What is a “loot box” anyway?
The term “loot box” has been used as a loose, catch all term for a variety of monetization mechanics based around an individual paying, either directly or indirectly to receive a randomized item or set of items. One stereotypical example of this would be the Sync Pair Scout of Pokémon Masters EX, where players pay to recruit new characters using an in-game currency (gems) that can be obtained by either paying money, or through gameplay (in limited quantities). Depending on the game, the items found in loot boxes might include things such as characters, equipment, and consumables. These need not necessarily give the player any sort of in-game advantage, and several games do sustain themselves entirely on loot boxes containing only cosmetic items to change a player’s appearance.
Loot boxes, and how these are doled out to players (including those players who only purchase them after collecting enough “free” in-game currency to do so), is an application of instrumental conditioning, also known as operant conditioning. This is a form of conditioning whereby an individual learns to perform behaviours that produce positive outcomes and avoid those yielding negative outcomes. Whereas classical conditioning (such as with Pavlov’s famous experiment with Dogs) results in involuntarily, simple responses, instrumentally conditioned behaviours can be deliberate, complex behaviours to obtain some goal. Specifically, loot boxes are an example of positive reinforcement, whereby the behaviour (purchasing a loot box) is strengthened and reinforced by a reward (the loot box provides desirable items). Much as with slot machines, this is a variable-ratio reinforcement, where the individuals performing the behaviour know that they can eventually get the desired reward so long as they continue the behaviour, but have no idea how many times the behaviour must be performed in order to get the reward. Also similar to slot machines, receiving the reward is often also a sensory experience, with many games going out of their way to provide things like mini-cut scenes when players obtain rare items. Many loot box systems further complicate things by adding in an additional motivating factor with a fear-of-missing-out, with certain rewards only available on a limited time basis, and with no indication given of when, if ever, they will be available again in the future.
As an aside, though the term “loot box” is typically only applied in a video gaming context, most commonly with so-called free-to-play (F2P) games, the exact same mechanics can also be observed in a range of physical products as well, including capsule toy (the gashapon that “gacha” mechanics get their name from, and which inspired Pokémon’s original name of Capsule Monsters) machines, lucky dips, and even things like Kinder Surprise Eggs and packets of TCG cards.
Pokémon GO’s Variety of Loot Boxes
Let’s start not with hatching Pokémon, but catching them. Because yes, catching Pokémon in Pokémon GO does effectively function as a form of loot box. In fact, it’s even worse than your typical loot box. With a typical loot box, you would spend a set value of currency, items, and/or time, and you’d have a guaranteed set minimum return for that spend. By contrast, Pokémon GO requires you to spend an unknown number of items (balls, berries, etc) and time to just possibly catch a Pokémon. There’s a chance that, despite expending many balls and berries, the Pokémon is going to run away from you. While you can obtain these items through gameplay via PokéStops (and we’ll come back to those in a bit), these items can also be purchased through the in-game store using in-game coins that you’ve paid real world money for.
The only degree of control that players have over what Pokémon appear for catching are through items such as Incense, Lure Modules, and Raid Passes. While it’s possible to receive a limited amount of these through gameplay, it’s far easier for players to obtain them through paying at the shop. While these items themselves aren’t loot boxes, given that you’re spending an item in order to gain more opportunities to potentially catch a Pokémon, they can be thought of as effectively the equivalent of a gambler being able to pay for the right to have more opportunities to gamble. By buying more raid passes for instance, you improve your odds of being able to potentially catch the Pokémon that you want. The one exception to this is the ironically named Mystery Box, where the only way to get additional uses is to transfer Pokémon from GO to Pokémon: Let's Go, Pikachu!, Let's Go, Eevee!, or Pokémon HOME. Of course, you need to have paid for those games to use this Mystery Box mechanic, so even if it's not a microtransaction you're still out of pocket for it.
The potential for failure with catching is compounded by the inclusion of a skill mechanism. While there’s still going to be a chance of failure for everyone, a more highly skilled player will on average use less items. You might argue that the skill mechanism involved is simply "basic motor control", and that anyone could “get good” with enough practice, however that’s a very ableist way to look at things. Pokémon GO attracts players from a number of vulnerable consumer groups, including young, elderly, and disabled players, all who this skill mechanism places at a disadvantage, and who on balance will need to use more items in catching Pokémon, and thus be put in a situation more frequently where they might need to pay for items.
