In context: Despite being deemed "illegal gambling" in some countries, loot boxes continue to be a thing in the games industry. So many titles from mobile to AAA contain random loot purchases that the ESRB has deemed it necessary to come up with new labeling on its ratings to inform consumers of the controversial mechanic.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) announced on Monday that it will start to label whether a game contains purchasable random items. Any games with loot boxes, card or item packs, prize wheels, gacha games, and other types of randomized goodies that can be bought directly or indirectly with real-world currency will be labeled in this manner.
"This new Interactive Element, In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items), will be assigned to any game that contains in-game offers to purchase digital goods or premiums with real world currency (or with virtual coins or other forms of in-game currency that can be purchased with real world currency) for which the player doesn’t know prior to purchase the specific digital goods or premiums they will be receiving (e.g., loot boxes, item packs, mystery awards)," said the ESRB.
The rating board initially addressed the controversy over loot boxes in 2018 when it began applying an "in-game purchases" label. However, this designation applied to just about every game, including those that offered subscriptions, season passes, or in-game advertising opt-outs. It was far too broad to be useful to the consumer in determining if a title had loot boxes or other randomized offers.
The reasoning given at the time was that the ESRB did not want to "overwhelm" parents who might not even know what a loot box is, let alone the various variations of the concept.
"Parents need simple information," said ESRB president Patricia Vance at the time. "We can't overwhelm them with a lot of detail. We need to be clear, concise, and make it easy for them. A large majority of parents don't know what a loot box is, and even those who claim they do don't really understand what a loot box is. So it's very important for us to not harp on loot boxes per se, but to make sure we're capturing loot boxes but also other in-game transactions."
However, the labeling was neither clear nor concise and consumers let the ESRB know this, which is what caused the board to narrow its focus to randomized items.
A new labeling system is not a solution to the problem, which has been tagged as "illegal gambling" in several regions, but it is a somewhat better way for the consumer to make informed purchases. Other efforts from publishers and manufacturers are upping the ante by requiring more transparency.
In 2017 Apple began telling app makers to disclose loot box drop odds in their games. Last August, all three console manufacturers stated that they would require all publishers to reveal the odds of receiving items. Those policies are slated to go into effect sometime this year. Prominent game makers, including Bethesda, Ubisoft, EA, Activision Blizzard, and others, are already on board with the disclosure rules.