Video game publishers have been pushing loot boxes and other microtransactions for years, but the release of Star Wars Battlefront II in 2017 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Gamers complained loudly and often about the expensive loot boxes and “pay-to-win” mechanics harming the gaming experience. Some even pointed out how similar loot boxes were to gambling, and that got governments around the world interested. Are loot boxes gambling? Belgium has decided that, yes, they are.
Electronic Arts seemed caught off-guard by the negative reaction to Battlefront II during the beta. Players noted that the random loot crates could only be purchased with premium in-game currency, and that means you have to spend money. Unlike many other games, items like Star Cards in Star Wars loot crates could vastly change the gameplay experience. In fact, it would take 40 hours of grinding to unlock some of the most sought-after hero characters in Battlefront II if you didn’t pay for loot boxes.
Several US states and EU countries began investigating loot boxes in video games in the wake of Battlefront II. EA took loot boxes out of the game to assuage fans, but that hasn’t saved other publishers. In the Netherlands, regulators recently decided that loot boxes are a form of gambling and have demanded that such mechanics are removed.
The Belgian Gaming Commission investigated Star Wars Battlefront II, FIFA 18, Overwatch, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. In a humorous turn of events, the only game the commission didn’t hammer is Battlefront — EA still doesn’t have any loot boxes in the game. All the others, according to regulators, constitute illegal gambling. Minister of Justice Koen Geens was especially concerned about how children would be affected by loot boxes. Legislation always aims to keep kids from coming in contact with gambling, but loot boxes are all over video games that kids might play.
Belgium is being less heavy-handed than the Dutch, who gave companies until June 20th to remove loot boxes. The Belgian Gaming Commission has requested information from publishers and developers to determine who is responsible for removing the loot boxes. If the industry doesn’t comply, responsible individuals could face up to five years in prison and fines of €800,000. It might take time to pull these elements from games, and doing so could result in gameplay balance issues. The games were designed to have loot boxes after all. Perhaps publishers will think twice about including loot boxes in future games if regulators continue to treat them like a slot machine.
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