn’t play the game any other way, however i’m not the usual customer. I don’t spend a penny on it, and i only play against the AI, gradually winning matches with a crap team and getting enough for 1 new pack and then getting an Argentinian to play on the left wing with the Argentinian striker i haven’t been able to use is great fun compared to just playing with a standard team.

    Also, i’m actually looking forwards to it in Shadow of War (I’m probably about the only person i think) when i buy it at a reduced price. Again, i won’t spend a penny, i’m just one of those people who likes earning enough for a box and opening it. I don’t see SoW being much of a grind, as that’s the whole fecking game anyway.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Ninja Dodo says:

    Someone in the comments of Kotaku made an interesting observation on Loot Boxes and the like (was pointed out on twitter): link to kotaku.com

    (basically making a direct link between hyper consumer-oriented games discussion and the prevalence of this business model)

  6. Gothnak says:

    Also, as most of you know, the loot boxes aren’t for the average consumer like you and me, they are for the whales, those super users who are happy to spend any amount of money in their favourite games. These are usually very wealthy people with limited time to grind in game or very spoilt kids with wealthy parents who frankly don’t care.

    If you make a game and sell it for £40, and there are no micro-transactions, that’s it, you’ve made £40. If you stick in really tempting microtransactions then you can get £1000’s from these whales, and if you game is a massive hit, that could double or triple your entire revenue. The balance is not putting in microtransactions in such a way that means you lose a large % of the £40 sales and that is where i think a lot of companies are starting to tread, and it’s causing the issue.

    • griffin_jt says:

      Are we sure that “whales” are wealthy? I think you’re assuming that people make good financial decisions, meaning that the only people who would spend large sums on these games are those who are able to value their time that highly. The Nobel prize for economics this year went to someone who says something different; individuals do not make good financial decisions.

      So who are the “whales”? I have no idea, but I fear that many could be vulnerable people who are sufficiently invested in the game that they feel they can’t stop. The whole “whales are rich benefactors” story is just too convenient, a bit like trickle-down economics.

      • Gothnak says:

        Fair point, the other class that gets caught are those who aren’t wealthy, but are addicted.

        I’d like to think that companies aren’t going after that market though.

        • The First Door says:

          I suspect you might be being too kind to the companies. I suspect they don’t give a flying flip about where the money is coming from. More than that, I suspect they actively know much of their money is coming from those who can’t afford it, especially in the mobile gaming market, as the techniques that are used for loot boxes are specifically designed to prey on those with addictive personalities.

        • Vilos Cohaagen says:

          I absolutely know for a fact that they do go after anyone regardless of wealth. A friend of mine is employed to profile their whales and increase their spending for a company well known for this. He hates his job, but is stuck there and I can see it is slowly destroying him.

        • Titler says:

          And you’d be totally wrong to think that.

          The Whales are usually those with more limited income, and the Industry has known this for a very, very long time. Gamasutra covered it back in 2013. The only change since the article was written is that the same deliberate targeting of addictive personalities has moved into Crowd Funded games (see the $30,000 Golden Castles in the reprehensible Shroud of the Avatar) and mainstream AAA titles at full price (see the recent Shadow of War and Forza 7) as well…

      • Arcanestomper says:

        I don’t remember where, but I read a report somewhere that said the whole targeting whales thing is not exactly true.

        Sure the developer’s love it when people spend 1,000 on their boxes, but most of their revenue actually comes from people who spend 20-60 a few dollars at a time.

        It’s not as much per person, but there are a signifanctly larger fraction of the player base who do that than are whales.

    • dahools says:

      I think you missed the point a little. The debate is not against micro transactions, in game purchases or the similar.

      It is against specifically the ones that offer a chance of winning what you want hence “loot box” you pay but are still not guaranteed to get what you are after.

      Pay to win, XP boosts, buying specific unlocks and similar are not what this topic is about. It’s the gambling ones.

      Especially in games aimed at children 3+ such as FIFA or forza for example

  7. Captain Narol says:

    Put a 30% state tax on all loot boxes spending and use the money to fund an organism to support people who have spent all their money on loot box and can’t now even pay their rent and/or food for their family.

    Charity capitalism at its best, business as usual.

  8. The First Door says:

    This is, in my opinion at least, good news. Even if it doesn’t go anywhere at this stage (which it likely won’t) it really is something that needs to be discussed and acknowledged rather than just being brushed off. The somewhat lazy blanket response, especially the one from the ESRB, is not the way to go about it.

    One quick note though, Brendan: it hasn’t passed 100,000 signatures, just the 10,000 mark, so it’ll get a response, but not a automatic discussion in parliament.

  9. GrumpyCatFace says:

    Yes, it’s gambling.

