After conducting an investigation into a handful of popular examples, Belgium’s Gaming Commission has found that the loot boxes in Overwatch, FIFA 18 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive are in violation of the country’s gambling regulations, threatening fines of up to €1.6 million and jail time if the games are not adjusted.
In their report, they state that loot boxes are gambling, simply by virtue of the fact that you’re betting money for a randomised outcome. There’s no distinction being made here between cosmetics and game balance changing rewards, they all count as gambling. Further, the video game industry as a whole and the age ratings don’t take into account whether games have gambling of this sort, which the report says is “particularly problematic for minors and gambling addicts.” In particular, the way that FIFA 18 uses popular footballers like Cristiano Ronaldo to market the most expensive packs incentivises them to players.
Belgium’s investigation did include Star Wars: Battlefront II, but since the game removed loot boxes at launch, they managed to avoid being branded with this label. Of course, microtransactions have now returned, but they correlate directly to unlocking custom character appearances, and so don’t fall foul of this investigation.
Only four games were investigated for this report, but the Gaming Commission set out their four criteria for games to be deemed to include gambling: they need to be a game, the player must stake something that can lead to profit or loss, and the result needs to be randomised. With most loot boxes featuring purely cosmetic items, they’re often thought to skirt past the third requirement, and you would expect that Blizzard, EA and Valve will try to appeal the outcome of this report before complying.
Alternatively, they’ll implement workarounds as Blizzard did for Overwatch in China, which has very strict anti-gambling laws. There you can still effectively buy loot boxes, but you’re buying in-game currency with the “gift” of a loot box.