One of the biggest controversies in gaming right now is “loot boxes,” purchases made inside of games that deliver randomized rewards that range from cosmetic items that change how a character looks to powerful new items that fundamentally change how a game is played. And there’s no platform that has more successfully used loot boxes than mobile games. Incredibly successful games like Clash Royale or Hearthstone use loot boxes to drive revenue.
Apple quietly rolled out a change to its App Store guidelines on December 20, stating that developers would need to disclose the odds of what a loot box will cough up. Specifically, the new guidelines state:
Apps offering “loot boxes” or other mechanisms that provide randomized virtual items for purchase must disclose the odds of receiving each type of item to customers prior to purchase.
This change mirrors regulation that has already happened in countries like China. In early 2017, China’s Ministry of Culture required games with loot boxes to disclose the odds. Apple may simply be anticipating where regulation will end up in a year or two — Australia appears to be headed toward classifying loot boxes as a form of gambling, and the state of Hawaii is actively looking into it.
Loot boxes aren’t a new idea — Magic: The Gathering and old-fashioned baseball cards operate under much the same logic. Have a few key items that are rare or highly valued and combine that with having the rewards come somewhat randomly, and you reproduce the same cycle of irreuflar rewards found in slot machines or scratch-off lotto tickets.
Of course, knowing the odds and actually using them are two different things entirely. Casino slot machines are mathematically always against the player, and the odds of winning Powerball are 1 in 292 million, but that doesn’t stop either from being tremendously popular.
Still, many mobile games (and, increasingly, video games in general) treat their users like rats in a Skinner box, adjusting various stimuli to see how often they can get users to pay again. That many users are also under 18 only adds to the problem. Apple’s regulation is an important first step in taking a look at what, exactly, users are paying for, and what they can expect to get when they roll the dice on a loot box.