Many of today’s biggest games feature loot box gameplay mechanics that critics claim are little different than gambling. Now, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) has announced it will take loot boxes a bit more seriously. Going forward, titles that rely on these microtransactions will get a special warning on the label right next to the main ESRB rating.
Microtransactions are nothing new in gaming. That idea stretches back to the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which tried to upsell gamers on cosmetic horse armor for $ 5. While gamers mocked Bethesda for the move, this would become a common element of game monetization in the intervening years. Today, popular games like Overwatch, Star Wars: Battlefront, and FIFA have leaned heavily on randomized loot boxes to make publishers more money. You can’t just buy the modern equivalent of horse armor in these games. You have to open random crates until you get the stuff you want.
The ESRB already included a notice of “In-Game Purchases” on its rating labels (added following the Battlefront 2 fiasco), ensuring parents knew which games encourage kids to spend more money. The new labels will include another line that reads “(Includes Random Items)” on games with loot box mechanics. Many gamers and developers believe that additional warning is necessary because of the way random loot boxes prime players to spend more money. It’s like spinning a roulette wheel — just one more spin, and maybe you’ll hit the jackpot with a rare piece of equipment or character.
To get the new enhanced rating, a game needs to offer digital items for purchase with real money. The rewards also need to be obscured from the player before purchase. If either of these criteria is not met, the game doesn’t get the loot box warning. For example, a game might have randomized loot rewards, but it’s fine if you can only earn them by playing the game rather than spending money. On the flip side, games could have the option to buy things with real money, but they’d only get the “In-Game Purchases” label provided the rewards are not random. That could include things like expansion packs, new levels, and equipment.
The new labeling system will help parents make smarter choices, but it could be a boon to under-informed gamers, too. You might be fine with a game that lets you spend money, but the pseudo-gambling mechanics of loot boxes are another story. You won’t have to research the monetization system of every game — just look for the “random items” rating and you’ll know there are loot boxes.