Gaming’s big players get ready to open up about loot boxes

8 Aug 2019

Sony PlayStation stand at the E3 gaming conference in Los Angeles. Image: Martyn Landi/PA Wire

Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft – the world’s biggest console makers – aim to implement new measures for loot boxes sometime in 2020.

Game publishers will be required to reveal the odds of receiving types of in-game items from loot boxes as part of a new commitment by the world’s biggest console firms.

Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are hoping to put the measures into action in 2020, American video game trade body Entertainment Software Association (ESA) announced.

What are loot boxes?

Loot boxes are packs of in-game objects players can buy using real money, but the contents of a pack are randomised and not known until after purchase, which has led to fears that it could act as a gateway to gambling for young people.

The new disclosures will also apply to any game updates should loot boxes become a feature added in the future.

The ESA said several major publishers among its members are already being open about rarity or probability of obtaining in-game virtual items from purchased loot boxes, while others have agreed to follow suit “no later than the end of 2020”.

“The disclosure will apply to all new games and updates to games that add such in-game purchases and will be presented in a manner that is understandable and easily accessed,” the ESA said.

Inconsistent legislation

Loot boxes have been criticised for potential harmful effects related to gambling and addiction, particularly for young gamers, and politicians and lawmakers have been weighing up this debate for some time now.

This summer, US Senator Josh Hawley proposed legislation that would prohibit loot boxes, pay-to-win mechanics and other “manipulative design” elements in games targeting children.

In Europe, loot boxes have been declared a form of gambling (and, therefore, are illegal) in both Belgium and the Netherlands. The French gambling authority, following their own study into loot boxes in early 2018, stopped short of labelling them as gambling due to their perceived lack of real-life value of the items. In Ireland, the situation is still unclear.

In the UK, a group of MPs have been assessing the possible impact of loot boxes in a bid to understand whether they may be addictive in nature. The Gambling Commission recently told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that it does not believe loot boxes are covered by its remit but it shares the concerns around them.

“The very fact that there is expenditure, a chance-based mechanic, children playing the game, we appreciate that that poses significant concerns,” Gambling Commission programme director Brad Enright said last month. Former digital minister Margot James previously suggested there is not enough evidence available to suggest that loot boxes in video games constitute gambling.

Sony and Nintendo respond

Following the ESA’s announcement, Nintendo told Eurogamer: “Nintendo will require disclosure of drop rates in Nintendo Switch games that offer randomised virtual items for purchase, such as loot boxes. This requirement will apply to all new games and includes updates to current games that add loot boxes through in-game purchases.”

Nintendo also reminded users of the parental controls available for the Switch console, which allows guardians to manage in-game purchases and set time limits for use.

A statement from Sony said: “We support industry efforts to disclose the probability of obtaining randomised virtual items, known as loot boxes, and are committed to providing consumers with this information for all games we produce and publish.”

– PA Media, with additional reporting from Elaine Burke