Pokémon GO’s catching mechanic also fails to give the same level of information about odds to the player as other loot boxes. While this might not seem a big deal to a lot of players, both the iPadOS App Store and Google Play do require games including loot boxes to prominently display odds in game. It should be noted Pokémon GO does in a way make some odds about the kind of Pokémon available visible to the user in real-time, just not in a numerical format. That is to say, you can see what's on your map, so you know what Pokémon you could catch at any given moment. What isn’t displayed however are the quality of said Pokémon’s stats. There’s no way to tell before you try to catch it if any given Pokémon will be the Pokémon GO equivalent of a common, uncommon, or rare. You just have to catch it and hope it’s got good enough stats that it’s not going to be relegated to candy fodder. Outside of raid Pokémon and Pokémon appearing due to events, players also don’t have a clear indication of what it is they have to do to make a certain Pokémon available. This is one area in which the game has in fact regressed since launch. While it’s to some extent understandable that they’d want to move Pokémon around to give more people more opportunities to catch different species, trainers no longer can rely on being able to go to certain areas around town where you knew certain rare Pokémon would frequently appear.
Pokémon GO's hatching mechanic ticks a lot of the same boxes, and is more of a traditional kind of loot box than catching. For this, you spend a known number of items (a use of an Egg Incubator) to have a 100% chance of gaining a Pokémon. While you can obtain incubators through gameplay via level ups, and there have also been a few rare special events where they were available via PokéStops, incubators are most easily obtained by purchasing them using real money. Because you can only hold 12 Eggs at once, the incubator mechanic does to some extent limit the amount of money a person might be able to spend on these at once, since there’s only so many incubators that you’re going to need on hand at any given point in time, and paying more can only make things quicker up to a point. But therein lies a double-edged sword, because just as with the catching mechanic, hatching Pokémon has actually gotten worse from a loot box perspective since the launch of the game. While at the beginning, Eggs all hatched at a consistent rate, Niantic introduced the Super Incubator to the game in August 2017 which hatches Eggs faster than the normal rate. This means that there’s a very clear advantage for paying players over free players with this mechanic, as they can guarantee themselves the ability to hatch eggs faster than those players reliant on the generosity of PokéStops.
Hatching also has similar issues when it comes to the display of odds. While upcoming changes will start to give players more transparency about exactly which Pokémon they might receive from an Egg, players will still have no real control over which Eggs they receive, only which ones they hatch. You may have some awareness about the potential types of Pokémon currently available from Eggs due to certain events, etc, but ultimately you have no guarantee on either type or quality of Pokémon Eggs that you’re going to get. And if there is some event giving improved odds to get certain Pokémon Eggs… that 12 Egg limit means you’re probably going to have to make space for those Eggs first by hatching the ones you already have. So yes, that Niantic is planning to start telling us what’s in our Pokémon Eggs is certainly an improvement, but it doesn’t mean they’re not still the digital equivalent of a Kinder Surprise Egg (only with probably worse odds of getting what you want from them).
Speaking of PokéStops, you guessed it, they’re basically loot boxes too. Now, you might be wondering how these constitute a loot box when you only get them for free in the course of regular play. But it’s actually quite common for many “gatcha” styled games to include free pulls at some regular rate. Pokémon Masters EX for instance has its free daily 10 pull, Fire Emblem Heroes has the free summon per banner, and Fate/Grand Order has its daily summon and friend point summons. Pokémon GO’s PokéStops work a little differently, in that rather than being an outside system to help push the gameplay loop (designed to get you hooked enough into mechanics for character improvement to start pay for them), Niantic has made (ir)regular encounters of PokéStops in the course of normal gameplay a part of the core gameplay loop itself. As items like Pokéballs, Incubators, etc, are required in order to engage with the main gameplay loop, your only option to play the game without collecting these loot boxes would be to pay for those items. A problem perhaps all too familiar to some people living in rural areas who may not have had the same access to PokéStops. This necessarily means that Pokémon GO has to give players a bit more ability to control how often they may be able to obtain these loot boxes than most games. At the same time though, you’re still receiving a random selection of items from each PokéStop, with no control over which ones you’re getting. Each item you receive is itself also a prompt to encourage you to try the other loot boxes. You literally cannot decide to, say, never receive any Eggs from PokéStops.
Being a “fun present” doesn’t mean it’s not a Loot Box
John’s arguments that hatching doesn’t constitute a loot box essentially comes down to a few core points. That
- They don’t offer meaningful advantages
- You don’t have to spend money to get them, and
- It’s entirely optional to spend money.
First, John claims that hatching doesn’t offer a meaningful advantage. To which I’d say…. the whole point of Pokémon GO is to get more Pokémon, isn’t it? Pokémon that can be used to battle for the bragging rights of your team? That a single Pokémon might not necessarily give a meaningful advantage on its own doesn’t mean that the acquisition of that Pokémon (through catching or hatching) doesn’t constitute a loot box. In fact, most of the stuff players get through loot boxes in most games featuring this kind of mechanic don’t give players a meaningful advantage on their own. But acquiring many of these items over time through opening more loot boxes absolutely does give a player some degree of advantage over players who don’t make use of them. John noted in his article how, despite playing intensively since August 2020, they’d only collected 309 of the 400 Swablu candies they needed to evolve a Swablu into an Altaria. Well, a player who doesn’t hatch is, long term, going to have less Pokémon to grind up into candies than someone else who plays identically to them but does engage with that mechanic. That’s a material advantage to the hatching loot box right there.
