The UK’s gambling commission will not be stepping into the loot box furore, said a statement today from Tim Miller its executive director. As has been repeated ad nauseam in recent debates, Miller makes the argument that if the items cannot be cashed out then its legal powers would not let it intervene.
"In practical terms this means that where in-game items obtained via loot boxes are confined for use within the game and cannot be cashed out it is unlikely to be caught as a licensable gambling activity."
No great surprises there – unless the Commission was going to suddenly decide that digital items, which are largely locked to a specific user account, were more easily sold on for profit, than say Panini football stickers or random Minifigs from Lego. Such a decision would have looked distinctly like the games industry was being singled out. Especially given that titles such as BF2 have a PEGI 16 rating, which you can’t say about minifigs.
The statement goes on to talk entirely about protecting children, which is a valid concern.
"Many parents are not interested in whether an activity meets a legal definition of ‘gambling’. Their main concern is whether there is a product out there that could present a risk to their children."
That puts FIFA Ultimate Team, surely the most successful microtransaction model in the UK outside of mobile games, and one that’s very popular with younger players, in the spotlight. Miller goes onto say that the Commission is "concerned with the growth in examples where the line between video gaming and gambling is becoming increasingly blurred."
However, where the activity is not classed as gambling, the Commission’s action on this wlll be limited to providing advice. "We have a long track record in keeping children safe and we are keen to share our experiences and expertise with others that have a similar responsibility. Whether gambling or not, we all have a responsibility to keep children and young people safe."
The next question is whether any major publisher using loot boxes is keen to listen to that advice. With highly-differing legal opinions coming from varying parts of Europe, with Belgium being the front-runner in terms of opprobrium, and such titles having European-wide business models and server setups, it’s hard to see the publisher’s being able to easily adapt to different views in different regions – if it’s ever pressured of course.
There are parts of the games industry that do need to be carefully watched and regulated, skins gambling for instance, but we need to be clear about the differences between that and typical loot boxes.
The latter are still a serious potential issue for game design and game balance, and publishers should be cautious about how they proceed with such monetisation strategies.