Over the past few weeks, Reddit’s gaming forum has turned into what could charitably be described as ravenous group of hyenas feeding on the flailing carcass of whatever is left of EA’s reputation. More than *half* of the front page stories are related to microtransactions – even after EA reneged and lowered hero prices significantly in Star Wars Battlefront II.
Questions like “Should loot boxes be considered gambling?” and complaints about how The Sims 3, with all its expansions costs nearly 400 dollars. The most terrifying thought? “Can we and should we now petition to game retailers and distributors to stop the sales of SWB:II to further show the Games Industry that EA’s practices aren’t right?”
This outrage is so massive a gamer was genuinely trying to ‘ban’ a game based on its monetization model – that is terrifying. As a result of the Battlefront II controversy and outrage, government officials in multiple countries have now gotten involved and launched investigations into EA’s ‘predatory’ practices. This is a very bad thing. Why?
Read on to find out.
1. A Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy
In 1993, Night Trap and Mortal Kombat found themselves at the center of controversy as Senators Joseph Lieberman and Herbert Kohl, *demanded* the gaming industry create their own rating system, or else the federal government would create (and enforce) one for them – despite Night Trap being nothing like what the senators described, and Mortal Kombat clearly being a complete and utter farce – and judging by the video above, Senator Lieberman still isn’t quite sure how Grand Theft Auto: Vice City works.
In 2005, in the wake of the ‘Hot Coffee’ Grand Theft Auto Scandal, and completely unaware of just how difficult it was to access the ‘adult’ content of the game, then-Senator Hillary Clinton introduced the Family Entertainment Protection Act, which would fine a retail manager utpo $5000 dollars if he or she sold an M-rated game to a minor. This of course, was unconstitutional.
In 2011, the multi-million dollar online poker industry was shut down hard instead of being taxed to generate revenue for the entire United States, thanks in part to lobbying by casinos. In 2013 the state of Massachusetts banned ‘Light Gun’ arcade games from rest stops due to their potentially ‘offensive’ content based on the complaints of a single family and their 12 year old child.
Just this year there was a hearing about how social media failed the American populous and that, perhaps, the Government needs to step in to regulate and control sites like Facebook and Twitter, despite the overall impact from Russian ‘meddling’ being less than 1 percent of all impressions on the site during election season.
As eager as congress is to get involved in, and regulate, our media, they’re typically poorly informed and over-reacting to an angry, vocal populous when doing so – and often take swift well-intentioned, but wrong-headed action. It just so happens this time that populous isn’t outraged parents, but rather gamers outraged at Electronic Arts and Battlefront II. Now, thanks in part to gamers’ lobbying, we’re about to get our answers regarding loot boxes and predatory practices from the one group of people who know as little about games as our outraged parents did: Politicians.
So far, both Hawaii and Belgium have launched investigations regarding ‘predatory’ behavior in online games. Belgium going as far as to declare Loot Boxes as gambling.
That said, lets start with the predatory part first. What actually constitutes a predatory business practice?
2. Never Tell Me The Odds
A good example of predatory business practices would be Lexmark printers. Lexmark gained popularity in the mid-2000s for selling printers much cheaper than their competitors. You could get a printer for under $100 dollars, which was an incredible steal at the time…until you had to replace the ink. The replacement ink cartridges were far more expensive than those sold by competitors like HP.
Consumers saw a cheap printer, bought it, and had no idea just how expensive it would be to actually use the thing as time went on. This business model landed Lexmark in court, as they furiously litigated against anyone trying to sell Lexmark printer compatible ink, eventually rising to the level of the Supreme Court, which smacked Lexmark down and sort of decimated their inkjet business.
This was predatory in that Lexmark was preying on consumers who thought they saw a deal, didn’t do their research, then found themselves locked into a vicious cycle of over-paying for printer ink that could *only* be provided by Lexmark. Whether or not it should or shouldn’t be legal, we can agree Lexmark’s practices were ‘predatory’ – preying on consumers who didn’t know any better, and then punishing them ad infinitum until they buy another printer from a different company – rightfully courts stepped in and said yes, other companies are allowed to sell ink for Lexmark printers. Predatory problem ‘solved’.
