Last week, EA games were brought before Parliament here in the UK to defend their usage of loot boxes in their games – Everything from FIFA to Star Wars Battlefront has put them into the unfavourable position of being put in front of my country’s government (Or at least, our ‘digital culture, media and sport committee’) to defend their monetisation and other business practices, despite everyone and their mothers being vocal opponents of these business strategies for the last five years at least.
There were a few minor details that we’ll be discussing, but the main takeaway from the session was as follows: EA does not, in any way, feel remorse or even responsibility for their reliance on loot boxes, microtransactions, or the damaging effects thereof. That should get you riled alone, but we’ve a few things to delve into; because while they may claim innocence, they know for a fact that they aren’t.
And that’s the first thing to discuss; the abject lies. Kerry Hopkins, who works as EA’s Legal and Government Affairs VP, was asked in a very direct manner if she believed that Lootboxes were an ethical part of EA’s business plan. The first words from her mouth? “We don’t call them Loot Boxes, we call them ‘Surprise Mechanics’.”
This is, of course, a lie – As many have pointed out, the phrase ‘Loot box’ has been used a myriad of times by EA’s marketing department when promoting Jedi Fallen Order, Battlefield V, Anthem, and other such titles, but in a very specific way – In the phrase ‘No Loot Boxes’.
In other words, EA are perfectly happy to make use of the dirtied reputation of the phrase ‘Loot Box’ for their own gain, but whenever they choose to use the technique itself – something which, obviously, demonstrates a deep-rooted hypocrisy – they are happy to simply rename them. FIFA Ultimate Team is a pay-to-win Lootbox economy and has been for over half a decade, yet because they’re not called ‘Lootboxes’, they’re often excluded from the discussion.
And, before someone crawls out of the cracks to defend lootbox practises – Here’s exactly why the practises deserves the poor reputation it’s gotten itself.
Lootboxes are, for the purposes of this discussion, an in-game purchaseable item which contains one or more random in-game items; be it game mechanics, cosmetics, currency, etc.
Lootboxes are drawn, originally, from card game culture – Think, Yu-Gi-Oh or Magic: The Gathering. You go to the local game store, buy a booster back, and open it to reveal a few random cards of varying rarity – Some common, some very rare indeed. This tied into a ‘trading card game’ – Essentially, everyone had a random collection of cards to build their decks and play with, but since the cards were physical objects, you were free – encouraged, even – to trade cards with your opponents and friends. “I have X and Y, I’ll give you them for A and B”. The random nature of the card-pack created an economy and drove a new form of engagement. These, eventually, spread into video games.
…And that’s where the problem starts. When the item you buy is not physical, the creator of the software has full control over it – Not you. And that means they can prevent you from trading or selling the items you get from them. I cannot, in any way, gain a partial refund on items in a lootbox I don’t want – A crappy spray in Overwatch is stuck on my account forever, and I’ll never get my money back.
If the makers of a playing card game were to make cards that were effectively worthless and place several in every pack, then the average resale value of a pack would go down and people would stop buying them. Yes, some big collectors have so many of every common card that they simply throw most of them away, but the target audience of kids with pocket money simply don’t.
…But with the stranglehold of the market presented by digital lootboxes, the developer can feel free to fill their pool of items with hundreds of worthless skins, sprays, and other such pieces of nothing content. Nobody buys lootboxes for the chance to win these items, instead they are mere filler content. A consolation prize – Because as long as that 5% chance for something you actually want exists, there will always be players willing to fork over cash for the chance.
And that sounds reasonable, sure – You’re an adult, it’s your money to use, after all. But that’s just the attitude that ignores the main issue. Lootboxes aren’t designed to be an optional extra for you to buy a few of over the game’s lifetime. No, Loot boxes go after two main demographics – The youth and the easily addicted.
The first is fairly self-explanatory. Games like FIFA and COD are easily among the most popular with the youth, let’s say ages 12-16. These kids have limited access to their parents’ disposable income and, crucially, no sense of how much that money is worth. We all remember that moment we got our first paycheck and realised how valuable money really was- but kids are not in any place to make these decisions. And so, rather than spending money on a new game entirely (Which I realise comes off as a bit ‘when I was your age’, but chill out I’m only 21), the youth of today will instead feed their pocket money into a single product which gives them much lesser value… And that works to the detriment of the player – who is robbed of the best value for their money – as well as to the detriment of game developers.
