How the video game industry exploits players using loot boxes

Are the days of Loot Boxes numbered? Maybe not in the short term, but it seems that more and more agencies and politicians are interested in the problem of loot boxes. The same is true for players organized around consumer associations around the world.

You may not have heard of KEPKA, DECO or Consumentenbond. These are, roughly speaking, associations like UFC-Que Choisir, which are popular with people living in France. From Austria to Iceland via Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden or even Denmark, Italy and Greece, more and more consumers are demanding better regulation of loot boxes in games. video.

In recent days, the Norwegian Consumer Council (NCC) has released a damaging report about loot boxes commonly sold on mobile platforms. It is accompanied by coordinated action by about twenty consumer associations in at least 18 European countries.

Loot boxes are accused of exploiting consumers “through predatory mechanisms, encouraging addiction, targeting vulnerable groups of consumers, and so on.”

At first glance, a theft box may seem small. However, this is the source of many costs for some players, especially since publishers use clever or enthusiastic methods to achieve this:

  • Exploiting cognitive biases and vulnerabilities through deceptive design and marketing.
  • Use layers of virtual money to hide or distort real-world costs.
  • Targeting loot boxes and manipulative practices of minors.

Loot boxes whose true cost is difficult to understand (illustration NCC)

For the Norwegian Consumer Council, the video game industry is likely to be underestimated by decision makers, until it is considered by the authorities as a niche market. However, it is more us than cinema and music. More than 2.8 billion people play video games worldwide. In-app purchases will generate $ 15 billion in revenue by 2020 and become a major source of revenue for industry behemoths.

Despite this status as a major industry, video games have escaped excessive regulation according to the NCC, especially because the business models are technically complex or new.

Among the methods used by developers is the spiral of commitment. The technique starts with getting you to try something for free or give yourself a gift so you can take the first step. It can range from food to selling cars, and it can also be used in theft boxes.

Then, a number of techniques can be put in place, such as offering you very expensive items that you will systematically refuse, and next to less expensive products that you are willing to make an exception for. Because that’s the whole problem of commitment. Once the initial expenses have been made, they will be natural and other players will no longer back down and doubt their expenses. It’s really hard to admit that one is wrong.

Of course, everything is free to buy or not. It is also a slogan often used by companies. This sense of freedom is important because it inspires some players to take action. If the player is “free to choose”, they are reinforced by the idea that this choice is theirs, which increases the chances that they will act on it.

The probability of winning something good is lower than the one presented in the game (NCC illustration)

The games also use two diametrically opposed techniques but whose goal is always the same. The first is, initially, to offer you to spend a very small amount, the goal is to spend more when the buying behavior is accepted. The second works the opposite way. You are offered a very expensive product that everyone will reject. Then, we offer a cheaper, more reasonable thing, so that the player agrees to get his credit card. Another technique is to offer time -limited items: “You can only get these cosmetic items for a limited time.”

The Norwegian Consumer Council offers several solutions to get rid of loot boxes on nails, including:

  • In-game purchases should always be priced in real money.
  • It is better to protect minors. Games accessible to minors should have no loot boxes or pay-to-win mechanisms.
  • Increased transparency: regulators should have access to algorithms and players should be fully warned if a loot box decision is based on a particular algorithm.
  • Video game companies should be banned from using deceptive schemes to exploit consumers. You should avoid showing strange surprises if their acquisition rate is very low.

This is all the more important because many players are minors and more sensitive to marketing techniques. A study conducted in the UK showed that 55% of boys aged 15 to 16 had already bought boxes of loot.

In this sense, loot boxes have a lot in common with virtual casinos and random games. This is even more dangerous as industry players express the use of machine learning to personalize games based on behavioral data to maximize spending.

The full NNC document can be found at this address. It’s in English, but I invite you to read it because it’s very interesting and shows that in the long term, authorities need to make decisions to control theft boxes. Their absence is not mandatory, but developers must be vigilant to protect consumers and prevent abuse.

In the past, we’ve seen publishers change their loot boxes based on player complaints. Some games have even been banned in some countries, such as Diablo Immortal recently in Belgium and the Netherlands. However, that is not to say that if the number of countries closely monitoring loot boxes increases, they will hit publishers where it hurts, i.e. the wallet. So they will tailor their offer and will no doubt fail, at that time, to point out that they are doing it for the benefit of the players.

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