    /debate. #FIFY

  10. Maxheadroom says:

    Wait what?

    I’m an Isle of Man resident, and ive no idea about the specifics of what these laws are.

  11. LagTheKiller says:

    Point is who cares? If you are below 18 yo treshold you are under custody of your parents. If you are above then you are free bird (music). Somone spent all his monies on lootboxes? Mr Darwin got a special trophy for him. Only question is: will it be taxed? It will. Right or wrong. Even steam takes % of bought items soooo.

    • Sheng-ji says:

      The sweet, sweet sound of a man (boy) who will absolutely turn about face and go 100% hypocrite when one of his loved ones suffers from a mental health disorder or addiction. You can hear his future wailings from here “But why did the supermarket sell my clearly jaundiced, alcoholic wife the vodka that finally broke her liver, why???”

    • something says:

      I think many people would be satisfied if games with gambling in were automatically rated 18/Adults Only, as this would essentially kill it.

      • Captain Narol says:

        Yes, and that would be justified and making sense.

        But big game companies would probably make a hell lot of lobbying to prevent such a law to pass.

    • Vandelay says:

      Although I don’t agree with the way you have put it, as I certainly think it is worth discussing, I do think the majority of the bile such practices get from many people in comment sections such as this is because it is both in the games we are playing or want to play and it regularly has a negative effect on the gameplay of these games.

      Note that these petitions were not around for those few years it was contained in just EA’s sport games. There have been plenty of stories of kids spending huge amounts on these games, yet the anger about it only seems to have arrived when it was in a Blizzard and a Star Wars game.

      There should definitely be protection in place to ensure people don’t over spend, things like caps on how much a box can be worth, maybe make a max spend a month on an account, along with guarantees of what a box can contain. Classifying it as gambling though would definitely have a big impact on the industry, quite possibly seriously damaging it.

    • Zhiroc says:

      I think the concern here is that in the effort to rein in “gambling” on loot boxes, if it comes to enough of the attention of politicians, they might decide to legislate that digital “goods” of all sort have a tangible monetary value, and thus are subject to both income and capital gain taxes. The latter is arguably true now, when in-game items can be bought and sold on real-money exchanges.

  12. wombat191 says:

    They need a few articles in the papers about dear little jimmy spending hundreds on his parents credits cards because hes addicted to lootboxes

    • pepperfez says:

      Those articles have run already; the company in question refunds the charges in question, everyone’s satisfied and we move on with the systematic exploitation of everyone not identified by name in major media outlet.

  13. fray_bentos says:

    I hate loot boxes because they destroy the gaming experience and take the place of a properly designed progression structure. However, loot boxes are no more “gambling” than the foil-wrapped footy stickers/ collectors cards that kids have been buying since the 1980s.

  14. Rindan says:

    I play Overwatch. It has cosmetic loot boxes. I don’t care. I have never in my life bought one and I will continue to not buy them. If this is how they fund the game, that’s great. I’m okay with someone who spends $100 on loot boxes having different skins than me.

    If the problem is simply gambling, we should fine tune the legislative response if there is actually a need for one. If someone goes into debt gambling or makes the request, they can be opted out of even the possibility of gambling by force of law. Everyone else should be left alone. Just because someone has an addiction doesn’t mean everyone has to suffer.

  15. Premium User Badge

    MOOncalF says:

    A game being crafted to keep people keep playing – the same way a slot machine does – that’s one ingredient. Allowing people to choose to put money into the game – the same way a casino’s doors are wide open – that’s the second ingredient. Together, I think it is definitely some type of gambling. While I don’t want to think about how much I spent on DotA 2 Chests, I didn’t bankrupt myself, I didn’t ruin my life, I definitely had fun and I walked away (after 5000 hours :D). So the solution? I think the way money is involved has to change, since taking away chance seems unthinkable. I’m glad to see governments getting wise to it, just hope we can see some enlightened responses.

  16. zaldar says:

    Sigh wow – no. The LAST thing we need is more government regulation of the economy. Up to you to look into the rates at which things come out and decide wow spending on this is stupid and not do it. The only person responsible for YOU is YOU. Man so glad I live in the US where such stuff is less likely to happen…(used to say wouldn’t but after Obama can’t say that any more sigh).

    • Jernau Gurgeh says:

      We’re all happy for you that you like to live in a country where the ‘economy’ (i.e. the squirrelled-away profits of tax-avoiding death-dealing minimum-wage-paying megacorporations) matters so much more than the unregulated exploitation of children, vulnerable adults and addicts. Personally, I’m glad to see an elected representative acting in the interests of those who vote for them and pay their salary, voicing concerns about such questionable business practices.

      If the world was left to people like you to run, we’d still be shoving children up chimneys.

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