Finally, John makes the argument that, because it’s entirely optional to spend money, that Pokémon Eggs aren’t loot boxes. An argument that he defends by pointing to the grind of Pokémon GO, and how it takes a long time to do meaningful things. It just beggars belief that anyone would make a claim as ludicrous as this, or how anyone could be so entirely oblivious to how this same kind of line, that something is “just optional” and/or “only cosmetic”, has been trotted out by various groups for more than a decade in defence of exploitative microtransactions. That a game’s core gameplay loop requires an investment of time doesn’t make things better. Indeed, what John describes here is essentially how some of the most exploitative F2P games work, by encouraging if not outright psychologically manipulating players to pay up to skip at least part of the grind. Rather than implement a stamina mechanic to limit how long you can play (and encourage you to pay for more Stamina), Pokémon GO instead has created a system whereby the biggest limiting factor on your advancement is your ability to devote more time to the game. The more time limited you are, the less distance you can walk while playing. That means less ability to catch different Pokémon, less ability to hatch eggs, and less ability to visit PokéStops for the items needed to engage with both of those loot boxes. This encourages time limited players to spend money on items to reduce the amount of time they need to play. You don’t need to visit as many PokéStops if you can buy balls; You don’t have to travel as much if you can bring the Pokémon to you with Incense, Lure Modules, and (Remote) Raid Passes; and you can hatch more Pokémon in the same amount of travel distance if you’re hatching Pokémon quicker with more Incubators and/or Super Incubators.
Why it matters
Over the past decades, one issue that’s been particularly prominent in relation to children’s vulnerability has been gambling, and how it’s presented to children. To be clear, this isn’t a question of if things like games are somehow “glorifying” gambling behaviours. The issue is that the inclusion of gambling in games and in other media can serve to legitimize and normalize them for the children who are consuming them, and in doing so, can contribute to longer term gambling behaviour that can continue into adulthood. The Pokémon franchise is certainly no stranger to issues in this area. As a direct result of when the Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) organization implementing stricter guidelines that limited gambling to adult-oriented video games, the main series games Pokémon games have worked to phrase out the concept of gambling since Generation III. More recently, Pokémon Master’s EX continues to not be available in Belgium and The Netherlands due to falling foul of laws and regulations which equate loot boxes to gambling.
Now, some parents reading this right now are probably rising up to say how they’re responsible, good parents, and how they’d never give in to this kind of exploitation of their children. A few of you may even be thinking about how you’ve used it as a teaching moment for them. To those people I say…. step back a moment. Because if you’re saying that a responsible parent doesn’t buy these things for their kids, you’re essentially calling all the parents out there who bought them irresponsible. And to me, that comes off as victim blaming. Loot boxes are no less psychologically manipulative and addicting as any other form of gambling.
Another way to think of it would be like this. When something’s “free” to you as a consumer, it’s frequently because you’re paying for it in a way that doesn’t involve an immediate transfer of money. Online, the most common example of that is when you get to use a website, platform or app in return for them being able to advertise to you. Frequently, you also need to give up some of your personal information to that organisation as part of the process, which might be used to improve their advertising targeting and make even more money off you. With F2P games featuring loot boxes, what you’re paying with is, effectively, your willpower. Every time you play the game, you give them more opportunities to attempt to persuade you to purchase the loot box. Some games are very overt about that, with lots of ads about various offers, in the same way that a casino is always going to be very up front in how it pushes information about the current jackpots on its slot machines. But that doesn’t mean that more subtle prompts, like Pokémon GO’s PokéStops, can’t be similarly as effective. There’s also a huge difference when we’re talking about this from the perspective of an adult player, and from children playing the game. Will your children have the same restraint as you might? There’s certainly more than enough horror stories out there of children who’ve spent thousands on their parents dollars on various mobile titles, including Pokémon GO. But even if your children can’t make the purchase themselves, will you have the same resistance when it’s your children pestering you to buy for them, as opposed to the game pestering you directly? Are you willing to take that gamble, with your children?
So the lesson for parents here is, if you want to give a kid a nice surprise, maybe buy them something like the Pokémon Nanoblocks? When your kids are getting a nice surprise, there’s no need for you to be surprised about what they’re getting yourself.
EDIT: The original version of this article stated that "you can obtain incubators through gameplay via PokéStops". This has been clarified to make clear this was only possible during certain rare events, and that they would more typically be obtained for free via level-ups.