The Buck Stops Here: Loot Boxes and Predatory Practices

Star Wars Battlefront II

Pardon me while this blog post is a couple of weeks late, it’s still better than never. The controversy with EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II and its loot boxes made the rounds in gaming news, even culminating in governments condemning the game and loot boxes in general as gambling. While loot boxes had become the norm in games, especially free-to-play games with not that much room for monetization, publishers had been slowly but surely pushing it as far as it’ll go until the dam breaks.

That’s exactly what just happened with Star Wars Battlefront II and Warner Bros.’ Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. Personally, I wouldn’t give even two shits if this whole thing imploded since I didn’t really have any interest in those games. I don’t care for a Star Wars-skinned Battlefield game and I haven’t had the time to touch my digital copy of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor just yet (maybe I’ll blog about it if I do play it).

EA has since been doing what they could to make the multiplayer reward system a tad more fair, but it may be too little too late as $3 billion has been wiped out of their valuation last week.

However, the rest of the gaming world is threatening to implode with this recent controversy. There are even governments from two different countries condemning recent lootbox-heavy AAA games as outright gambling. Hawaii representative Chris Lee recently deemed Star Wars Battlefront II as a “Star Wars-themed online casino” and warned that “It’s a trap”.

The Line Between Fair Monetization and Gambling

If not taken too far and made optional, loot boxes are the fairest way to monetize a game, whether it’s freemium or retail. As long as there are no pay-to-win options and not having items that can only be obtained through loot boxes doesn’t impede the core gameplay experience, everything should be fine.

But when getting the most out of a game takes hundreds of hours or at least $20 more to your purchase, then that’s a blatant ripoff at a fairly high level. It’s not Bernie Madoff levels of deviousness, but it’s still pretty bad.

How Blizzard gets a pass here with Overwatch loot boxes, I can only guess that it’s with just cosmetic stuff. Then again, Riot Games does better with League of Legends, and they don’t loot box their skins. I do notice with Overwatch’s way of doing, there’s a difference of opinion. Some say it’s the most fair way they can further monetize their game, while others think it’s still scummy and should be dumped by the wayside.

It’s possible for people to buy $50 worth of loot boxes in Overwatch and still not get their desired legendary skin for their favorite character. That’s gambling right there, even if the reward isn’t money per se. In video games, that kind of stuff can be seen as predatory, which is why microtransactions are supposed to be a touchy subject in the first place.

UPDATE (06DEC2017 06:50): Take-Two Interactive president Karl Slatoff has publicly stated that he thinks loot boxes are not gambling at all. Here’s to loot boxes in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Is EA Fucked?

Right now, absolutely not. Very very far from it.

Electronic Arts Stocks NASDAQ 04DEC2017

They started the year at around $79 per share, then finally broke through the $100 mark in May. Mass Effect: Andromeda came out in March. I think that, among other things, may be what bumped the stocks past 100 since the bad PR from Andromeda’s various problems hadn’t been in full swing yet.

Perhaps it could’ve been something else as well since something happened that made EA stock jump from 96.01 in May 9 to 108.16 in May 10.

As long as they’re still above $80 when the year ends, they’re still mostly alright. As of this writing, they’re coasting around $105. They were also able to hit past $120 every now and then from August to October. It was Star Wars Battlefront 2 that made the last two months of their 2017 a bit disappointing.

Despite that, they’re light years away from being completely fucked, much to the chagrin of the critics (myself included).

The real bad news for EA here is that $3 billion got wiped out not by a series of circumstances, but by just one game. They’ve done well enough in damage control to keep things from going too far, but it’s still should a wake-up call. They’ll have to rethink their approach if they still wish to include microtransactions as a part of their strategy.

But with the other things they’re trying to get away with, they may not be learning their lesson that well just yet.

EA Removes Refund Button

Where Does the Buck Stop?

This tweet by Campster, the guy behind the YouTube channel Errant Signal, says pretty much what had to be said on this topic, as far as the big picture goes.

I don’t know when, how, or if the AAA game publishing system will end up in a 1983-style crash, like the Titanic that was supposedly too big to sink. But with how things are going, there’ll be more like a mini-crash that can benefit the indie scene more. Maybe that already happened in the mid or late 2000s. Who knows?

In any case, we need to reassess how games should be made. How much money can be saved while making a game that people will love for years to come? That’s a question that’s always worth asking, in my humble opinion.

However, with money people saying games are not expensive enough, it doesn’t look like that question will be answered up there anytime soon.

“Ethical Microtransactions”

Back when it was still in beta, Path of Exile was being pushed by Grinding Gear Games as a game with “ethical microtransactions”. It was a term they’ve been sticking with to this day, and behind it is a simple but effective philosophy that has been funding an online role-playing game for years now.

That phrase is quite intriguing as it’s something you can imagine AAA executives would scoff at while having their morning coffee. It simply means microtransactions you can buy right away if you want that are mostly cosmetic and don’t affect the core gameplay in any way. It has been the lifeblood of Grinding Gear Games since they officially released Path of Exile back in October 2013.

The remaining question then is how this can be made sustainable for bigger companies with bigger teams, bigger budgets, and even bigger goals.

Other Comments

I’m reminded of an old video by Extra Credits about Electronic Arts, which was focused on their backwards marketing. The part with EA’s mission statement is worth looking at.

“We are an association of Electronic Artists who share a common goal. We want to fulfil the potential of personal computing.”

That was EA’s former self, which seems to be no longer present in the company’s present goal of chasing the paradigm of infinite growth at all costs. The lifeless corpses of countless game development companies that were acquired by EA continue to pile up, and numerous IPs with so much potential continue to be buried and scavenged as EA sees fit.

It makes me think of the curious dichotomy between art and commerce. It’s not to say money is bad—that would be stupid. However, the pursuit of profit need not be a detriment—just don’t be obsessed with it.

If you want to make things that last, you put the art first. When you make a classic, it’ll be profitable in the long run. That may sound naive to some, but that really should be how it’s done.

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