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Loot boxes aren't the problem but how we use them is, says legal expert

“The key is how we use these mechanics, not whether we use them,” says Will Bucher

The industry has received yet another warning on how it handles loot boxes, this time from Will Bucher, a litigation associate with legal firm Debevoise & Plimpton.

Speaking today at GDC, Bucher outlined some of the legal pitfalls and loopholes around loot boxes in the US, Europe, and China.

At present loot boxes remain broadly unregulated, with only the Netherlands and Belgium asserting any level of control in Europe, and certain aspects of Chinese law going largely unenforced.

Chinese law states that loot boxes cannot be purchased using either real or virtual currency, contents must also be acquirable through other means, and developers are not allowed to employ compulsion loops.

China also has "super onerous" legislation around disclosure which requires developers to be transparent around the odds for individual items in loot boxes, and keep a publicly available record of all loot box outcomes over the last 90 days.

However, Bucher said there is no evidence of games in China adhering to these transparency requirements.

"The truth is that it's not loot boxes that are the problem. The problem is when loot boxes are used to do other things"

"What you see in China is a lot of rules, but really inconsistent enforcement of those rules," he noted. "And the truth is whether you can offer a loot box in China depends on whether the government likes your game."

Considering the strict Chinese laws, Bucher warned against what might happen if the West is regulated by law makers who don't fully understand the issue.

"How loot boxes are regulated depends on what everyone in this room does going forward," he said. "Just because as of March 2019 there is no loot box regulation doesn't mean there won't be tomorrow.

"And whether you realise it or not as a developer or publisher, you're part of a collective dialogue about how we interact with our players, our customers, and about how we want to be regulated.

"So I urge you going forward to be careful how you use loot boxes, and to take simple steps to prevent problems."

Bucher argued in favour of parental controls so that young children don't purchase loot boxes, and implored developers to reach out to players "exhibiting problematic behaviour" in terms of spending.

While the loot box debate has resulted in clearly drawn battle lines throughout most of the industry, with mainstream media also piling into the debate, it's not a black and white issue according to Bucher.

"The truth is that it's not loot boxes that are the problem," he said. "The problem is when loot boxes are used to do other things: when they are used to create compulsion loops to keep players playing longer than they want to; when they're used to create pay-to-win mechanics so players can't win through their skill or time no matter how long they play the game. Loot boxes are a problem when they're not transparent, when players don't know what's going on.

"And when we frame the discussion as solving these other problems, I think we realise there are all sorts of game mechanics that can run into these issues. The key is how we use these mechanics, not whether we use them."

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