Hot Take: The ESA Needs to Get Serious About Loot Boxes

We Need the Same Decisiveness That Saved Us in the 90s to Protect Indies from Federal Bureaucracy

If you’ve followed along with the #GameDev Breakdown Podcast, you’ve heard us discuss loot boxes with some concern for well in excess of a year now. In fact, it was last year’s Christmas episode that I seem to recall we swore we were going to try to stop talking about it. That was difficult, as lawmakers in Hawaii and the Belgian government were simultaneously vowing to the press that they were about to crack down on what they viewed as predatory gambling in video games. This led to some unbearable press conferences that surpassed “misled” and charged well into malicious territory, presenting games as “online casinos, designed to lure kids into spending money.”  If you think Representative Chris Lee wasn’t as motivated as he was misguided in that video, you can check out these two bills that were introduced immediately after, aiming to require significant disclosure of probability when purchasing loot boxes (we’re for this part, by the way) and outright prohibition-of-sale of loot box games to anyone under 21 years of age–never mind the fact that the game he presented to the press (Star Wars Battlefront II) was rated T (ages 13+) by the industry’s ratings board, meaning it was knowingly developed and published for players older than Lee alluded to for the cameras. 

It was also around this time that Apple announced an unprecedented App Store policy change requiring developers to disclose the odds of getting what they want out of a loot-box-style In App Purchase. 

“Apps offering ‘loot boxes’ or other mechanisms that provide randomized virtual items for purchase must disclose the odds of receiving each type of item to customers prior to purchase,” now reads the developer guidelines. And Apple is serious–by March of 2018, Nintendo and Square Enix both had app updates rejected for violating the new policy. With strategic praise and support for this self-governance, the game industry could have taken the wind out of the opposition’s sails and greatly reduced the risk of damaging legislation from unknowledgeable sources. 

The problem, of course, is that no one rallied behind Apple at all. Major publishers failed to take the policy seriously, and no such policy change rolled out affecting the Android platform. When the FTC was unsatisfied and announced their intention to begin an investigation, the ESA didn’t even use the Apple’s new policy as an example of substantial change within the industry, instead crafting a short statement to the effect of “Loot is love; loot is life.” 

We seem to be forgetting our own history. In 1993, with the hyper-violent Mortal Kombat and the mostly-just-weird Night Trap captivating teenagers across the nation, lawmakers made their intentions clear as day: they wanted a federal oversight committee looking over the shoulder of developers big and small. Even before the rise of the garage-based app developer, the industry understood the dangers of introducing government bureaucracy into its already-razor-thin margins. By virtually all accounts, this threat was only avoided by the rapid, voluntary formation of the Electronic Software Ratings Board, which was stood-up and functional before the ’94 holiday season. 

Simply put: We need the same ESA who recognized a problem, put together a plan instead of talking points, and moved quickly for the benefit of developers in the 90s. Pointing out the reality of the existing age categorizations already in place and the rules already associated with them would be a fine start. Pointing to Apple’s step in the right direction is a good start. Leaning on developers to disclose loot box result probabilities in game is not only the move that will end this debate, it’s the move that is fair to players. Waiting until now to speak up and start debating wording (like calling it “gambling” or not) and announcing no change is needed might help ESA leadership avoid pissing off EA, but it’s a strategy that communicates a clear lack of concern for small developers, and will almost certainly lead to federal intervention.

Todd Mitchell is a freelance industry journalist, the founder of indie studio Artistry Master Systems, and host of the #GameDev Breakdown Podcast. Follow him @Mechatodzilla