"There's a lot of controversy about loot boxes," says Andrew Chen, head of gaming and apps for Mattel. If ever there was an understatement, this is certainly one. Loot boxes have been scrutinized in the U.S. Congress by Senator Josh Hawley, who previously proposed a bill to outright ban loot boxes. More recently in the U.K. Parliament, an EA spokesperson claimed they were "quite ethical," and "surprise mechanics."
Chen doesn't want anything to do with this conversation. I didn't even have to ask about loot boxes in Mattel's latest game, Hot Wheels Infinite, for him to tell me the steps it's taking to combat the mechanic. "It's a free-to-play model for people over 16. So if you're under 16 it's still free, but we don't have some of the monetization, for example, with ads," Chen says about Hot Wheels Infinite Loop at Gamescom last week.
"As soon as you open the game, there's an age gate, and you have to select your age. You cannot then go back into the settings and change your age," Chen says. So if you say you're under 16, you won't have the option to purchase loot boxes in Hot Wheels Infinite. In fact, they're entirely wiped from the game full stop if you're under 16, and Chen tells me you'd never even know loot boxes were a part of the game if you're under 16. There's no grayed-out area in the menus for purchasing loot boxes, for example.
"It's because we're a kids company," Chen says. "If you're over 16, we know you know what you're doing. Why we picked 16? That's the most conservative age that regulatory bodies have decided to set. In the U.S., it's 13; in most countries it's 13, and in some European countries, it's 16."
A step forward, this might be, but Chen admits there are ways around the age gate. Although Chen says that you can't go back into the settings of Hot Wheels Infinite and change your age, he does say that "there are other ways to do it, but it'd take you to redownload the game to do it."
Chen and Mattel are certainly taking an intriguing approach with the ongoing loot box debate. Could this be an approach that, say, games like FIFA or Madden also adopt in the future?