Simulated Gambling?

EA and loot boxes sure opened a whole Pandora’s Box. The video and computer game industry has been dabbling on the edge with parental and gamble-help groups, but it was more or less time for the whole thing  to blow up at someone. While all this has become more or less mainstream in the current market, and people putting most blame to smart phone games’ microtransactions, the whole thing does lead back to EA in the first place.

To make long story short, EA implemented a virtual collectible card system in UEFA Championship League 2007, which replicated a real life CCG. The system was essential, as you got your characters via this system. It was all virtual at this point, as there was no need to exchange real money for these cards. This system was then later implemented into FIFA, when their UEFA license was up. Andrew Wilson implemented the same system into FIFA 2009: Ultimate Team, with the player now able to pay for these cards with real money. This is where it turned into gambling, as now it was necessary for the player to pay money for further progression, but that progression was up to chance. Chance that EA completely controlled in their closed system, where they could rig the game however way they saw fit. Of course, none of these cards had any value outside the game itself. Skill Up has a more complete history on this model he called Wilson lootbox, and it’s a highly recommended watch. Pay-2-Win model is more or less here to stay.

The game industry listens to what sells, just like any other. Numbers and data is what brings in the hard earned cash. On the occasion, a publisher puts outs a prestige game, a trophy piece, something they can call art. The rest, on the other hand, are all about the hard cash. Just like Hollywood in many ways, with the Marvel movies being Call of Duty of cinema. Sure, it’s fun to a lot of people and makes a lot of money, but is creatively bankrupt and doesn’t stand much closer inspection. It’s not hard to see the game industry wanting to grab whatever further profit they could, just like any other entertainment industry.

Hence, the expansion of Pay-2-Win model spreading far and wide. Sure, it’s easier to pay some buck or two for an in-game item, when the game is free. However, predatory tactics and abusing consumer weaknesses is part of the industry here, as these games more or less stifle your progression without additional purchases, sometimes to a point that you simply can’t proceed further due to in-game stats being against you. Few bucks here and there does stack up quickly, and a buck a day is already thirty bucks a month. With the occasional sales, you suddenly find yourself having paid more than fifty, or if you’re one of those whales these systems abuse, hundreds if not thousands.

The industry regulated itself according to the profits gained, and the statistics gained from various games have allowed the companies to find a sweet spot with the freemium, Pay-2-Win model.

This sort of regulation is lacking, as it completely ignores the consumer. Chris Lee, a Hawaii rep. has proposed a legislation to curb down predatory gaming practices. US is not the only one to take notice of the landslide Star Wars Battlefront II (2017)  has caused, as French senator Jérôme Durain has also issued a letter to the French online gambling regulator ARJEL, which addresses some key-note, like the lack of transparency in drop-rates. PEGI itself has already taken stance on virtual gambling, where a game with such elements automatically getting 12 as age rating, and can go easily up two 18. Pokémon games dropped their Game Corner due to change in this stance around 2006, as that would’ve meant the age rating would’ve shot upwards, limiting their main consumer base.

However, PEGI doesn’t regard loot boxes themselves as form of gambling as such, neither does ESBR. This may change in the future, as Belgium has taken a stance already on loot boxes being gambling due to mix of money  and addiction. Geens notes that the change he drives will take some time, as he needs to go through the rest of Europe in order to achieve his goal. If the issue is taken to larger European Union, and is being backed by a number of countries, things may get hot for game developers and publisher who rely on microtransactions and loot boxes.

There has already been some rippling effects. EA’s stock took a dive after the Battlefront II (2017) managed to garner all this negative attention, with the snowballing effect. While this probably won’t effect much, it is still a notable change. PUBG developers also have stated that they would not add anything that would affect the gameplay in terms of microtransactions or loot boxes. Bungie’s Destiny 2  and numerous other games have been under more specific scrutiny about their systems of progression, with Bungie even cancelling a stream to discuss their experience scaling fiasco.

The direction we’re going with video games regarding gambling is a two-bladed sword at best. One one hand, the industry has taken advantage of the weaker section of the their consumer base. Those who can’t handle themselves yet or understand the monetary values they’re putting into microtransactions and loo boxes have had it easy. Perhaps making payments has been streamlined a bit too much, with reports of kids spending thousands of dollars of their parents money being less than uncommon. While it is up to the parents to oversee their children, we should also look into the design of things.

On the flip side, more governmental control over any industry does lead to over-control easier. Furthermore, actual virtual gambling games may suffer from this for being put into a same slot, if legislation is not accurate enough in its description, or includes simulated gambling that does not include real life money. While mahjong simulations have rarely, if ever, managed to reach Western shores, games may seem these simulated gambling elements removed in favour of lower age ratings, or in worst cases, of they somehow become completely unacceptable. It also makes it so much more easier to put further restrictions on other aspects of games even further regarding whatever, be it violence or depictions of humans. German rules are already harsh, and it would be discouraging to see any similar legislation spreading about.

