Adding gambling to games isn’t the problem – unless you’re some kind of puritan

People have always gambled on games of skill and chance. And there’s nothing wrong with sensible gambling, in the same way there’s nothing wrong with the sensible consumption of alcohol, or sensibly having sex with people you only just met, or even the sensible driving of cars – though that last one’s a bit more controversial.

Gambling in and of itself isn’t a terrible thing. You may not like it, but morally speaking it’s not the big bad here, please come along to a poker game with me and my friends and show me who’s being exploited by whom.

Recently though gambling seems to have become the number one enemy for many gamers. When actually it’s pay-to-win mechanics as part of a microtransaction model which are the problem, not gambling.

Look at this another way. Say real-money gambling was added to PUBG, every player put in £1 (or 10p or whatever was agreed) at the start of the game, the house took say 5% to cover costs, and the winner got the rest, would that really be a bad thing?

It would undoubtedly reduce the amount of players who quit any given game, and likely make the meta more risk averse, but given that the game of PUBG would still be balanced between the players, it’s not going to throw off the underlying design. Of course it’s an established title now and it’s never going to switch to a literal ‘pay-to-play’ model, but it’s an interesting hypothetical example nonetheless.

Now, if you took the same scenario and dolled out random game-changing upgrades, to the value of the winnings, then you’ve got a big problem. But if the payout is in cold hard cash (and the house limit is low enough to help deter serious problem gamblers) then the gambling and the game have been effectively separated, the gameplay itself is largely unaffected, or possibly even affected for the better.

"If the payout is in cold hard cash then the gambling and the game have been effectively separated"

In short gambling in gaming doesn’t have to be a problem. So let’s move on.

Non-cosmetic loot boxes – by which I mean in-game items that can be bought with real money, provide randomised loot, and where that loot has a positive impact on the player’s ability to play the game more – are so far from the simplicity of my PUBG scenario it’s almost impossible to find any analogue in the colossal history of gambling. Even the regulatory disaster that is Pachinko looks straighforward by comparison.

Loot boxes (or FUT packs) are not a gambling problem, though as with many activities, such as drinking alcohol, there will always be a minority that have a problem with them. Instead it’s a game design problem that has been compounded by the game’s creators allowing a real-world resource, in this case money, to affect the game.

Now of course, games have always allowed a real-world resource to affect games: time. And gamers have always been largely OK with that, based on some inherent sense of fairness or work ethic, encouraging those with more time to spend on a game to have an inherent advantage, but many console gamers seem to have drawn a line at money.

And that’s their right.

It’s up to the players of your game, your consumers, to decide if the playground you are providing works for their own sense of fairness and proportion or not. And it’s up to them to complain if they don’t like it,. Hell, it’s a lot easier to get EA to change its loot drops, than it is to get the government to change its stance on the legalisation of marijuana say or prostitution, but in either case it’s up to the consumer/electorate to decide if they like what’s being provided or not.

Mobile gamers haven’t yet felt compelled to be quite so vocal about the application of money in their games. Which is obviously where the inspiration for recent loot box models has come from, with publishers hoping to remove the cap on monetisation that a full-priced game plus DLC previously represented. With microtransactions, publishers can fully monetise ‘whales’ to sums many times that of the average consumer.

"Hell, it’s a lot easier to get EA to change its loot drops, than it is to get the government to change its stance on the legalisation of marijuana say or prostitution"

But let’s be clear, there’s no intrinsic moral right or wrong in that decision, it’s all down to how such mechanics are implemented and whether that fits with the majority of consumer’s ideas of what gaming should be.

My main concern is that publisher’s could be shifting to creating games that are designed in part to attract the biggest-spending consumers at the expense of the mass market – and while that may prove profitable in the short-to-medium term, in the long-term it could put off some long-standing consumers and reduce the size of the gaming market as a whole.

Our only option is to watch the mobile games space keenly over the next couple of years to see how things play out there. There’s been a gigantic boom over the last few years, but as consumers become more educated after their initial forays into Candy Crush or Clash of Clans, will they return time-and-again to new such titles to spend equally significant sums? 

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

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