The Rise and Fall of Loot Boxes

There’s no questioning the appeal of opening a wrapped box to see what goodies lie inside. Our monkey brains love the surprise, and whether or not the prize is something actually we want doesn’t really matter when the intrinsic thrill of opening stuff is enough to keep many players coming back for more.

This is the strategy that free-to-play mobile games like Puzzle & Dragons and Crusaders Quest are built on. Originating in Japan off the concept of “gachapon” — a type of machine that turns coins into capsule toys – these online “gacha games” dispense digital goods dressed in dazzling visual FX often by way of a fictional currency not unlike exchanging cash for chips in a casino lobby.

Let’s take a quick aside here – calling them jewels in Crusaders Quest is no different than tokens to play casino games. And why the trouble of putting that extra step in, forcing the player to buy currency rather than dice rolls? Clearly, to obfuscate the real value of what you’re buying into.

They even use timers to urge you into buying special contracts where your chances to acquire certain characters "goes up."

They even use timers to urge you into buying special contracts where your chances to acquire certain characters “goes up.”

Of course, the difference between spending twenty rolls at the gachapon and twenty rolls in an online game is that after about five capsule toys the actual physical space required to keep your half-wanted prizes acts as a conscience check against getting even more junk.

But the problem has never been gambling itself – there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a bit of risk now and then. The problem is regulation and defining that line in the sand where fun becomes predatory and describing, in object detail, what exactly constitutes bad practice.

Laws move slowly, and the digital world has taken advantage of that. But in recent months, some countries like the Netherlands have taken the bold first step in recognising what loot boxes can be – gambling – and applying old rules to the new medium.

Yes, regulation will take time, and yes companies will continue to prey on our monkey brains until the law stops them – I’m looking at you Overwatch – but if you really want to satisfy your thirst for rolling the dice and cracking open those boxes, why not do it conscience-clean with real, regulated, casino slot machines.

the author

He’s a cat. He likes to play video games. He often has a hard time with this since he’s a gamer cat living in a gamer human world, but he gets by.