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With the rise of cosmetic microtransactions in games came the rise of the loot box. As the name implies, it is essentially a bundle of (usually) random items that can be purchased with real money or earned through simply playing the game (or at least that’s the most popular incarnation of the loot box). Of course, it may not be referred to specifically as a loot box, but this kind of mechanic has become especially prevalent in the latest generation of games, most notably in Overwatch, Gears of War 4, Halo 5: Guardians, and Call of Duty, to name a few. Unfortunately, as you may know, these loot boxes are just one step away from gambling in that if you decide to purchase a loot box, you don’t know what you’re getting in them, and you obviously can’t get a refund if you don’t get what you want from them.

In what may be an attempt to counter this, China has allegedly decided to take steps against this specific kind of mechanic by introducing regulation to online games, with two sections that specifically relate to loot boxes (and even if they didn’t, this brings up a rather interesting point regarding microtransaction regulation). In short, it forces developers and publishers to publicly disclose the drop rates and content of all loot boxes and virtual items on their official website or in the game, in addition to disclosing the results of the loot boxes that have been opened by players. Naturally, this would greatly affect games like Overwatch, which have incredibly poor drop rates for rare cosmetics so that people would be forever chasing their most desired item. Putting aside all other factors, this sounds like a fantastic, common-sense idea: people deserve to know what they’re buying, and such information would at least give people a fair warning that they may potentially end up spending real money for something that they don’t want.

However, if we are to accept this at face value, this may actually end up helping games like Overwatch more than anything else, as there are no shortage of loopholes to this kind of regulation. For example, as it stands now, there are some 1400 potential cosmetic unlocks in Overwatch. Even if we are to assume that each unlock is weighed individually (which they obviously aren’t), this means that you have less than a 0.1% chance of getting a specific item every time you open a loot box. In theory, if this kind of warning were to be displayed, only a very specific (and small) set of people would even consider buying loot boxes with real money. This could then destroy the microtransaction market, developers and publishers will make everything available to you for free on day one, and then we will colonize every planet in our galaxy and achieve galactic peace.

Overwatch summer games cover - China's "Loot Box law" May Actually Help Games Like Overwatch Get More Money

Remember all the complaints that came from this event? Yeah, regulation isn’t really going to stop that

In reality, this would likely just force developers and publishers to revert to offering comparatively inflated cosmetic packs, and this is assuming that they aren’t going to (purposefully or otherwise) manipulate the displayed drop rate of items. Want a specific skin for Ana? Well why not buy this special pack that gives you one Legendary item that only draws from a pool of 10 Legendary items, thus technically giving you a 10% chance of getting the skin, but it costs $1 and duplicates are possible. Or maybe you want to unlock all of D.Va’s more unique cosmetics? No problem, for $0.50 you can buy a pack that gives you a singular Epic quality or higher D.Va cosmetic, drawing from a pool that is equally weighted but duplicates are also possible. In both cases, the displayed drop rate would not be wrong, but it is certainly deceptive and unquestionably overpriced (as it stands now, you can spend $40 to get 50 Loot Boxes or 200 cosmetic items, meaning each cosmetic is worth $0.20). Obviously, there is also the fact that people will buy the normal Loot Boxes regardless of any displayed drop rate simply because they can.

That someone can think of such alternatives that technically don’t violate China’s regulations within five minutes just goes to show that this is essentially a feel-good band-aid buzzword act that even craftier people (who would be paid to work around such regulations) would be able to exploit. Remember, just because there is a 10% chance of getting something doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a 10% chance of you getting something when the results are pulled from what may be millions of sources; plus, that 10% chance isn’t going to get better just because you bought three or four packs. Perhaps in this case it is best just to leave things the way they are and to simply advocate for better consumer education instead, as loot boxes wouldn’t be so prevalent or exploitative if no one was buying them.

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Anson Chan

Staff Writer

You ever wonder why we're here? It's one of life's greatest mysteries, isn't it? Good thing games exist so that we don't have to think about it. Or at least I don't have to think about it. Instead, I'll just play Halo or something.