Blizzard Removes Loot Boxes After Gambling Controversy

Blizzard has removed loot boxes from its Heroes of the Storm game.
Blizzard has removed loot boxes from its Heroes of the Storm game.

30-second summary:

  • Players can buy loot boxes in video games, usually with real currency
  • They are akin to gambling as the items they may contain have a random probability of appearing
  • Belgium and the Netherlands have already brought in bans on loot boxes
  • Blizzard is experimenting with the removal of loot boxes in one of its smaller games

Issues with loot boxes

Loot boxes have become a phenomenon in recent years. They are a component of a video game where players pay to open boxes that contain random items, such as weapon skins or new weapons. These items have a certain probability of appearing in a box depending on their rarity.

While players can earn virtual currency through in-game activities and pay for the loot boxes this way, many also allow you to purchase with using real currency. This has led to people spending hundreds and thousands on these virtual items. Often times these were young people.

Authorities in many European countries view this as being akin to gambling. This is because players are staking funds when the outcome is based on chance. As young people under the legal gambling age partake in this activity, loot boxes breach the regulations in these countries.

Countries fight back

Belgium called for the elimination of all types of loot boxes after deeming online games with these boxes as being illegal. The Belgian Gaming Commission reached this decision in April 2018 after an investigation into four leading games.

These titles were Star Wars Battlefront II, FIFA 18, Overwatch and Counter Strike: Global Offensive. Three of the four titles were in violation of the gambling laws in Belgium.

Star Wars was the sole game not violating any laws. This was because the developer, EA, got rid of the loot boxes after being embroiled in controversy following the release of the game.  The other games were given the chance to follow suit and stop offering loot boxes to Belgian players. Otherwise, the regulator threatened heavy fines and even potential prison sentences.

The Belgian minister for justice said: “Mixing games and gaming, especially at a young age, is dangerous for mental health. We have already taken numerous measures to protect both minors and adults against the influence of, among other things, gambling advertising.

“That is why we must also ensure that children and adults are not confronted with games of chance when they are looking for fun in a video game.”

EA’s stance

Electronic Arts (EA) fought against this ban. EA’s CEO, Andrew Wilson, did not believe that loot boxes were akin to gambling.

Wilson said: “We don’t believe that FIFA Ultimate Team or loot boxes are gambling, firstly because players always receive a specified number of items in each pack, and secondly we don’t provide or authorize any way to cash out or sell items or virtual currency for real money.”

However, the authorities did not agree and ultimately EA backed down. For the countries in which these loot boxes are still legal, EA has added in the probability of drawing certain items.

Blizzard’s loot box controversy

Blizzard is another major game developer. It has recently been mired in controversy over its Heroes of the Storm game, after a recent patch. The change log with the patch indicated that “the developers were removing the ability to buy loot boxes with real money.”

With gaming developers fighting their corner for loot boxes globally, Blizzard appears to be testing what sort of response removing its loot boxes would have on its customers.

Now players can only earn virtual tokens through playing the game and are no longer able to buy them. The gambling element is no longer there.

Players can also still purchase items outright in the game, using real currency. Items that can be purchased this way include gameplay boosts and specific heroes. There is no technical form of gambling, it is simply a standard consumer transaction.

Heroes of the Storm is not really a priority for Blizzard, so it looks like the company will be happy to conduct similar experiments with it in the future. If it were to make changes all of a sudden to one of its major titles, such as Overwatch, there likely would be a massive outcry.

With these changes going live, gaming developers across the world will be watching closely to see what the effect will be. It could soon be a familiar trend, where the gambling element is gotten rid of entirely and loot boxes will no longer be an issue.

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