End 'Loot Boxes' in Video Games


Imagine buying a "Star Wars" video game, where you play as a brave soldier of the Rebel Alliance, fighting alongside your comrades against the Empire. After battling through legions of Stormtroopers and droids, you get the chance to become jedi knight Luke Skywalker and defeat the Sith lord Darth Vader. It's the ultimate battle between good and evil.

The only thing stopping you? The option of paying extra cash or spending several more hours playing the game.

When I buy a $60 game, I'm not expecting to pay an additional $10 to $20 in micro-transactions. Whether it's for new costumes, season passes, special weapons or additional maps, game developers are monetizing every aspect of what used to be rewards that could be unlocked by either cheat codes or completing the required goal. Now, the industry has shifted to using "loot boxes." The loot boxes can be found on in-game menus that allow players to use real money to purchase additional currency, power-ups and more.

Last week, tensions around this purchasing practice erupted as angry fans of the new "Star Wars: Battlefront II" took to Reddit messaging boards and social media to criticize game publisher Electronic Arts for their loot-box system, where players could purchase "crystals" using real money to buy loot boxes with random items. EA posted a defense of its system and quickly became the most disliked post (over 600,000 down votes) in the website's history.

The game itself, which ranges in price from $60 to $80, has a menu where players can purchase a loot box, giving players anything from a strong power-up or rare item, to an essentially worthless item, like a dance emote for a character. When you pay to play, you never know what you'll get. The loot boxes could potentially give players a competitive advantage, creating an imbalance in multiplayer matches and encouraging them to "pay to win."

There's something wrong with the idea of making players pay for in-game currency and rewards that would normally take several hundred hours of playtime to collect.

EA, unfortunately, isn't alone when it comes to in-game purchasing. Loot boxes have begun to appear in all sorts of video games in recent years, from the popular Blizzard Entertainment first person shooter "Overwatch" to the stealthy "Assassin's Creed" series. Publishers have argued that this wave of monetization is needed to cover hefty development costs that can rival the budget of a Hollywood summer blockbuster. In fact, Activision spent $500 million on the multiplayer sci-fi shooter "Destiny" in 2014, including for marketing and global distribution.

As a result of the player outcry, the night before the "Star Wars" game was released, EA decided to bow to players demands and temporarily remove the in-game purchasing of "crystals."

The uproar over EA's in-game purchasing system should signify a turning point for the video game industry. The more mainstream micro-transactions become, the more likely this will hurt the industry in the long run. It takes away from the fun of the whole process, when the quickest way to progress through the game is to fork over more cash.

Spencer Whitney is The San Francisco Chronicle's assistant opinion page editor. Email: swhitney@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SpenceWhitney ___

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