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Video game ‘loot boxes’ are going away and it could crush Rocket League’s black market

Rocket League (Psyonix) (Psyonix)

The developers behind Rocket League are preparing to rid the game of its loot boxes, a system for randomized in-game purchases critics say amounts to gambling. While most users hail the decision as a welcome development, the change threatens to upend one of the game’s most heavily invested communities — its black market.

Currently, players can purchase loot boxes (known as crates in the game) to earn custom wheels, decals or cars to use in the game. There’s no guarantee what you’ll get when you open a new box, each containing one item from a set of potential offerings with various levels of rarity.

All that is changing. Psyonix, the game’s developer, and parent company Epic Games announced earlier this month that loot crates will be replaced with in-game purchases where users will know the “exact items you’re buying in advance,” removing the existing element of luck. But that randomness was a factor that benefited a group of players who amassed in-game items and then either traded or sold them to players who preferred to pay a premium than spend their money on the uncertain chance of landing their desired item in a loot crate.

There’s an entire community built around trading loot in “Rocket League” through marketplaces, such as the Rocket League Exchange on Reddit, for people to directly buy or barter items from other players. Collectors and enthusiasts buy or sell specific in-game items, and the pricing often relies on the rarity of the item set by in-game loot boxes. The rarer the item, the higher the price. A set of popular wheels might cost around $20 dollars on an open market — that’s how much the entire game costs. An incredibly rare item can cost hundreds of dollars, if there’s the demand. Sell a car with the right combination of rare items and it could go for thousands.

“All of these things have real life monetary value,” said Zack West, 30, who’s been playing and collecting items in the game for a few years now. “You could kind of call it a dark web or a black market.”

However, if a person can buy any item directly from Rocket League without depending on chance, or luck, these forums lose control of the prices for a trade or sale. Whereas before there was a premium placed on the certainty of a purchase, now the black market retailers and traders may need to drop prices to incentivize a sale or trade and undercut the in-game store, significantly depreciating the value of their assets. Some players who traded regularly on these forums now have a lot of open questions.

“Trading is a huge reason why I and many others have kept interested in Rocket League for all this time,” one person wrote, replying to the news on Reddit. “Really hoping the replacement system will strengthen, rather than destroy, the fun of trading.”

Recent changes by game developers to add more transparency to these in-game purchases, or walk away from the mechanics entirely, illustrate a major shift for what was projected to become a $50 billion piece of the gaming industry. Stuck in between these decisions are all the third-party marketplaces, like those for Rocket League, which thrived off buying or selling these coveted tokens.

Some fans see Psyonix’s decision as a way to appease critics. West said it “hurts the game if it’s tainted by gambling questions” and the change makes the game easier to market for the growing competitive scene around it.

A spokesperson for Psyonix declined to answer questions regarding why the company decided to remove loot boxes from the game. Psyonix will reveal more details about the new system in the next few months.

Many players praise the upcoming change for Rocket League. Samuel Johnston, 26, has been playing the game for four years now, and he said he welcomes the end of loot boxes.

“You could spend 100 dollars on loot boxes and never get something that’s worthwhile,” Johnston said. “Loot boxes are dying, in general, and I think that’s great. I don’t see any downside to that.”

A parent of an underage gamer filed a lawsuit in California last February, accusing Epic Games of a predatory scheme, citing loot boxes in “Fortnite: Save the World,” the original co-op survival mode of the now massively popular battle royal franchise. Epic had already removed loot boxes from the game before the lawsuit. The changes to Rocket League will be similar to the redesign for Fortnite, according to the announcement by both Epic and Psyonix.

Threats to regulate loot boxes have been looming on the horizon. The Federal Trade Commission hosted a workshop the day after Rocket League’s announcement to “examine consumer protection issues related to” these in-game purchases. State lawmakers in California, Hawaii, Minnesota and Washington have proposed legislation to regulate or prohibit loot boxes. In Belgium, loot boxes have been banned from video games all together.

Back in May, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.) introduced bipartisan legislation that would prohibit companies from offering loot boxes in video games for kids.

All games on the three major platforms — Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony — will soon need to disclose how likely it is to receive a certain item from a loot box, according to a statement by the Entertainment Software Association. The companies plan to implement the policy by next year.

Matthew McCaffrey, 34, is an assistant professor at the University of Manchester and wrote a paper on the challenges regulating micro-transactions in video games. He said the statement by the ESA shows the industry leaders know they need to “win back their customers.”

“It’s a question of: how to increase the revenue that can be generated through games without infuriating your customers,” McCaffrey said. “So, that’s the challenge.”

[How a Star Wars video game faced charges that it was promoting gambling]

Companies that walk away from loot boxes will most likely see short-term losses, McCaffrey said, but they could find themselves with a stronger customer base and potentially a new model that is even more profitable.

Developers will continue to test micro-transaction models, McCaffrey said, especially ones that involve an “element of risk” so customers come back. It’s a “giant experiment” by the gaming industry as the costs to develop triple-A titles continue to rise.

“The key is what consumers, what gamers, ultimately think these items are worth,” he added.

Some players say there are plenty of ways for Psyonix to set up the new in-game store to keep a trading ecosystem. As long as there’s an element of rarity or unpredictability, West told The Washington Post people will still want to trade to guarantee they get a certain item.

“It might slow down or speed up. Nobody knows,” he said. “They’re not getting rid of trading, that’s a huge percentage of the user base.”

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