There’s a reason that single-player experiences are being canned across the board; because EA have learned that it’s better to milk money out of people using a mediocre product with lootboxes or some other form of ‘recurrent user spending’. This is why games like Anthem and Fallout 76 exist – The microtransaction economy is slowly killing publishers’ interest in making quality pieces of art, and instead they wish to fund engines with which to sell as many micropayments as possible. This attitude consumed the mobile game market whole, and it’s now slowly coming for Consoles and PC, too.
And for an even more sinister angle – Addiction. Gamers are all sorts of people – Different homes, genders, cultures, personalities, and preferences. What is fine for you may be hell for another, and that’s fine – But we must recognise that, sometimes, we’re not the ones being hurt by an issue. People with addictive personalities are the main target for Lootboxes. That’s why they’re so closely linked to gambling- because they prey on the same kinds of people. Much like a slot machine, lootboxes are designed to stimulate the psyche of the one placing money in it and get them hooked- every flashing light and chunky sound effect, the musical flourishes and the screaming announcers. Ever notice that little flash of yellow when you open an Overwatch lootbox? The same yellow that is used to signify a legendary item, so every time you open one you’re reminded that you could be looking at high-tier rewards? Doesn’t that put you in mind of the big flashing lights saying “£500 JACKPOT” in the corner of a slightly run-down pub?
There was a heartbreaking story told on an episode of ‘The Jimquisition’ recently – Two brothers reconnecting via online gaming after one had wasted years of his life on a gambling addiction. A chance for emotional recovery for this man with a clear psychological disorder. And yet, they weren’t able to play together – Because every game they tried was so full of gambling, so full of tactics designed to prey on the weak and the broken, that they couldn’t find a game which didn’t try and pull the brother into a relapse. Call of Duty, Overwatch, FIFA, Star Wars Battlefront, even Middle Earth: Shadow of War – So many of our beloved titles are being robbed of their true potential by these practises. Remember the days of achievement hunting? Trying to complete obscure and strange challenges to unlock a new helmet in Halo or a new weapon camo in COD?
Those days are over. And loot boxes killed them.
Loot boxes and are a cancer on this industry – More formal microtransactions aren’t strictly much better, but they Loot boxes are their worst form yet. I hope you all agree with me; because if not, we’re fucked, frankly.
Going back to the inquiry – According to Ms Hopkins, EA internally uses the phrase ‘Surprise Mechanics’. An obvious attempt to repackage the same exploitative practise under a more positive-sounding name, the term was used to compare loot-boxes as found in games like Star Wars Battlefront II and FIFA to surprise toys, like Kinder Eggs. This is, obviously, a bit of a crap comparison, and you readers obviously know why yourself already – I think what’s more important is the greater lesson.
The games industry does not hold itself to moral principles. It does not have a code of conduct or even a set dictionary. It can and will do everything in its power to separate you, the consumer, from your money – And it doesn’t worry one bit about being morally reprehensible. They will change their views, re-write language, and do everything else in their power to lie to you if that’s what will get them your money.
Times are pretty shit for a lot of people right now, and we often use video games as an escape. I get that, I really do – But we’ve got a responsibility to hold up. ‘We, as consumers, vote with out wallets’ – That is the wisdom I heard from the mouth of the late TotalBiscuit when I was 15, and it’s what I will keep in mind until this industry is fixed. We need to stop supporting these business practises in their entirety – Because even when called before government, EA and businesses like them will continue to do whatever shady and exploitative things they can if it means there’s big bucks down the other end. And believe you me, the actual developers see scarcely a penny of it. Every lootbox you buy puts a cigar in the hand of some CEO you’ve never heard of, another stack of cash to add to their million-dollar bank accounts, dollars put there on the backs of addicts and exploited children.
Games are a force for good, and we need to keep it that way. The joy we share over a match of Fortnite or a Magic: The Gathering tournament is the same joy, and it will continue to bring us happiness if we continue to support games that help people, not hurt them. Be it with our wallets or with great stonking picket signs outside of government buildings, we have a responsibility to prune the thorns away from the rosebush. Instead of a few loot boxes, log onto steam and buy an indie game you’ve been meaning to try. Have an hour to kill? Write a letter to a game developer who you think is doing the right thing and thank them. Be a part of the change you want to see in this community and I promise that ten years down the line, we’ll all be better off for it.