The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), the industry-created ratings group, has declared that it doesn’t see loot boxes as gambling – an important distinction for games.
In a statement made to Kotaku, an ESRB spokesperson said:
While there’s an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player unfortunately receives something they don’t want). We think of it as a similar principle to collectible card games: Sometimes you’ll open a pack and get a brand new holographic card you’ve had your eye on for a while. But other times you’ll end up with a pack of cards you already have.
The topic of loot boxes has resurfaced recently with titles like Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Forza Motorsport 7, Overwatch, Destiny 2, Star Wars: Battlefront II, and many more using them in various ways to tempt gamers with microtransactions and in some cases, arguably disrupting the overall gaming experience.
This distinction is crucial for the ESRB, not only because the existence and continued support for the ESRB depends on their reputation, but because of the “Adults Only” rating being a retail kiss-of-death for games.
ADULTS ONLY-Content suitable only for adults ages 18 and up. May include prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content and/or gambling with real currency.
Those who remember the infamous “Hot Coffee” controversy in GTA: San Andreas or the AO rating applied to Manhunt 2 know all too well how retailers feel about stocking explicit games. Adding in the fact that strict censorship laws in countries like Germany or Australia can kill any chance of a game getting a formal release in those markets, it all makes developers and publishers very reticent to make AO-rated games.
And while many in the industry hate the greed and tastelessness of lootboxes and their manipulative designs, the ESRB is an authoritative influence on how games are made in certain markets. Retailers and individual gamers or organizations can still make their own choices about whether to stock or buy a game including loot boxes or not. But, the hand of the market will likely slap those retailers who choose not to stock titles they disagree with which are popular, so it’s a double-edged sword.