Electronic Arts (EA) may have bitten off more than it can chew as the controversy over “Star Wars: Battlefront II” has taken a new serious turn that could impact the entire gaming industry as U.S. state legislators move to protect young gamers from exploitation.
As previously reported a widespread fan backlash over pay-to-win elements, not to mention a likely call from Disney to sort it out quick, sent EA and DICE scrambling the other week to temporarily disable all in-game purchases for “Star Wars Battlefront II” just hours before the game launched.
It was a bandaid solution to try and reverse the bad PR that has plagued the game and though unexpected and certainly welcome, responses remain fairly muted to the move. Now, Hawaiian state representatives Chris Lee and Sean Quinlan have publicly spoken about taking action against the monetary practices such as the loot box system built within “Star Wars: Battlefront II” and are reportedly planning to ally with other states over this issue.
They see this “online casino” as particularly exploitive to young kids who may not have the “cognitive maturity” to understand they’re being taken advantage of. Lee says (via CNBC):
“This game is basically a Star Wars-themed online casino designed to lure kids into an addictive cycle of gambling money for a chance to win game upgrades. These exploitive mechanisms have no place in games being marketed to minors, and perhaps no place in games at all.
Nothing currently prevents EA from exploiting people buying loot crates with random contents through microtransactions because there is no requirement to disclose the odds of winning something meaningful, and companies like these are allowed to specifically target youth without the cognitive maturity to know when they are being exploited.
We have already asked the Attorney General to look into this situation. We are also looking at legislation to protect families by prohibiting the sale of games with these gambling mechanisms to those who are underage, or prohibiting these gambling mechanisms altogether.
We know it will give families who have been victims of these predatory practices a sense of pride and accomplishment to have worked to prevent future exploitation and we have been working both with them and legislators in other states who are also considering ways to address this important issue”
Wedbush Securities’ Michael Pachter, a Wall Street analyst who is often consulted about gaming, has dismissed the Hawaiian legislator’s plan saying in a tweet: “The legislators are morons. ‘Gambling’ requires a wager to win something of tangible value. If the thing won can’t be sold or monetized, it isn’t gambling. Period. Morons. Should resign immediately.”
Games used to be simple – you pay one upfront price and that was it with the game functioning for years without any problem as a standalone thing. Then along came downloadable content (DLC) packs and microtransactions. Using these, game publishers realised they could further monetize games beyond that retail purchase and in some cases it proved to be a huge revenue generator for little to no extra cost to them.
Things began to change – like the film industry the middle ground for gaming has begun to drop out with titles proving to be either small indie productions or massively budgeted AAA titles. Single player games that run the same 5-10 years later have been shunned in favor of bigger revenue generating multiplayer titles that often become essentially useless within months as players move on – as what happened with the first “Star Wars: Battlefront” in late 2015.
In recent years the newest trick on the block has been loot crates, users paying for a digital box containing random items that can be used in the game. Players are guaranteed to get something, what though is not clear. Most of these items in the past have been cosmetic upgrades, things that don’t impact gameplay. The controversy with ‘Battlefront II’ has been that the upgrades in its loot boxes can give players an advantage during gameplay – in other words you pay extra, your chances of ‘winning’ skyrocket.
That is what has led to the major public backlash against EA which is ongoing and has potential legal implications because the system is not only potentially addictive but could be considered a ‘game of chance’ as opposed to skill and thus falls under the purview of gambling authorities. The Belgium Gaming Commission likely thinks so as Geek.com reports they are nearing a decision as to whether to officially classify loot boxes as gambling.
We’re now in the midst of the ‘games as a service’ phenomenon, ala “Destiny,” where it seems far more about focusing on revenue generation as opposed to a quality gaming experience. Former EA employee Manveer Heir gave an interview with Waypoint last month which effectively confirmed that revenue generation now rules over all:
“It’s definitely a thing inside of EA, they are generally pushing for more open-world games. And the reason is you can monetise them better. The words in there that were used are ‘have them come back again and again’… Why do you care about that at EA? The reason you care about that is because microtransactions: buying card packs in the Mass Effect games, the multiplayer.
It’s the same reason we added card packs to Mass Effect 3: how do you get people to keep coming back to a thing instead of ‘just’ playing for 60 to 100 hours? The problem is that we’ve scaled up our budgets to $100m+ and we haven’t actually made a space for good linear single-player games that are under that.
But why can’t we have both? Why does it have to be one or the other? And the reason is that EA and those big publishers in general only care about the highest return on investment. They don’t actually care about what the players want, they care about what the players will pay for. You need to understand the amount of money that’s at play with microtransactions.
I’m not allowed to say the number but I can tell you that when Mass Effect 3 multiplayer came out, those card packs we were selling, the amount of money we made just off those card packs was so significant that’s the reason Dragon Age has multiplayer, that’s the reason other EA products started getting multiplayer that hadn’t really had them before, because we nailed it and brought in a ton of money. It’s repeatable income versus one-time income. I’ve seen people literally spend $15,000 on Mass Effect multiplayer cards.”
The Entertainment Software Association, the gaming industry’s trade association, in response to a request for comment on the loot boxes issue by CNBC this week said:
“Loot boxes are a voluntary feature in certain video games that provide players with another way to obtain virtual items that can be used to enhance their in-game experiences. They are not gambling. Depending on the game design, some loot boxes are earned and others can be purchased. In some games, they have elements that help a player progress through the video game. In others, they are optional features and are not required to progress or succeed in the game. In both cases, the gamer makes the decision.”
But the potential shake-up from this legislation is something the game industry may be in need of. With the film industry there’s a certain amount of transparency. We know a film’s production budget, marketing budget and box-office numbers going in to its release – and therefore film’s success isn’t just judged on straight sales but costs as well. Shame is poured on bloated budget titles that fail and praise given to cheap titles that prove big success stories.
There is no such transparency with the gaming industry who often keep their production & marketing budgets and sales figures hidden behind some of the most well-oiled PR machines on the planet. Gamers as a whole are one of the most well organised and demanding demographics out there who respond fast to potential rorts of the system. If it weren’t for their pushing with the ‘Battlefront II’ issue it wouldn’t have gone as far as it has.
That said, is there enough steam for this to lead to true systemic reform of what remains a still and increasingly one-sided system in favor of the publisher? It’s not clear yet, and this situation is only going to get more complicated with little end in sight. Check out state rep Chris Lee’s full statement in the video below: