Hyperspace Beacon: What potential lockbox gambling laws could mean for SWTOR

Late yesterday I read these words Google-translated from Belgian news site VTM: “The Minister of Justice wants to prohibit purchases in video games if you don’t know exactly what you’re purchasing.” Yes, he means lootboxes, or what MMO players usually call lockboxes. These words stem from the growing controversy of lockboxes in video games. Gamers might argue that pay-to-win boxes are the real problem, but to an outsider, there really isn’t a way to distinguish pay-to-win from other lootboxes, and so here we are.

Because Star Wars: Battlefront II was the target of the latest lockbox controversy, I wondered what it would mean for EA’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, which has long been criticized for it’s handling of lockboxes and cash shop. The simple answer is that it probably will not affect the game much at all because as I understand it, SWTOR follows most of the existing gambling regulations for Belgium. BioWare or Electronic Arts would just have to file for an online gambling license.

Is this just the beginning, though? What if other European countries follow suit and started calling lockboxes and lootboxes gambling?

The sticking point with Belgium

According to Thomson Reuters, under Belgian law, EA would have to reveal “its policy for the accessibility of games of chance for socially vulnerable groups,” which would include underage groups that might be playing the game. As much as I hate to advocate on behalf of gambling, I do need to mention that SWTOR is already rated PEGI 16 in the EU, which means that the target audience isn’t small children. But I suspect that EA would still have to employ some sort of failsafe in SWTOR to prevent young children from gaining access to the lockbox mechanics.

On a larger scale, the PEGI rating for SWTOR might have to change. Currently, the only strikes against the game are Online Gaming (meaning that it can’t regulate online chatter) and violence. However, if SWTOR were forced to add gambling to its PEGI strikes, it might be forced into a PEGI 18 rating. It’s possible that the game could survive with that rating, but it does narrow its target market.

If this gambling stipulation stays with Belgium, then it’s doable. EA might have to reevaluate whether SWTOR is worth it because it would not only have to pay the Disney license to carry the Star Wars name but have to pay to have a gambling license in Belgium. Most likely, EA would buy a blanket license for all its games, which could cost 250,000 EUR (~300,000 USD) at most or 75,000 EUR (~90,000 USD) at minimum.

Spreading to the rest of the EU

EA and SWTOR will start to run into trouble if the rest of the EU states adopt the same policies. For instance, Poland has officially banned gambling except for sports gambling. And to operate legitimately in that country, EA would have to have a totally different gaming system. Many sites bypass Poland’s strict laws by operating within other countries, but that’s far from legitimate.

Poland wouldn’t be the only issue, as according to GamblingSites.org, other countries like France as Germany have complicated and rigorous licensing processes. EA would have to make sure that they abide by all the different regulations for each country. Unfortunately for EA, there is no blanket European Union policy regarding gaming. Some countries like Poland allow sports gambling but not cards or slots. Other countries have government-sanctioned monopolies on gambling. It might start to become too much of a chore for global gaming congloms.

What about the US?

The US is the largest market for SWTOR by far. And fortunately for EA, the only state speaking out so far is Hawaii. However, State Representative Chris Lee took a very hard stance against loot boxes in his Reddit post yesterday.

“These kinds of lootboxes and microtransactions are explicitly designed to prey upon and exploit human psychology in the same way casino games are so designed. This is especially true for young adults who child psychologists and other experts explain are particularly vulnerable. These exploitative mechanisms and the deceptive marketing promoting them have no place in games being marketed to minors, and perhaps no place in games at all.”

And all the lockbox critics cheered. If the US – on a federal or even state level – starts to recognize lootboxes as gambling, it could mean the literal end of many games that have too boldly staked their entire business model on these mechanics. SWTOR might be one of them.

What will SWTOR do?

Personally, I don’t want to see games like SWTOR shut down, so what could SWTOR do to adapt if this definition of gambling becomes legal? I think SWTOR‘s already gearing that direction.

