Let's get to the now probably more widely known loot box problem. I decided to combine loot boxes and gambling since they go together in most, if not all games.
What are loot boxes?
In games that have pay to win and/or cosmetic items, you will often also find loot boxes, that have those items in them, but you don't know what is inside yet.
How to they work?
Depending on the game you will get loot boxes by playing the game, they are randomly awarded based on playtime mostly, but the precise algorithms are of course not known that well. However once you got a loot box, you cannot open it, you often need to purchase a key to open it, which costs real money in most cases, when opening it, you will get a random item out of a certain pool.
What does it have to do with gambling?
Well loot boxes are basically a hidden slot machine, the loot boxes themselves are kind of useless, since you often get plenty of them through they game, only by buying a key for real money you get to "open" them. The opening process resembles a slot machine, where you put in money aka buying the key in this case and then in many cases a slot machine like animation will play giving you a random item out of a certain pool of possible items. Some games have a direct slot machine like animation, others directly give you a random reward, however the effect stays the same. People think they are opening loot boxes, but they are playing slot machine. The loot box is just a proxy for the slot machine and buying the key is just a proxy for putting the money into the slot machine. By having those intermediaries most people do not notice that they are gambling.
Why is it so bad?
Well gambling is known to be bad and therefore it is often strictly regulated, however through loot boxes as a proxy developers have been able to cheat the system and getting away with it, without the regulations gambling normally brings. The developers argue, it is not gambling because you do not win real money, but those virtual items can be bought for money and so they can be sold for money again, just often not officially.
Why is it bad for the game?
Gambling mechanics are in itself addicting, therefore the game itself becomes kind of irrelevant and degrades into a proxy to bring the gambling addiction to players. Financially this is very beneficial for the developers since the addictive factor will lead people to play the game more than they normally would and of course spend much more money into it. It is like a cheat code to increase the number of players, since a lot of people are prone to becoming addicted to gambling and they will spend a lot of time and money in it. The question here is, why do you then need the underlying game? The game itself degrades more and more into a platform to justify the gambling and to show off the pay to win and/or cosmetic items, which is also bad in itself as I wrote about earlier.
They are also kind of ridiculous and illogical I wonder why nobody ever talks about that, even though there are many people criticizing loot boxes. Let me list some of the illogicalities:
1. The first illogicality already is how you get those boxes, you get them randomly based on playtime, so you get them, but you have not done anything to get them, a game normally should consist of a mechanic you can influence to get a reward, but you can't in this case.
2. Is that why are there random items in it? I mean who would put random items in boxes and not mark what is in them?
3. Is that you cannot open them and somehow need a key.
4. The fourth problem is, why can you only find boxes, but never keys?
5. Why do keys cost real money, but the actual goods are free? I mean imagine you go into a store and they have put everything into unmarked boxes, so nobody knows what is in each box only probabilities what could be in them. Then you are allowed to take the boxes for free, but to actually get the goods you need to buy keys from them. If you then open them, you sometimes get more value than you paid for the key, but in most cases get something useless. Sounds totally absurd in real life, but in video games this is somehow normal.
6. How is it that you can buy a random key, that somehow fits perfectly into your random crate?
7. How is it that once you used a key it is destroyed and you need to buy a new one?
8. And finally why can't you just open them with brute force? Most are just made out of wood that could be easily destroyed.
You see just by the missing backstory you can already see that loot boxes are also badly designed, you can ask every child to make up a backstory for loot boxes and they probably can come up with something much better.
I mean lets try it and lets invent a well designed backstory: The loot boxes fall of trucks and contain secret weaponry from some evil corporation, which explains why they are unmarked and you do not know what is in them. They also cannot be opened because they are sealed by special alloy and you need a number key to open them, like a password, therefore each key only works on one crate once, because the company wanted their secret products to be extra secure.
You see I just made that up in a minute and it is already better than what all game designers do currently. What is so hard with that? I mean it feels like developers do not even give a shit. I'm not saying that you cannot build certain mechanics into games, but you need at least invent some logical backstory why they are in the game and integrate them into the gameplay. Instead they are making everything illogical and disconnected from the game and I did not even go into how illogical cosmetics and pay to win items often are.
The loot box idea probably originated from role playing games where you explored dungeons and found treasure chests you had to open to know what was in them, but in that scenario they are integrated into the game, they belong there, work logically and most importantly did not require real money to open and did not contain cosmetics or pay to win items.
It is quite difficult to isolate some bad design choices, since many go together with other bad design choices, like loot boxes rely on gambling, which relies on gambling addicted people, which relies on spending real money, which relies on the game having cosmetics and/or pay to win items, which rely on the game to make use of those items, which rely on the popularity of the game so you have an audience where you can show off your stupid cosmetics or your unfair pay to win powers to dominate others.
This is all like a chain reaction of bad things and they are not only morally bad, they are also badly designed, they are basically holistically bad and maybe even intentionally bad, since almost every child could design it better.
At least loot boxes have gotten so bad, that some countries even develop legal regulations for them, so we can at least hope that something will be done about this issue while most of the other issues I talk about have little hope to be addressed.