It’s a thin line the game industry is threading on, but as they say, The greedy has a shitty end.

 

Industrial bloat

EA is the thing everybody likes to kick whenever its relevant. EA deserves it too, as the company has a long history of taking franchises and developer studios and running them to the ground. Very few have any love toward them, except sports gamers who buy the latest NHL and FIFA release each year. We can understand the mindset. They’re a corporation just like any other, and aim to do everything for profit. The methods just don’t seem to sit with some consumers, while others just don’t care.

That said, microtransactions and loot boxes have been talked to death a lot as of late, thanks to them taking more presence in the mainline games. The model can be said to come from mobile games, where it has essentially become the lifeline of many games, where games are offered free, but their larger content has to be paid for, or at least to succeed further requires putting some money in.

From psychological point, microtransaction is a well selling term. It give an idea of a transaction of miniscule size, almost something that doesn’t matter. The effect on the consumer is interesting, and these small transactions often can pile up when you can’t keep track on physical money. It is far easier to spend what you don’t see, and then suffer the consequences later on.

Loot boxes are another can-o-worms, especially when they’re the kind that are tied to promotional events or otherwise to something that forces the consumer to consume their time with the game’s event or related. Considering many games offer loot boxes to be bought with real money, or in-game money you can buy with real money, it is gambling. It is very much comparable to a lottery ticket where each ticket has some sort of win. While some make an arbitrary difference between loot boxes and gachas, the concept is largely the same. Here we could argue that loot boxes are similar to vending machine toys, and these are not counted as a form of gambling. However, the difference is of course that a vending machine does not insist you on a purchase, unlike the constant reinforcement video and mobile games tend to do with seasons, events and the like. The concept of gambling and video games is something I’ve touched before, with the argument that video and computer games themselves are not gambling, but can contain simulation of gambling, but loot boxes and gachas touch upon real world and games are designed to work with them as a core element, then we’re talking about a form of digital gambling.

However, the whole debacle of Star Wars: Battlefront II (2017) is a whole another thing. While it has seemed to be a PR nightmare to EA due to all the negativity its microtransactions and  how long it’ll take to open up new characters within the game, EA has managed to make use all of this and seem like a company that listens to their consumers. Buying whatever in-game money it is they use to unlock characters will be enabled at a later date.

There’s the rub though; Battlefront II (2017) and other games like it that offer purchased random goods already cost money. Essentially, the game companies have become bloated to each direction in how much higher ups get salary to production values and development time that they need to find new ways to make more revenues. In order to make the revenues go up, EA has opted to concentrate all their efforts on a whale of a game that should snag the most players. All this after you’ve payed the full price for the game, of course, and you can’t open things up through sheer effort and skill. The game has cool down periods, where you can’t acquire in-game money. Hell, you can expect only 1-3% of the game’s players to carry these microtransactions. These are the trouble consumers that may need serious help. Gamers, while saying one thing, often seem to do the exact opposite.

This isn’t exactly putting all your eggs into one basket. This is more like putting trying to sap out everything from the consumer through one product. What I mean by this is that EA has opted to get as much revenue out of the game as possible outside the sales of the game. There is no equivalent in other entertainment media due to the nature of games. This isn’t a subscription to digital service or the like.

All this is a symptom. The cause, if we’re to believe companies, is the rising development costs. Unlike what these corporations want to tell the consumer via their PR, consumers at large don’t expect cutting edge graphics or the like. The game design has always been the number one factor. The only game culture that has concerned themselves with highest possible graphical fidelity is the computer game culture. However, with the cross pollination and consoles becoming dumbed down PCs, with Steam serving as a digital game console platform, it’s no wonder this skewed sense has crept into game development. Much like how Hollywood execs are becoming further moved away from the common consumer, the same is happening in game industry. There are too many large houses doing far too large projects, there is only three consoles on the market, with Steam effectively being a fourth addition that play the bit part of everything. Uniqueness has been replaced with ports everywhere, and now that ports seemingly not making enough money, the consumer is expected to dosh out more for the product they purchased.

EA and other developers need to look inside of their own house and cut down on the overtly expensive development cycles.

The argument that games can’t cost over 60€ is also bullshit. Currently, the medium price for a game is lower than what it has been at their highest. Ultima games cost around 120 dollars, with some N64 games costing locally around 120€ when transferred to current currency. If there is a need to raise games’ prices to meet the production costs, so be it. The market will decide if that was the right call. That, or drop the development costs outside salaries. It’s not the consumer’s fault if the products are not meeting with expectations and incredibly over-estimated sales figures.

Tapping people who may have gambling tendencies though is not the way to go.