Loot boxes are a common feature across many major video game releases. They are also incredibly controversial and hotly debated among gamers and in the media.

If you’re new to the concept of loot boxes, or you simply want to learn more about them, read on for a rundown of the main things you need to know.

The basics

So what are loot boxes and when did they start? In brief, they are virtual boxes you can purchase within a game which keep their contents hidden until you open them.

They can be bought with in-game currency, as well as with your own hard-earned cash. The contents of a box is randomized, and could include very valuable and rare in-game gear, mixed in with common items.

The first loot boxes emerged in the mid-2000s, with online games like MapleStory introducing them as an alternative to traditional loot drops from in-game enemies.

By the time Team Fortress 2 added them in 2010, the practice of including them had gone mainstream, with entire markets emerging around them. Today everything from Call of Duty to FIFA will have some form of buyable box, crate or pack which can give out random prizes to players.

The controversies

There are a couple of main controversies surrounding loot box technology which are causing quite a lot of gamers to openly criticize and even stop buying the games of the developers that include them.

The first issue is that some argue loot boxes are essentially a form of gambling. Just because the prize is not monetary, the element of randomness and the need to pay to play adds up to an experience that is equivalent to a scratch card or a slot machine.

This is problematic on several levels, the most significant of which is that loot boxes are appearing in games which children regularly play. When youngsters are exposed to gambling-style activities at a young age, it can lead to addiction, which is damaging later in life.

Likewise because loot boxes are sold for real money as well as in-game currency, if kids are playing a game with them in, then they might end up costing their parents a fortune, or simply plowing their pocket money into an ecosystem that has no means of providing them value in return further down the line.

Another issue often raised by avid gamers is that loot boxes essentially give developers a way of locking content behind a paywall, even when customers have already handed over a large amount of cash upfront just to access the game in the first place.

In the past, loot was usually unlocked either by killing enemies in the hopes of a random drop, or by progressing to a certain point within the game.

The rise of loot boxes means that such design choices are no longer needed, which from a certain perspective could be seen as encouraging lazy game designs, while also punishing paying players by making them cough up more dough if they want to experience all that a game has to offer.

This is less of an issue in free-to-play games, where it makes sense that developers would charge for in-game purchases if the basic experience comes at no cost. But for triple-A titles like the aforementioned FIFA, with big sticker prices already attached, it’s easy to see why disgruntlement attached to loot boxes is growing.

The regulatory involvement

Regulators in different regions of the globe have got involved in monitoring, managing and in some cases completely banning loot boxes, usually fuelled by the arguments covered so far.

Things are especially strict in China, where game developers have either been forced to remove loot boxes from games because of their gambling-style design, or to reveal the odds of certain items appearing in boxes so that players are well informed about the likelihood of striking it lucky.

This is another pertinent point to note about loot boxes; developers rarely let players in on how they function, so you’ll have little idea about how much you’d need to spend on average to get the item you want.

Hopefully more places will introduce measures to prevent loot boxes from running riot, as they are really doing little to benefit players, and everything to enable developers to make more money from games which already earn them millions or even billions each year.

Time will tell whether loot boxes are a permanent fixture of gaming, or just a temporary blip in the history of this industry.

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