There have already been huge pushbacks from SWTOR players about the way EA is handling Cartel Packs, and BioWare has been offering more and more direct sales. In fact, in a recent update to the Cartel Market, BioWare expanded the items that it sold as direct sales, and it’s also started pushing limited-time direct sale items that have been popular in the past to help boost the overall market viability. Many brand-new armor sets, as well as popular weapons, have popped in direct sales.

I like to think that SWTOR could make it through a switch from lockbox to direct sales. But we would definitely see an increase in limited-time items, and we might see an increase in the cost of Cartel Coins or the price of items themselves.

What do you think of the impending regulation? Do you think it will spread? I think there will ultimately be major changes in US law because of these statements from officials. Do you think your country’s laws will have to be rewritten? But I guess the most important question is: Are for or against this definition of lootboxes and lockboxes? What do you think will happen? Let me know in the comments, and I will continue this conversation in the comments.

Every other week, Larry Everett jumps into his T-16 back home, rides through the hypergates of BioWare‘s Star Wars: The Old Republic, and posts his adventures in the Hyperspace Beacon. Drop him a holocom on Twitter @Shaddoe or send him a transmission at larry@massivelyop.com. Now strap yourself in, kid — we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!
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52 Comments on "Hyperspace Beacon: What potential lockbox gambling laws could mean for SWTOR"

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Castagere Shaikura

SWTORS big problem is its owned by Disney which is mostly a company that deals with children. For them gambling boxes and children don’t mix.

Reader
Mush V. Peets

Not too worried about SW:TOR, but what about Perfect World and their business model with STO (and their other games? IDK)… It will be funny to see them suddenly unable to shovel in Master Key money hand over fist every few months with a new lockbox.

Reader
Danny Smith

Honestly if Final Fantasy can just straight up sell outfits and mounts on the mogstation is probably a safe bet Star Wars can as well. Lockboxes were just a way to get more money by randomising the results. It might make less money but its not like the whales will stop buying RMT items.

amkosh
Reader
amkosh

Unless they somehow squeezed more money out of its playerbase, which seems as likely as the Cleveland Browns winning the super bowl this year, it will close down.

So be careful what you wish for.

Reader
Witches

SWTOR had “not completely horrible” lockboxes, and people were happy and buying, they got too greedy and the game went from being one of EA’s top earners to not even being mentioned in their quarterly reports.

EA should at the very least stop their suits from bragging about their exploitative business practices.

At this point SWTOR isn’t even competing with other MMOs, when you can’t even go back to doing something you used to do better than you are doing right now, there’s not much hope for you.

amkosh
Reader
amkosh

I dunno, SWTOR’s lockboxes aren’t much worse than they were. I stopped buying them because I stopped wanting to support a company that has basically been fuck you to my play style over the past year.

To me I don’t buy lockboxes to gamble, I buy them to support a property I like. I think that scares peeps more than the whole gambling thing, because being able to spend a ton more money than everyone else gives those people more power. Also hard core gamers are usually the cheapest of all gamers, so in that situation, they end up with a lot less power.

possum440 .
Reader
possum440 .

No decision has been made. One of the Belgium officials was talking to a media flunky and was taken out of context, irresponsible media. I would however like to see all loot boxes get shoved down devs throats and force them to go back to monthly subs.

A nice side effect would be a boatload of people wouldn’t be able to play the games because they cant afford a monthly sub, which are the F2P people that are usually toxic as history has shown, botters, multi boxers, farmers and crumb snatchers.

So it wouldn’t be all bad and a lot of these pure crap games would shut down which is also good.

If they do ban loot boxes I might start playing an MMO or two. As for the argument some are using that the loot table is a form of gambling and the devs would fight, well, that is simply one sinkhole the devs do not want to jump into. They may find that spiteful judges being told what they can and cant do usually end up ruling against the parties pushing them around.

Reader
Schmidt.Capela

One of the Belgium officials

Not just a mere official. It was the Minister of Justice, who is the Belgian counterpart to the US’s Attorney General.

noberght
Reader
noberght

There will be push back, not totally publicly of course, from game developers over this. You don’t just roll over and give up a multi Billion dollar income stream without some type of fight.
This issue can be pushed even deeper into Game mechanics if this gets messy though. What is to say that the drop rates from all in game actions could not be defined as gambling? Each Boss you kill has a drop rate for loot, is that not gambling?
This is not an open and shut case. it’s more of an open Pandora’s box.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Scratches

When you have to pay real money for a drop and it’s an instant transaction with zero skill involved (e.g., having to actually beat/kill a boss or mob), then that argument might actually hold water….

Until then, drop rates are not gambling; they’re just random. It’s not opening pandora’s box. Stop trying to muddy the water with nonsense.

noberght
Reader
noberght

Not trying to muddy the waters at all. I Am trying to say that this could be the tip of the iceberg.
You might want to read what I actually typed, not just what you think you read.

Reader
Alex Hyer

Wipe them out.

All of them.

Reader
traja

It would be sad to see games like SWTOR shut down because of this. But if I am being honest, it is a small price to pay. The quality of gaming has been taking a massive nosedive lately because of the mobile business models infecting traditional platforms. Losing some games, while sad, can be very much worth it in the long run for gamers.

Reader
Mortalware

I’ve been following the news on this as well and I do think it’s time the government makes a decision, one way or the other on this issue. It was bound to be EA that pushed it too far but even if they didn’t some other company would have eventually. The decision will affect most of the mobile gaming market since the majority of those games are F2P with loot boxes.
I would like to see them labeled as a form of gambling personally since it is a temptation to hand over money based on chance and without knowing exactly what you are going to get.

But by far the biggest issue I have with loot boxes is that they inhibit, or at worse influence, game development as we have seen in BF2. What could have been an epic single player campaign got riddled with set pieces that merely show of what having cool unlocks from the loot boxes could get you. The time spent developing the economical system based around the loot boxes detracts from time they could have just spent fleshing out the game. Not to mention how game play can be dictated by how fast or slow they want you to earn you way to getting your next loot box. They can be detrimental in creating a good game.

Reader
Castagere Shaikura

I just want then to go after EA for all money grubbing they have done with swtor. I want Disney to throw down the hammer on them. I know its wishful thinking but i still want it.

Reader
Sray

Disney is not our friend here. Game devs working on Disney properties are in constant contact with Disney reps over EVERYTHING in their game. They are well aware of how this game makes its money, and the mechanics at play in making that money. Disney’s intervention with BF2 was a reaction to getting caught, so they could look like the heroes; not because they were shocked to learn their precious IP was being used to promote gambling to minors: they were already well aware of that.

Reader
Zora

Disney’s intervention with BF2 was a reaction to getting caught

Namely, caught -before- the new movie is out and they can cash in on the associated merchandise fallout themselves.

It’s that comedic play where the robbers failed to sync their wristwatches before the hit and one started yelling “hands up” before they were both inside the drugstore… disney wants you to get better at teamwork, EA <3

Reader
Jeff

I know this isn’t what anyone wants to hear, but I just don’t see people who are against this business model getting what they want, if anything I think the end result will be the developers getting even more freedom to makret their products the way they see fit.

I’m not for loot crates, I just know changing this is a lost cause.

Reader
Fenryr Grey

The game of business can’t be won. It’s an infinite game. We have to play(fight back) until EA & Co. don’t want to play anymore and then we have to stay on the lookout to ensure no new player (greedy corporation) emerges. Is it hard, yes, but nonetheless it’s necessary to play this game.

Reader
Sray

You fight the battles that need to be fought; not just the ones you can win.

Reader
Knox Harrington

Heaven forbid they have to go back to making actual content again

Reader
Wilhelm Arcturus

If the government can regulate loot boxes that way without having to open the can of worms that would come from declaring virtual goods to have real world value, I am cautiously optimistic.

