‘Loot crates’ where players pay real money for the chance of a rare item or upgrade to stay competitive make players part with money they don’t have.
“Predatory” payments in hugely popular computer games like Fortnite and Hearthstone are equivalent to gambling but are unregulated and could lead young people to addiction and financial difficulty, experts are warning.
In the wake of gaming addiction being recognised by the World Health Organisation, psychologists have drawn attention to what they describe as the “increasing similarity of gaming and gambling” in what has rapidly grown into a multi-billion pound entertainment sector.
They single out a type of in-game micropayment known as “loot boxes”, where players buy a random reward, potentially including rare characters or powerful weapons.
Younger players in particular are “less equipped” to reign in their spending, the pair warned.In Fortnite, the wildly popular survival shoot-’em-up which has a free to play version, players can access a campaign to play alongside friends and use the game’s “V-Buck” currency to buy quirky llama loot piñatas, which give a random reward.
Coins can be bought with real money or won more slowly through the game. More expensive llamas, such as the Legendary Troll Loot Truck Llama, cost at least £10 in V-bucks but include 20 items.
While Hearthstone, an online card game from World of Warcraft developers Blizzard, users can pay for packs of cards with a random selection of rare characters or skills to battle other players.
Accessing these top-tier items can be vital to progress or improve rankings in the game, which may require beating experienced players with better upgrades and making earning credits in the game harder.
The need to overcome this paywall only becomes apparent after players have committed a substantial amount of time playing for free, and amounts to “entrapment”, the authors note.
“Game monetisation schemes have become increasingly sophisticated and have been featured more prominently within popular online games,” the authors write. “In our view, some of these schemes could be considered predatory.
“Predatory monetisation schemes typically involve in‐game purchasing systems that disguise or withhold the true long‐term cost of the activity until players are already financially and psychologically committed.”
These build in other tactics used in the gambling industry, such as seemingly time-limited sales, invasive promotional adverts, and the imbalance of information on the player’s side about the rarity of items.
These can be used alone or in combination with information about the player’s preferences, playing traits and available funds to “maximise the likelihood of eliciting player spending”.
Fortnite’s publisher, Epic Games, made $296m (£227m) from the game in April alone. Even though it’s free to play, the average spend per person is $58 (£44), with 69 per cent of players having made an in-game purchase.
This massive cash-generation potential is a huge incentive to incorporate such retailing strategies into games, while the lack of any physical or monetary reward means they circumvent traditional gaming classification and cost publishers nothing.