Comment & Opinion

Data: Why mobile and console players like loot boxes but PC gamers don't

PickFu co-founder John Li asks the questions

Data: Why mobile and console players like loot boxes but PC gamers don't

 John Li is co-founder of instant market feedback company Pickfu

For many in the gaming industry, loot box is a toxic phrase.

Games offer loot boxes containing randomized enhancements such as premium weapons, special skins, character outfits, and other goodies.

Players spend real money on these loot boxes — estimates range as high as $15 billion annually.

But players only find out what’s in a loot box after they have paid for it.

In effect, they’re paying for the chance to receive something valuable, an action critics liken to pulling the lever of a slot machine.

Indeed, the Japanese arcade game pachinko is where developers originally got the idea.

The spotlight hit loot boxes once again last week. After backlash from a leaked internal document, EA was pressed to deny that it aimed to “funnel” players of its FIFA ’21 game to spend on Ultimate Team mode, abbreviated FUT.

The document proclaimed that "all roads lead to FUT" and that "FUT is the cornerstone, and we are doing everything we can to drive players there.”

Recently, UK charity GambleAware published evidence suggesting that the loot box business model is "structurally and psychologically" the same as gambling. Governments around the globe are grappling with whether loot boxes constitute gambling and should be regulated as such.

We surveyed 600 US-based players about loot boxes. The overall sentiment out of 5 (like very much) was a 3.5, or slightly favorable.

But do gamers themselves care about any of this?

What do gamers say?

At PickFu, we surveyed 600 US-based players about loot boxes in mobile, PC, and console games.

We asked, “On a scale from 1 (dislike very much) to 5 (like very much), what are your feelings on loot boxes in video games?”

The overall sentiment was a 3.5, or slightly favorable.

Loot boxes are liked more by console gamers (59%) and mobile gamers (58%) than PC players (41%).

PC players (42%) expressly dislike loot boxes more than console (35%) and mobile (23%) gamers.

A respondent commented: “I genuinely dislike loot boxes in PC video games to such an extent that I will ignore a game simply for including them. Even [without] real cash options to buy them (earning in-game versus buying ‘points’ with cash), I feel that they make a game worse all around.”

Gamers tend to be more forgiving of loot boxes when they’re featured in free-to-play games, which may explain why mobile gamers are more receptive to them.

One console gamer who rated loot boxes one star wrote, "If the game was free, I would probably be more forgiving provided the loot box system was fair and open. However, I usually am already paying a lot of ‘extra’ stuff to begin with, from service subscriptions on top of standard subscriptions to outright actual game purchases.

"If you need loot boxes to fund your free-to-play game, I'd be more forgiving, but often it just feels like content was taken out of a very expensive video game just to make more money in a predatory way.”

Players prefer randomized loot offered as part of the game rather than at extra cost. “When the loot boxes are free, I love them,” wrote a mobile gamer who rated loot boxes four stars.

“[T]he items are literally a gift, no matter how minuscule I may think the item is. However, if I have to use resources, spend real money, or put in real effort to get the loot box, it's very disappointing if the contents don't contain anything of much value.”

Only 5% of mobile gamers consider loot boxes to be a form of gambling.

“Miniscule” gifts like aesthetic skins don’t seem to bother players. Some are willing to purchase cosmetic loot to make their characters unique. Thanks to cosmetic kits and the element of surprise, especially for players without the time or patience to grind for items and perks, only 5% of mobile gamers consider loot boxes to be a form of gambling.

Players are generally receptive to the idea of loot boxes as a game mechanic but admittedly prefer them if they’re obtainable without having to pay real money for them.

What should developers do differently?

One PC gamer who rated loot boxes three stars summed up the general sentiment: “I have mixed feelings regarding loot boxes. I like how loot boxes generally help games maintain a free-to-play model which allows for widespread access.

"On the other hand, I dislike the randomness and gambling aspect of opening loot boxes to gain stuff. I like it when obtaining something in a video game is tied to some challenge or task.

Gamers are willing to tolerate loot boxes under certain conditions for specific rewards. They understand the business motive in free-to-play titles and widely accept that loot boxes have a place in the overall evolution of the video game industry. 

Given their gateway nature, loot boxes might be limited to players over the age of 18. Perhaps legislation needs to be passed that holds developers and publishers more to account.

Developers who get the balance right, who make loot boxes fun, engaging and fair, can generally avoid the toxic headlines many immediately think of when they hear the term loot box.

“[P]aying into a lottery system wherein you may get a 3% chance of unlocking a ‘rare’ or ‘epic’ item with a huge ability boost is unfair, unjust, and a straight-up money grab,” said one PC gamer who rated loot boxes two stars.

“I absolutely tend to avoid games that employ these tactics, and do not let my two boys play games that employ these tactics, either.”

Nevertheless, developers and publishers who get the balance right, who make loot boxes fun, engaging and fair, can generally avoid the toxic headlines many immediately think of when they hear the term loot box.

Openness and transparency will also help. Gamers appreciate when games show how much an item costs, potential drop rates, and how loot boxes help fund the game and the wider ambitions of the developers. This dialogue goes a long way to building trust.

PickFu is a consumer research software dedicated to helping businesses make better-informed decisions through instant online polls.

With PickFu's readymade panel of survey respondents, companies across industries like e-commerce, gaming, software, and marketing gather insights on product features, graphic design, user interfaces, copywriting, and more. Learn more at regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.