That still could lead us into a prohibition on any chance when making a purchase. Magic the Gathering springs to mind easily, but so does the gumball machine at the grocery store that has random prizes in plastic capsules. And what happens with McDonald’s when you don’t get the toy you want in your happy meal? Do you get to sue now if the government opens that door? History is rife with laws being written for a specific purpose and then being expanded over time because they are argued to cover similar situations outside of the initial intent.

Reader
Schmidt.Capela

That still could lead us into a prohibition on any chance when making a purchase.

And I sincerely hope it comes to that. At least for anything that can be sold to underage people.

Magic the Gathering springs to mind easily,

There are similarly structured games where cards are sold in non-random bundles. Magic itself could continue unabated, just the way cards are sold would have to change.

but so does the gumball machine at the grocery store that has random prizes in plastic capsules.

Those things that are basically a way to get small children hooked in slot machines? Good riddance.

And what happens with McDonald’s when you don’t get the toy you want in your happy meal?

They can simply allow kids to choose the exact toy instead of including a random one.

Disclaimer: I absolutely hate not knowing exactly what I’m getting. I don’t play Magic, despite liking the concept and mechanics of the game, exactly because I strongly disagree with the way it’s sold.

Reader
Bhagpuss Bhagpuss

Be careful what you wish for. This has just given the fox an invitation to the chicken coop. Video games are one of the key easy targets for politicians and legislators looking to boost their image almost anywhere in the world. Rag on video games and get lots of media attention and no pushback from anyone who matters.

Lockboxes are going to be the least of the industry’s worries if this catches fire the way it’s threatening to do. The least of ours, too.

Reader
starbuck1771

All they would really be able to do is sell individual items in the store. Loot/Lockboxes in all reality gambling because your spending real world money on what is technically a game of chance. Just like the issues with slot machines in most states.

Reader
TheDonDude

I have to admit I was never bothered too much by SWTOR’s business model as others. It never felt pay-2-win to me, and I was fine with treating it as a $15 sub game. The various cosmetic items I wanted were affordable to me via in-game credits.

That said, I haven’t played since the CXP debacle so maybe it’s changed since then.

Reader
starbuck1771

The issue isn’t pay-2-win is is the fact your paying money for a chance to possibly win a digital item you want in a game that in the end you do not get to keep anyways. It’s gambling because you only have a chance of getting the item you are wanting. On a lot of the items the odds are extremely low that you will get them because the system is rigged that way. The definition of Gamble tells you everything you need to know. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/gamble

Reader
TheDonDude

Yeah the gambling part never affected me. I just got what I wanted off the auction house for in-game credits.

Reader
Sally Bowls

Except what I like about the SWTOR model was BOE meant that it was essentially the customer’s choice if they wanted to have RNG to get the item they want.

Otherwise, they could earn credits in-game or they could use RL$ to buy Cartel Coins to buy Cartel Packs to sell unopened on the GTN. Zero RNG involved. The credits could buy them the exact item they want.

Anyone who opened a cartel pack was explicitly choosing the RNG over alternatives.

Reader
Schmidt.Capela

Actually, RNG is still involved. The only difference is that you are outsourcing the RNG aspect to someone who is taking a cut of your credits. Which, BTW, is why I will never, ever, purchase in an AH any item that can only come from a lockbox; it’s still an incentive for players to open lockboxes and, thus, for them to be sold by the publisher.

xpsync
Reader
xpsync

Loot boxes blablabla, yes i get the problem. But when you read things like 1000 dollars to enter a game at alpha, buying ships for a game that does not even exist, and yea the list of crazy goes on and on. Is loot boxes really the problem here, lol. If loot boxes get legislated too much they will only dream up a new way to make money. Which could be allot worse for everyone and not just the crazy peeps.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Legend Of Vinny T

If the US – on a federal or even state level – starts to recognize lootboxes as gambling, it could mean the literal end of many games that have too boldly staked their entire business model on these mechanics.

PWE made Cryptic the thin end of the wedge for lockboxes in North America. If they don’t have a Plan B ready to pull from their back pocket at a moment’s notice, they’re going to be first against the wall.

