Loot boxes and in-game purchases have been a big problem in the gaming industry for a while now. While they’re a mild nuisance to some, they’re the reason for us to write these angry opinion pieces. While still legal, games that contain loot boxes now have a warning on the box. The North American Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) developed a new label to warn people about the mechanic.
New ESRB label
The first measures against controversial business models in games were implemented in early 2018, when the ESRB introduced an ‘In-Game Purchases’ label. But according to the rating board, that wasn’t transparent enough. Now parents (and other consumers) will also know that said in-game purchases can be randomly awarded to the player. The new label reads: “In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items)”.
ESRB’s description of the label reads:
This new Interactive Element,will be assigned to any game that contains in-game offers to purchase digital goods or premiums with real world currency (or with virtual coins or other forms of in-game currency that can be purchased with real world currency) for which the player doesn’t know prior to purchase the specific digital goods or premiums they will be receiving (e.g., loot boxes, item packs, mystery awards).
Overwatch isn’t Battlefront II
The rating board does fall into a common pitfall when it comes to loot boxes and purchasable in-game content. Let’s compare Battlefront II’s loot box system when it launched, to Overwatch’ loot boxes. The whole reason why the ESRB and even governments from all over the world got in on this was because the former. It contained randomized rewards in the form of weapon perks and attachments. In other words, your performance and chance of succes is game was directly tied to the rewards you got from loot boxes.
Now look at Overwatch. This game also gets the label ‘In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items)’. But what do you purchase when you pay money for Overwatch loot boxes? A cute cosmetic skin for a random character. No performance enhancing perks, superior weapons, or other in-game advantages. Just a cosmetic reward that shows gamers your ‘status’.
But the ESRB doesn’t take that significant difference into account. Besides, since the whole loot box controversy surrounding EA’s Battlefront II, the game has been updated. Now, just like in Overwatch, all rewards from loot boxes are of a cosmetic nature. So how invasive and ultimately pay-to-win a loot box mechanic is, isn’t shown by the ESRB. Not that that is their job of course. They rate, they don’t judge. Still, it can punish games that use loot boxes ethically and benefit games that don’t.
ESRB keeps it up to date
While not condemning or approving specific usages of loot boxen and in-game purchases, the rating board will update labels when necessary. Talking to Polygon, the self-regulatory organization explained that publishers are required to inform them if they intend to add in-game purchases and/or randomized loot. And if they say they won’t add loot boxes, but decide to do just that later, they have to update all the information.
Once the changes are evaluated, ESRB updates the game’s rating information on Esrb.org and requires the publisher to include the updated rating information on game packaging, item web pages, and pertinent marketing materials.