It's a lively day in box news. In the one corner, we have Rocket League developers Psyonix laying out their plans to get rid of 'em. Crates will be replaced with "Blueprints" for specific cosmetics, which you can leave laying about your inventory until you forget about them or choose to cough up. In the other corner, we have Valve, changing how CS:GO loot crates work in France to make gambling regulation less likely, while preserving the addictive qualities that get gambling regulators concerned in the first place.
I know who I want to win. Maybe I'll put money on it.
The upcoming changes to Rocket League are straightforward and good. Blueprints might drop at the end of each match, displaying a cosmetic you can create from them "for a set price". Psyonix haven't said when the changes will come, beyond restating their previous commitment to "before the end of 2019".
At that point, any Crates you own will be converted into Blueprints, and any keys you've bought will transform into credits. Those can be spent on building Blueprints or in the new item shop, which will feature a rotating selection of new items and "legacy Crate content you might have missed out on". It's a dual system that broadens the decorative nonsense available to everyone, while still leaving each individual the chance to land a particularly ridiculous watermelon hat or something.
Meanwhile, Valve have done some much less productive twiddling with CS:GO crates in France. Before French players can open a crate, they have to pop it into a new "X-ray Scanner". This scanner reveals what's in the box, and at that point the player decides if they want to purchase a key. The problem is that the item then gets stuck there. As Valve say, "it is not possible to scan another Container without claiming the revealed item."
All this does is throw in an extra step. A system where you need to buy the item you've just revealed in order to reveal another item contains the same addictive qualities as obscuring the contents of a loot box in the first place.
This is similar to what Valve have already done with Dota 2 loot boxes in the Netherlands, though with the notable difference that you can still preview and buy items from other crate series.
French gambling regulators have been talking about taking action against loot boxes since last year. It seems likely this was enough to spur Valve to make changes, though not enough to outright remove CS:GO loot boxes as they did in response to rulings in Belgium and the Netherlands.
As Reddit user "eldomtom2" points out, though, courts have seen through this idea before. A slot machine named Gator Coin 2 was ruled to violate Florida gambling laws by a court, with judge John Cooper describing the machine's similar "play pattern" of 'pre-revealing' as an "illegal gaming scheme designed to circumvent gambling prohibitions."
The comparison with loot boxes does get a little muddy, as while Gator Coin 2 and machines like it have outright failure states where you gain nothing, the equivalent failure state of a loot box is receiving an item that you didn't want. This still counts as gambling, to me, but in many ways the word only really matters from a legal perspective. As I've previously argued, whether or not we classify an activity as gambling is less important than recognising that activity's potential to cause harm.
With a UK Parliament committee recently recommending that the government start regulating certain types of loot box under gambling laws, Valve might well have their eye on making changes in the UK too.