The ESRB Was Finally Badgered Into Doing the Right Thing About Loot Boxes This Week

The ESRB Was Finally Badgered Into Doing the Right Thing About Loot Boxes This Week

THIS WEEK IN BUSINESS | Ratings board seems to be less responsive to complaints from people who know what they're talking about.

If you've been reading this column for any length of time, you've probably seen me talk about loot boxes and other insidious monetization tactics the industry likes to take. You've also probably seen me bemoan how utterly resistant to fixing this problem the industry has been, primarily because it turns out running a gambling operation can be hugely lucrative. (Who knew?)

So before we get to the usual barrage of quotes about the industry's goings-on, let's first take a moment to talk about the Entertainment Software Rating Board's Monday announcement that it would finally be telling them when a game has loot boxes, prize wheels, or anything where a player pays real money and doesn't know exactly what they're getting for it.

QUOTE | "According to research, parents are far more concerned about their child's ability to spend real money in games than the fact that those in-game purchases may be randomized." - The ESRB, in its blog post announcing the new In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items) "interactive element" that will be assigned to games.

That's a weird thing to say, right? Here the ESRB is, telling parents about this helpful new tool the concerned industry is giving them, but it's taking a moment to underscore that it's something parents don't really care about anyway and imply the ESRB shouldn't really care about it, either.

If you think I'm reading too much into one line in the blog post, go ahead and read the whole thing. There are a few parts very much written in the petulant tone of a child doing the right thing after being badgered into it by their parents.

It mentions the group's first attempt to address loot box concerns, which came more than two years ago when it first created the In-Game Purchases label, which even then was a half-hearted measure akin to giving a choking person a band-aid. As one might expect, critics of loot boxes were not satisfied, something the ESRB acknowledged in its blog post.

"Since adding the In-Game Purchases notice to ratings assigned to physical games many game consumers and enthusiasts (not necessarily parents) have reached out to us asking the ESRB to include additional information to identify games that include randomized purchases," the group said. "The In-Game Purchases (Includes Random Items) Interactive Element was developed in response to those requests."

It's odd that the ESRB breaks the audience down into parents on one side and enthusiasts on the other, because that's a pretty archaic way of looking at the industry. It may have largely been true in the '90s when the ESRB was formed, but those '90s kids grew up, had kids of their own, and in many cases are still playing games. As much as the ESRB loves to talk about how everyone plays games, it still doesn't seem to believe that's actually true.

The bigger division now is not parents vs. kids so much as gamers and non-gamers. Gamers understand what games are, how they work, and what kind of influence they have on people. Non-gamers are just the people who don't really play games, who only know what they can suss out from commercials and glances at someone else playing games. They were the ones prone to sensationalist news coverage about how Doom was a hyper-realistic murder simulator or Night Trap was basically porn.

Complaints from non-gamers are obviously relevant to the ESRB, because the board was essentially founded in response to them during the violent game hearings of the '90s. And as we almost saw then, if enough non-gamers get whipped up into a fervor over something, it doesn't really matter what the truth of the situation is.

But complaints from gamers should in some ways be more worrisome. Gamers actually buy and play games and fully understand exactly what's going with loot boxes, after all. They are also the industry's staunchest defenders, particularly whenever the specter of government censorship is raised.

So if that group is taking you to task—the one that has come to your aid in the past and really gets what it is you're doing—maybe that should be taken as a red flag that there's something in need of attention here. Instead, the ESRB has apparently seen pushback from its own customers as a glitch, some hiccup that will sort itself out if it can just be ignored for long enough.

This week's loot box designation may be a step in the right direction, but like everything the ESRB and its parent organization the Entertainment Software Association have done in response to loot box concerns, it has been very little and very late.

While we came into this year with a number of efforts to legislate loot boxes percolating around the world, it's safe to say that topic won't be a primary concern of any government for a while. We'll see if the ESRB and ESA can use that time to clear up the loot box mess more thoroughly before legislators have time to worry about it again.

STAT | 5 million to 6 million - Sony's reported goal for worldwide PS5 shipments through March 2021, which would represent a scaled back rollout from the PS4, which shipped 7.5 million units in a comparable time frame.

QUOTE | "We believe it is inevitable that a recession will undermine sales to an extent, but that any impact will be more significantly felt later in 2021 once the initial early adopter launch surge ends" - Ampere Analysis analyst Piers Harding-Rolls says if Sony and Microsoft can launch their systems this year as planned, he believes there will be lots of people willing to buy them despite the world going through the worst economic downturn in a century.

QUOTE | "The listings are not accurate. We have made no announcement to bring those games to PC." - Sony responds to Amazon France putting up store pages for PC versions of PlayStation 4 exclusives like Bloodborne, Days Gone, Gran Turismo Sport, The Last of Us Part 2, and Persona 5 Royal.

QUOTE | "The crucial question for Sony isn't actually 'How well will these games sell on PC?'—rather, it's 'How well does launching these games on PC support PlayStation as a brand and a platform?'" - Our own Rob Fahey considers Sony's PC strategy.

QUOTE | "This is great. An ascetic, ugly space with no distractions. And hey, it's not like this is a dungeon. There's a window. It's high up and small, but it's there." - Remedy creative director Sam Lake defends his garage office in this picture feature showing prominent developers' work-from-home spaces.

QUOTE | "I've been trying to tell myself and remind myself that it's extremely unlikely that whatever I do next, or whatever I do ever in my career, will be as successful as Baba Is You." - Baba Is You developer Arvi Teikari talks about following up his breakthrough award-winning puzzle game with a traditional metroidvania he says he'd be happy to see get 6 out of 10 reviews.

The latest Cooking Mama game was released and then pulled last month. | 1st Playable Productions/Planet Entertainment

QUOTE | "Office Create rejected a wide range of deficiencies affecting the overall feel, quality and content of the game. Yet, despite being contractually obligated to correct the identified deficiencies and resubmit the corrected game for Office Create's approval, Planet proceeded to release Cooking Mama: Cookstar without addressing all of the rejections and without Office Create's approval." - Cooking Mama: Cookstar rights Office Create is throwing publisher Planet Entertainment under the bus for the Switch game's bizarre release and retraction.

QUOTE | "There were team meetings where we said, 'Everybody's going to be working from home for now. Please make sure you're in a secure room. If people are coming over, even your kids, please don't have anything up on the screen that could be eventually photographed, tweeted, or whatever.'" - Striking Distance head Glen Schofield talks about prepping his studio for working from home.

QUOTE | "China is the Planet X of game sales." - Shenzhen-based game publishing specialist Daniel Camilo uses Animal Crossing as an example of how the unknowable number of games illegally distributed in China inflates sales figures from surrounding regions.

QUOTE | "I don't want to close the doors on the future because I don't know what it holds—and my hope is that we can return and continue to support the indie games community we love so much—but I want to fully acknowledge the reality of the situation we find ourselves in and the impact it's having on IMB." - Indie Megabooth founder Kelly Wallick talks about the company's history and its decision to suspend operations for at least as long as the pandemic keeps the gaming event calendar empty.

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Brendan Sinclair

North American Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry International in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at CBS-owned GameSpot in the US.

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