Pandora’s Loot Box

 In Blog

If you’re looking to get into a fight on the internet, and politics aren’t your thing, you could do a lot worse than typing the word “microtransactions” into a comment thread. When the games industry actively starts using Las Vegas terminology like “monetising whales” out where their customers can hear them, you have to see that there’s a breakdown of communication and trust in play. Big-name publications are putting out articles declaring that the humble microtransaction is “destroying games”. Top 10 (or more) lists of games “killed” by microtransactions are drawing huge numbers of readers, and most of them seem angry whichever side of the argument they’re taking.

The truth, admitted even by some of the industry’s harshest critics, is that meeting growing player expectations costs more each year. The standard price brackets for games, on the other hand, are remaining relatively static. A single-player game with a one-shot price tag won’t always bring in enough to justify the work that went into it, but attempts to shift the model are met with mixed success. Remember that innovative 2008 shooter that promised to revolutionise gaming by making you pay for ammunition and stake real cash on the damage you caused and suffered in matches? No? Didn’t think so.

More recently, we’ve been seeing a lot more games being designed from scratch to support themselves through ongoing DLC expansions, cash-for-in-game currency purchases and loot boxes. Again, though, many of these gambits have been a tough sell for players. At time of writing, there are 13,604 signatures on a parliament website petition to adapt the UK’s gambling laws to rule that loot boxes constitute gambling – and we’ve had to update that figure three times since we started writing that sentence! Right now, it doesn’t look like the attempt is going anywhere – but neither is the sentiment that produced it.

It’s certainly clear that gamers don’t automatically hate making additional purchases after they’ve bought a game. However, the industry seems to be having a hard time interpreting the message its customers are sending. Paying for random loot drops doesn’t currently match the legal definition of gambling in most cases. However, they’re still being talked about in those terms by people who ought to know better, and they’re still scratching the gambling itch for a lot of players. Sometimes, the language being used alone is enough to provoke a backlash. There’s also an arguable absurdity at the heart of asking players to pay extra cash to skip less interesting parts of a game. As an art form, gaming is essentially unique in its policy of skill-gating already-purchased content to keep it safe from insufficiently competent customers. That core weirdness throws up a lot of bizarre situations, such as nano-industries based around grinding or levelling up on behalf of another player.

If there’s a single, effective answer to this – one that can satisfy a broad majority of games companies and their players – then no one seems to have cracked it just yet. The infuriating thing is that, for all the work going into building a survivable business model for the future of gaming, there’s still so much money being left on the table. In the UK, Video Games Tax Relief essentially means getting up to 25% of a game’s development costs back. Qualifying costs in the UK in 2015 came to an incredible £181 million! The thing is, only about 12% of Britain’s almost 2,000 games developers are claiming the VGTR their work entitles them to. That’s an amazing competitive edge being needlessly blunted because companies don’t realise it exists, don’t understand the benefits or can’t get their heads around the system. It’s an understandable problem, but it’s also fixable. There’s no simple, one-step process to claim VGTR. There are hoops to jump through and obstacles to negotiate. To put it another way, there’s really nothing to it that you’re not already asking your own customers to survive.

Talk to RIFT about claiming your Video Games Tax Relief. It’s the most valuable loot drop in the business and you can’t level up without it.

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