Loot boxes and gacha games dubbed newest forms of gambling

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Loot boxes and gacha games where players purchase virtual items have become a topic of debate within the online gaming community according to aficionados and regulators who consider them just another form of gambling.

In these online games, it’s not unusual for a player to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to buy options to customize their favorite character or to purchase weapons and armor. In one published report, a Japanese player spent $70,000 to participate in the gacha game Fate/Grand Order, also known as FGO.

The release of Electronic Art’s (EA) online game Overwatch in 2016 and Sony’s mobile game Fate/Grand Order in 2015 have contributed to the international debate.

Loot boxes, also called loot crate or prize crate, are an in-game purchase item that contain implements for the players to use. In Overwatch, the loot boxes contain character skins, voice lines, and sprays. While some loot boxes offer items that can be obtained by completing certain requirements and missions within the game, players can purchase more through micro transactions that allow players to purchase the virtual goods with a credit card.

While “free-to-play” games such as Fate Grand Order can be downloaded for free at the iTunes App Store and Google Play Store, in order to play someone has to purchase the game’s currency, Saint Quartz, in the game’s shop. The cost of purchasing a Quartz ranges from 99 cents for one, to $80 for 140 Quartz.

With games like Overwatch, loot boxes are obtained in-game by completing certain missions, but are also offered as a purchase item to the player. According to Overwatch’s official site, two loot boxes cost $1.99; five loot boxes cost $4.99; 11 loot boxes are $9.99; 24 loot boxes are $19.99; and 50 loot boxes cost $39.99.

Earlier this year, the Belgium Gaming Commission published a research report on Loot Boxes that concluded: “The purchase of loot boxes by players… is highly problematic, both in terms of the purchase as well in terms of the techniques used to allow players to bet using loot boxes.” Loot boxes were then disabled for Belgian Overwatch players in late August, but are still available in the U.S.

In an official post on the Gaming Commission’s website, Peter Naessens, the director at Gaming Commission, said: “Players are tempted and misled by them and none of the protective measures for games of chance are applied. Now that it has become clear that children and vulnerable persons in particular are being exposed to this without any protection, the game producers, and also the parties involved, are called upon to put a stop to this practice.”

In the U.S., Hawaii Reps. Chris Lee and Sean Quinlan held a news conference in November 2017 that assailed loot boxes, namely in EA’s Star Wars Battlefront 2, just days after its release.

Ruben Morales, 27, a long-time Overwatch player who has organized tournaments at El Paso’s Glitch Gaming Center, agrees there should be some regulation on betting on loot boxes. “As long as it’s just cosmetic stuff, I think it’s okay. If you have the option to just outright buy the skin, then that’s fine too.”

Earlier this month, the Belgium news outlet Metro reported that EA, publisher of Overwatch, as well as the FIFA series, and Star Wars Battlefront, is currently being investigated by the Brussels public prosecutor’s office after continuing to offer loot boxes in their games despite the ban enforced by the Belgium Gaming Commission and Minister of Justice Koen Geens.

Similar to loot boxes, gacha games, known for their ‘gacha’ (capsule toy) mechanism, have also come under fire. These free-to-play games are prevalent in Japan and in some other countries. In the gacha game, Fate/Grand Order, FGO, players spend in-game currency to ‘pull’ for their favorite characters as well as make micro transactions to gain more currency. A 10-character pull, for example, requires 30 Saint Quartz.

Released in Japan in 2015, FGO has gained traction in the United States since it was translated into English in 2017.

“I’m invested in it, but I also really hate it,” says digital artist Jennifer Chaides, 22. “I’ve been playing for about a year now, so I think I’ve spent a little over $100. But I’m not nearly as invested or gutsy enough to whale on anything.”

“Whales” are players that spend an excessive amount of money for in-game currency to pull for their favorite characters. In FGO, some characters are available for a limited time, inducing players to spend big to obtain them before the end of the draw banner, which increase the drop rate of certain characters or classes (of characters) over a set period of time.

At the same time, Chaides says she does not regret her decision to spend her money on the game.

In a video interview published by The Wall Street Journal, a Japanese FGO player named Daigo said he spends most of his time and $70,000 of his money to play the game. “I just want to make the characters stronger,” he said in the interview. “I paid $500 getting one character but I wanted it to be level 5. So I ended up paying $2,500.”

FGO also created a tutorial manga titled Understanding With Manga! for new players to understand the game’s mechanics. The protagonist of the comic is a young woman named Gudako (which translates to boring girl) who is a gacha addict. The Gudako character is essentially a jab at over-enthusiastic players and their desire to obtain their favorite characters at any cost.

FGO remains Sony’s most profitable game due to devotees like Daigo. According to a release from the Japanese government’s Official Gazette, the company made $1.8 billion in revenue in the fiscal year that ended March 31, and had a net profit of $312 million. For the previous 2017 fiscal year, Sony had sales of $934 million and earned a net profit of $220 million, according to the publicaion.

While there are ongoing efforts to place regulations and bans on loot boxes both in the U.S. and abroad, there aren’t any for gacha games.

Morales said gacha “is definitely like gambling. I think that it should be regulated in some way, like increasing the drop rates [for the characters]or giving players more in-game currency.”

Chaides suggests that game companies, “at least put a cap on how much you can spend, maybe weekly or something. I feel like spending over a thousand dollars on a mobile game is a little too much.”

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