CBS and Wizards of the Coast have probably noticed Disney’s more aggressive stance toward game IP licenses, so that might give them some motivation. If they can’t get meaningful change to monetization as Disney did with EA, they could just pull the plug on their respective games as Disney did with Gazillion.

And if Cryptic are left with just CO, they’re well and truly f***ed, because that game can barely support itself. There’s no way its revenue alone could absorb the operational overhead costs it currently shares with two titles that actually make money.

Richard de Leon III
Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Richard de Leon III

Champions right now, it too reliant on lockboxes imho. But, they can adjust the easiest because superhero fans LOVE cosmetics. Cryptic can just sell full costumes and variant powers like crazy. The main problem is attracting enough people to play the game and feel compelled to buy more threads so to speak.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Legend Of Vinny T

Cryptic has had the better part of five years to recover CO’s audience from the Neverwinter/Legacy of Romulus launch crash. Instead, the game has been so stagnant for so long, its revenue is on a razor’s edge. The bottom would drop out before the studio could publish any post-lockbox solution. I’m sure any cost/benefit analysis they run would conclude that CO’s chance of survival, even in the short term, would be too slim to justify the risk.

Reader
Armsman

It just means Disney may pull the licensing sooner then expected. Sorry but a major IP (The movies rack up 1 Billion+ worldwide Box Office whenever released of late) MMO that went from 200 servers down to 5 in just 6 years (and F2P after swearing up and down it “Would not be needed…” should not be long for this world regardless.

Reader
TheDonDude

Question is–what else would they do with the license? Is developing another big MMO in the cards, given the state of the MMO market?

Richard de Leon III
Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Richard de Leon III

Agreed, I dont think anyone has the money to make a decent star wars mmo, unless daybreak is convinced to revive and update SWG as a stopgap measure.

miol
Reader
miol

According to this Reuters’ source, those 3 mentioned types of licences ($300,000 – $90,000 for application + undisclosed annual fee, and you need an additional land-based license to be even eligible for the online version) are limited in number!

– A+ licence for online casinos. There are nine available licences and eight of them are active as of July 2016. The A+ licence is additional to the A licence.
– B+licence for online gaming arcades. There are 180 available licences and 30 of them are active as of July 2016. The B+ licence is additional to the B licence.
– F1+ licence for online bets. There are 35 available licences (initially only 34) and 13 of them are active as of July 2016. The F+ licence is additional to the F licence.

Depending on the interpretation, if those licences are limited per game or rather per online portal, EA would possibly need to make SWTOR players to go extra to EA Origins to purchase those lockboxes outside of the game, if EA wants to use that license for all their other games using lockbox systems too!

Edit: To get the land-based licence first before you can have the online licence, you need to have a “physical connection to Belgium”:

The servers where data is stored and which the website is administrated through must be located in a permanent establishment in Belgium

Reader
Zora

I’ll stick to my guns and not rely on any state to protect me from my own addictions with regulations, considering how well it worked with alcohol and drugs just about…anywhere?

These abominations will stop existing once a relevant enough percentage of the audience refuses to partake in them. States can only asks for a slice and regulating something people are willing to pay for anyway means little when the company just has to tailor its schemes to bypass the new law.

Reader
Noel

The immediate, prevailing premise in operation in this issue is that you can’t protect yourself from your own addictions, because determinism. The evil, greedy, profit-seekers know how to hack your mind. You’re just a helpless mass whose stimuli-to-response map is an open book. Free will is an illusion. Your primary metaphysical status is ‘potential victim to all stimuli.’ Therefore all stimuli must be regulated. What is optional and voluntary, is actually coerced at the end of the barrel of a biochemical gun.

To the degree that equivocation can frame variances in behaviors due to an incomplete awareness of all variables, as “free will,” well, some people have less of it than others. These inferior people need to be protected, whether they want it or not, regardless of whose rights are violated, for the sake of the “common good.”