By comparison, EA sells you a product, Battlefront II, with a lot of its specialized content like heroes and equipment and boosts behind progression walls, and then incentivises players to spend real money on ‘loot boxes’ in order to speed up the unlocking of that content. Otherwise you’ll be playing for hours upon hours upon hours.
This is problematic because it creates a ‘pay-to-win’ scenario where players with a lot of money and not a lot of time can get better at the game faster, and thus be better equipped (if not in skill) at the game than a player who opts to spend nothing.
The argument for this sort of thing is two-fold. First, as a predominantly online game, as time goes on, players who buy a pre-owned copy will be a financial drain on the servers, and microtransaction income would serve to offset those costs – especially since Map DLC and new heroes are free this year.
Second, if you’re a gamer who really loves Star Wars but has a high-stress job or a family or a lot of responsibilities, it might be advantageous to spend money in order to level the proverbial playing field against players who may be technically better than you, but less equipped.
Is this fair? Absolutely not. Is it capital P Predatory like Lexmark? That’s…tricky. For as long as there’s been products, there’s been add-ons, accessories, superchargers, and items designed to give a person a leg-up in exchange for a little cash. It might not be fair, but the game isn’t rendered unplayable if you opt out of spending cash – and it could serve as a much needed life lesson; nothing in life is an even playing field.
It’s also worth noting the free-market fixed this problem. EA reneged and changed their model drastically. Reducing costs and altering unlock times. The people spoke, and were heard. We do *not* need the government in this business.
Unfortunately they are in this business. And at the risk of a bit of hyperbole, it’s possible they’re about to ruin everything.
3. Only The Sith Deal In Absolutes
Belgium is pushing to get loot boxes banned in all of Europe. Specifically “Blind, randomized loot boxes.” The Minister of Justice in Belgium argues that the mixture of real money with a randomized outcome is equal parts predatory and damaging to young minds – baby’s first slot machine if you will; not taking into account the parental controls already auto-loaded with the Xbox, PS4, Switch, iPhone and Android phones – and for that matter, the role of parents to monitor kids’ behavior and ‘screen time’.
Regardless of the complexities of parental responsibility, for many, the idea of a loot box ban sounds like a glorious victory. Those darned predatory microtransactions finally destroyed once and for all. No more pay-to-win, no more RNG BS in your favorite Triple A games like Shadow of War, Battlefront, WWE 2K18, and so on!
Score one for the little guys, right? Well, it’d actually hurt the little guys. You can’t just classify loot-boxes in the games you don’t like as gambling and make them okay in the games you do. For a ban to happen a law has to be written and it’ll likely be written by people who aren’t super familiar with the world of gaming.
While Belgium and Hawaii (and other parts of the USA) are looking specifically at Battlefront II, any sort of ban instituted would trickle down, and pose tough, possibly catastrophic consequences on countless games. We’re talking Hearthstone, Duelyst, Gwent, Golf Clash, Shadow Era, Madden Ultimate Team, FIFA Ultimate Team, Collectible Table Top games, Pokemon TCG, the list goes on and on and on – and could even include a game like Crossy Road.
Simply put, we *cannot* let this happen. If folks pushing for this ban get their way, CCGs or any ‘collectible’ game could be doomed, because classifying *anything* as online gambling in the United States of America makes it illegal.
What’s most frustrating about this whole thing is the system worked – and it still wasn’t enough. EA heard the voices of upset gamers and changed their policy. Just like Xbox did with their 180, just like Mass Effect 3 did with their ending. But because the vitriol for EA is so strong, and because Loot Boxes are so omnipresent, this major victory over a massive corporation wasn’t enough.
People are cheering Belgium and Hawaii, eager to see EA get ‘theirs’. Unfortunately, getting what we want might just be way more than we bargained for.