Senator Josh Hawley's (R-Mo.) loot box bill is the first credible legislation in the United States government that can alter the way video games are sold in the country. The proposed legislation to ban the sale of loot boxes and other microtransactions now has bipartisan support from both Republicans and Democrats. But which games will be affected by the law if it passes?
You can read the bill in its entirety yourself online, but the law defines both microtransactions and loot boxes so that it's clear what lawmakers are trying to ban. Essentially, the bill is meant to "regulate certain pay-to-win microtransactions and sales of loot boxes."
Here's how the bill defines microtransactions:
"The term "pay-to-win" microtransaction" means an add-on transaction to a interactive digital entertainment product that[...] eases a user's progression through content otherwise available within he game without the purchase of such transaction; assists a user in accomplishing an achievement within the game that can otherwise be accomplished without the purchase of such transaction; assists a user in receiving an award associated with the game that is otherwise available in association with the game without the purchase of such transaction; or permits a user to access content of the game that had previously been accessible to the user but has been made inaccessible after the expiration of a timer or a number or gameplay attempts; or[...] is a game featuring competition with other users, provides a user with a competitive advantage with respect to the game's competitive aspects over users who do not make such a transaction."
And here's how the bill defines loot boxes:
"The term "loot box" means an add-on transaction to an interactive digital entertainment product that in a randomized or partially randomized fashion unlocks a feature of the product; or adds to or enhances the entertainment value of the product; or allows the user to make 1 or more additional add-on transactions that the user could not have made without making the first add-on transaction; and the content of which is unknown to the user until after the user has made the first add-on transaction."
The bill notably excludes difficulty modes, like new game plus, cosmetic add-ons, and additional game content from its definition of microtransactions.
Mobile Games Are Absolutely Affected
The wording in the bill specifically targets several popular mechanics present in popular mobile games like Candy Crush, Fire Emblem Heroes, and Clash Royale. Many big mobile games offer microtransactions at various price points that lets players skip past difficult challenges. The bill even has specific wording targeting stamina gauges, which are timers or tokens that can limit how many times a player can play a game before it locks them out. Then they must either wait, or purchase items that refill their timers or stamina.
DLC Expansions and Skins Appear to Be Safe
Content packaged as part of a game expansion should be considered excluded from the law, even if the transaction ends up giving players access to more powerful items. So full narrative expansions such as season pass content for games like Assassin's Creed Odyssey or Spider-Man should get by without the eyes of the law.
Likewise, the bill makes a notable exception for cosmetic skins, granted that the skin does not "provide the user with a competitive advantage over other users who do not make such transaction." So Fortnite and Overwatch skins should be safe.
What About Different Characters?
Here's where things get tricky, and part of the reason why the ESA has said the bill is "riddled with inaccuracies." According to the bill, selling a product that assists a player and gives them an advantage over another player who has not purchased the same product could count towards DLC fighters or characters in games like League of Legends, Rainbow Six Siege, and Apex Legends.
Some DLC characters could be considered overpowered on launch, and thereby breach some of the wording in Hawley's bill. Lawmakers could determine that Joker in the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Fighter Pass could give players an unfair advantage online, for instance, and block the sale of additional DLC characters in Nintendo's fighting game.
The overarching caveat to Hawley's bill is that its intended purpose is to outlaw the sale of microtransactions and loot boxes in "minor-oriented games," meaning games targeted at players under the age of 18. There's no legal authority that prohibits the sale of video games to underage players, and the ESRB ratings aren't legally binding. So it'll be up to publishers to ensure that games they plan to sell with microtransactions and loot boxes would need to place some kind of barrier to keep under 18 players away from a game. That's harder said than done, as anyone who was 13 when they played Doom can attest.
All of this paints a messy picture of a law that affects a lot of games, but gets more confusing the more microtransactions you consider. The video game industry has found many different avenues of generating revenue over the years, and it's clear that a broad approach to the matter won't help much aside from raise questions over what kind of microtransactions are allowed in games, and which aren't.