Loot boxes continue to be a hot-button issue and, understandably, the practice of asking people to spend money for a chance to unlock in-game items that won’t have any value outside of the game, is under more scrutiny now than ever. Recently, however, the discussion has been around whether purchasing loot boxes is akin to gambling.
On this week’s episode of the GameSpot After Dark Podcast, one of the topics of discussion is buying loot boxes in games versus buying packs of Magic the Gathering cards in real life. The discussion was prompted by a question from a reader, who notes the similarity to buying booster packs in Magic, which has avoided being scrutinized as a potential form of gambling.
In the podcast we also discuss our time with Destiny 2, Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, Apple Arcade, Untitled Goose Game. Naturally, we also drift into off-topic territory for some fun times. Below you’ll find all the necessary links to find the GameSpot After Dark podcast on iTunes, Spotify, SoundCloud, and Google Play. We’ve also included an RSS link so you can put that into your podcast application of choice. If you want to read a transcript of the conversation, you can do that too.
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Magic The (Random) Gathering
Lucy: Magic the Gathering was mentioned last episode, and I thought that this might be a good way to see where you stand on Magic the Gathering booster packs versus loot boxes in games. The argument for loot boxes being gambling is that loot box returns skins, characters or weapons of variable value.
For example, you can open a box that contains three common skins and one rare. Or, you can open a box with one common, two rares, and one legendary. In addition, you could buy those skins directly for coins using real money. Because of this direct monetary relationship of coins to skins, this means that each box has an actual dollar value that you can calculate, which is the very definition of gambling.
However, Magic the Gathering has survived this gambling situation by claiming explicitly that each card is only worth 20 cents-
Jake: Ooooooh, that’s a lie.
Lucy: Which is the cost of the booster pack, $3, divided by the total amount of cards in each pack, which is 15. This means that even if Jake pulled a $20 card-
Jake: Never going to happen. Never going to happen.
Kallie: Love using Jake as an example.
Lucy: Wizards of the Coast will refuse to acknowledge its value and claim that card is only worth 20 cents. Of course, they host tournaments that requires players to bring decks with good and expensive cards, which means that they directly influence the cost of the cards.
What do you all think of the current situation of loot boxes and microtransactions in gaming? And do you foresee this having a spillover effect into other markets? Thanks, Matt.
Kallie: Peter is raising his hand.
Jake: I want to clarify one thing quickly. The 20 cents thing actually makes sense. Because I actually pulled a $20 card not that long ago. But once again, Wizards of the Coast doesn’t decide that value, that is decided by…
Tamoor: Wizards of the Mainland.
Jake: The people who play and figure out like, “Alright, this card is good for professional play.” And then, if people see professional players buy, then everyone wants that card. Anyway, go ahead, Peter.
Peter: So, there’s a difference between virtual and physical goods and how you can create a market around those and make money off of them and trade them for intangible value in a sense. Cards can be used in a lot of different ways. Like, I do think buying a pack of cards is still gambling. But I think if we’re going to get down to like the human experience, opening a pack of cards is way more fulfilling than opening a loot crate where you get like one thing.
A deck of cards has like 13 things in it that you can consider and do things with. You can also trade with your friends and do a lot of stuff with it. I mean, a lot of what Magic the Gathering is, is that community of sharing, building decks, a lot of that. That’s something that we just don’t get from video games. But are you rolling the dice? Of course.
Jake: Yeah, totally. That’s a good point because even when I used to play, I’d go to a card shop and pull a good card that was worth a lot of money and immediately I’d just be like, “Actually, here, can I just have like $20 in store credit because I don’t really want this card.” And then I’d get more packs or maybe something else. Can’t really do that with games. Well, I guess you kind of can with Steam, right?
Peter: But not really, either. I mean, you’re not … I mean, maybe you can do it from a transactional standpoint, but there’s not that community, the relationship building that comes from that sort of thing. You’re doing it to a cold person on the other end of that thing.
Lucy: I understand that, yeah.
Peter: I can see why that comparison exists, but I don’t know, I feel like Magic is … they cannot change the value of these cards because they’re trying to get around the fact that it’s random. But at the same time, I feel like it’s way more fulfilling to play Magic than open loot crates.
Jake: Oh yeah, totally.
Peter: Or rather, open Magic packs than open loot crates.
Lucy: Have you seen … there was a YouTube channel called Open Boosters and a few years ago, I don’t know how we found this video. It came up … maybe in the algorithm or something. But there is a guy, he’s doing-
Tamoor: It was on Reddit. We found it on Reddit-
Lucy: Oh, was it on Reddit?
Tamoor: It was like wholesome videos or something like that.
Lucy: God, it was so good. He was doing this … he opened a pack of cards, and he was wearing the gloves and what was it called? The Black Lotus?
Tamoor: Black Lotus. He pulled a Black Lotus-
Jake: Oh, wow.
Lucy: Which is like a $15,000 card. And just the … I’ve never heard just like joy in some … like, pure, unadulterated wholesome joy. And his hands started shaking-
Tamoor: Immediately started … and he was like, he went, “Holy PSSSSSHHHHH”
Jake: It’s okay, Lucy’s already cussed a couple of times. You can say it-
Lucy: No, no, no. That’s what he did-
Jake: Oh, he did? Okay.
Peter: Are we not allowed to cuss?
Kallie: We try to stay away from the F-word.
Jake: We’re not supposed to say the F-word.
Peter: Ah …
Tamoor: But like, he went like … you could see his hands shaking.
Lucy: Like we talk about Overwatch a lot, and I’m past the point now where I buy loot boxes in Overwatch, even for seasonal events because I’ve just got that much gold, humblebrag, because I don’t buy boxes anymore. And so, if there’s a skin that I want, I can just buy it. But even at my-
Jake: The 1%.
Lucy: Even at the height of Overwatch, when I was actually buying boxes, I’ve not had a comparable moment. Even when I unlocked that particular D.Va skin, or you know, whatever. I’ve never felt joy like that guy finding the Black Lotus and maybe that’s just because I live a sad life…-
Jake: To be fair, not many people probably have felt the joy of pulling a Black Lotus-
Lucy: Yeah, I was going to say because that’s not a $15,000 skin.
Peter: The thing is, a physical card, right? Like you can really assign a lot of false but emotional value to that objects. I mean, objects have power.
Lucy: No, I mean, because yeah, people now you … I mean, Pokemon cards, you can still find the collection that I started in the 90s, whereas in 20 years time, am I going to boot up my Blizzard account and go, “Oh, I remember unlocking this skin-
Kallie: I like how in 20 years, you’re 70.
Tamoor: You’re mad old.
Lucy: To be fair, I am a 60 year old in the body of a 28-year-old.
Tamoor: That Open Boosters guy, I think he pulled the Black Lotus a second time.
Lucy: No, he did not?!!?!
Tamoor: I think so, yeah.
Lucy: What a guy.