The Spinoff - Are lootboxes the slot machines of video gaming?

Lootboxes have embedded themselves in the gaming industry – and audiences are not happy about it. Adam Goodall talks to a free-to-play developer and a public health expert about why lootboxes were inevitable, and how we can change the direction they’re taking the industry.

I’ve been playing Dungeon. Inc for ten minutes when my assistant, a big-eyed goblin named Barbrargh, ushers me into Burnson’s office. Burnson is a blue dragon in middle-management, all collar and tie and stick up his ass. It’s his job to keep me liquid. “GOLD, GEMS, CHESTS,” he booms. “I’ll get your requests approved, post-haste! In fact, I’ve got a free chest for you here, courtesy of Big Boss!”

If you’ve played a mobile game in the last ten years, you probably know this bit. This is the bit where they stop teaching you how to interact with the game and start teaching you how to interact with the company that made it. In Dungeon, Inc, you interact with the company by buying ‘gems’. Gems are the only thing in the game that you can buy with real money. It’s up to $150 for a pack of 7,000.

You can use these gems to buy keys, which you can then use to buy traps for your offices to fight off medieval auditors. Or you can use them to buy chests. You don’t know what’s in these chests – could be gold, could be a level-up for your monstrous guards. But they’re shiny and provocatively-named (Mega-Chest, Hyper-Chest), and the music builds to an ecstatic fanfare whenever you open one.

Dungeon, Inc., a clicker game released earlier this year by Wellington studio PikPok, is one of a number of New Zealand-made games, both paid and free-to-play, with a lootbox system. It usually goes this way: after earning a certain amount of experience or in-game currency, or after paying real-world money, you can unlock a mystery box. That box might have something cool in it, maybe even something that makes you more powerful, or it might just be something you’ve already got or never really wanted in the first place. Think Kinder Surprises – or, more accurately, those bins outside supermarkets, the ones full of clear eggs with toys inside.

Lootboxes are in the regulatory crosshairs right now due to a handful of recent, egregious examples of megacorp rapacity. The most headline-grabbing example, of course, was Star Wars Battlefront II. Battlefront II publisher EA came under fire when people discovered that lootboxes were one element of the game’s complicated currency scheme; it seemed perverse that a $110 videogame should lock players’ in-game progression and success behind a series of gates that could be unlocked with money and luck.

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The Spinoff - Are lootboxes the slot machines of video gaming?