I would be pleased as punch if EA just shrugged and pulled out of the EU completely. But that’s unlikely, seeing as U.S. politicians smell blood in the water, too. Here’s hoping for price hikes or pay model changes that’ll make the nanny enablers squirm.

Reader
Zora

As irony would have it, the article right before this one reminds us what having a state deciding to regulate entertainment for the good of young minds, cultural values and whatever excuse is trendy on any given week implies :P

Concerned about children? Show me action agaisnt pokemon, hearthstone and assorted collectibles such as good ols stickers peddled by companies directly to children right outside primary schools, then I’ll take it seriously!

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Wolfyseyes

I will not shed a tear if this kills lockboxes in many MMOs, be it SWTOR or Star Trek or WildStar or all the other stars. If buying something a la carte ends up costing me more, I’ll pay if I like the game enough and know that I”m getting the items I want.

This really, REALLY doesn’t seem hard to fix.

Reader
Loyal Patron
Armsbend

“Gamers might argue that pay-to-win boxes are the real problem, but to an outsider, there really isn’t a way to distinguish pay-to-win from other lootboxes, and so here we are.”

I find the press is now dredging up sympathy for the developers with quotes like this. They are ALL a problem and need to be eradicated. If and when people lose their jobs because of it? Good. It’s a job that should never have existed in the first place. A shakedown can return development sales to actually good development – rather than gambling mechanics so you look better than the guy who didn’t spend money.

Bree Royce
Staff
Bree Royce

I didn’t read Larry as having particular sympathies for the devs, or at least not the marketers who decide on the flavor of exploitation in play. More like sympathies for the players, laying down what’s likely and realistic for the MMO gamers closest to this mess. Because tbh, a lot of players happily pay their fair sub and do not buy lockboxes or support that system – they’re doing everything right, but they’ll be just as affected by a sunset as the whales if under new regulation EA decides it isn’t worth yet another go at a new business model (or if Disney decides EA isn’t worthy of Star Wars at all).

Reader
Loyal Patron
Armsbend

I don’t think it was on purpose – unconsciousness if you will. I believe our esteemed gaming press has the same feelings everyone else does about lockboxes – but at the same time they don’t want to see the industry, and hence their jobs – suffer. All Armsbend theory of course.

That will $85.00 please. See the receptionist for your appointment next week. Ciao.

Reader
Nathan Aldana

Personally, I think something has to be done about loxboxes before they consume the whiole videogame industry. if that means more direct sales, I’m fine with that, I’d be muuch more likely to play something like neverwinter if I knew the actual price of getting the cool cosmetic shit.

Reader
Dug From The Earth

Because if players cant buy lockboxes, they wont buy anything, am i right? /sarcasm

Im willing to bet (ie: highly opinion driven) that most people who want a specific item, look, mount, mini pet, etc, will actually be MORE willing to pay money to get the exact thing they want, even at a higher price, than they are to buy cheaper, but large quantities of, lockboxes to get it.

What it means is that rather than relying on the devious nature of gambling to bring in more money, that the devs will just have to create more content that people want to buy to put on the store.

Reader
Fair Mores

More than ceasing to sell loot boxes I want their marketing department to revise their philosophical and ethical standards. Otherwise, I am concerned they will attempt to make the same amount of money they used to make with loot boxes with direct sales. For example, the Cartel Market sold the kylo ren lightsaber for $50 a couple of months ago. That is an unbelievable price for one item, unless you look at it as their attempt to mimic the amount of money they would have gotten selling the same item in a loot box.

I want to spend money on this game, I really do. I subscribe monthly and I buy things from the cartel market. I invite the development team and the marketing department to motivate me to spend money on the game without exploiting me.

Reader
Zora

The amount of circumvention they could get away with is astonishing anyhow, for example putting veeery coveted goods not for sale at all but offer them instead as exclusive promotional rewards only once you have spent X amount of cash buying anything from a store filled with garbage… tiered rewards the way wildstar did, quite innocently at that.

Really, that took me one minute to come up with and they have people paid to just figure how to come up with such schemes… :P

wpDiscuz