Say you were a legislator concerned about the lootbox/lockbox gambling issues in gaming. How would you actually go about drafting a law that targets predatory monetization without, as some people fear, sliding down a slippery slope into unfettered regulation so that suddenly all video games are illegal but Pong?
Hawaii State Representative Chris Lee, whom you’ll remember from his Reddit post and video on the subject a few weeks ago, has a new video out explaining just that, as his goal and that of other representatives in other states is to craft language that is tailored specifically to blocking the sale of gambleboxes to people under 21 (the legal age for gambling in the US). It’s clear from the video that Lee and the attorneys working on the potential bill actually understand the gacha mechanics and nastier algorithmic targeting tactics that some game studios employ.
Earlier this week, we reported on a move by the Belgian Gaming Commission to investigate lockboxes/lootboxes in games like Star Wars Battlefront 2 to determine whether they constitute games of chance to the degree that they require regulation meant for gambling. Now it appears the Dutch have joined them.
According to NU.nl, the Dutch Gaming Authority is also investigating whether this particular game mechanic falls under the banner of online gambling, which according to the news outlet is currently banned in the Netherlands, while games of chance on the whole are subject to special licensing rules. According to the regulatory group, it is “still in a research phase.”
EA has insisted that Star Wars Battlefront 2’s lootcrates “are not gambling” for all the usual reasons online gaming studios trot out to confuse people about what games of chance are: that players win something, even if it’s lint, and that players can earn crates via play. Last night, the company announced it was disabling all microtransactions while it sorted out the continuing uproar.
If you’ve been following the lockbox/lootbox controversy over the last couple of weeks (or last multiple years, ahem), then you know that opponents of the practice in online games seldom actually argue “for the children” since let’s face it, the MMORPG playerbase skews well into adulthood. Adults are the ones being affected.
Academic Ramin Shokrizade – well-known for his scholarly economic articles and recent treatise on how MMOs are dying because of poor design rather than insufficient demand – has nevertheless jumped into the fray with a similar argument, suggesting that in declaring lootboxes not gambling and refusing to intervene, the ESRB is effectively “promoting children’s gambling.”
In his new article on Gamasutra, Shokrizade says that the ESRB’s statement about lootboxes not being gambling connotes a misunderstanding about what an “element of chance” actually is.
Hey, you folks who say complaining about lockboxes never changes anything? You’re demonstrably wrong.
It turns out that EA, which increased its revenues last quarter chiefly thanks to sports games, has now announced plans to rework the lootbox/lockbox system in Star Wars Battlefront II – the game whose controversy pushed the lockbox conversation into the mainstream and even to the ears of national politics. While the company won’t eschew lockboxes entirely, it will essentially make the system less pay-to-win by removing high-end preorder cards and making them craftable instead.
EA isn’t the only company walking back its lockbox/lootbox policy in order to stay on the community’s good side: Phoenix Labs, which is currently building Dauntless, is dumping the model entirely, citing feedback from players and a desire not to be “a company that is known for being able to extract capital, or some other bullshit, out of [players].”
Many of you will immediately turn to the free-to-play model of Star Wars: The Old Republic
and reject my even thinking
about the cash shop working the way it should, so let me allay your fears: I am not going to talk about the hybrid, F2P-trash model that SWTOR
employs, the one that earned SWTOR
our (and our readers’) worst business model of 2016
“award.” I am simply going to talk about the Cartel Market itself and the changes that BioWare
has made to make it more player-centric – and how, if this trend continues, we could see more positive changes to this particular storefront.
If you haven’t heard, in the recent Update 5.5, BioWare changed not only the look of the Cartel Market but also its functionality and the number of items in it. On the Bad Feeling Podcast, Community Manager Eric Musco said that with some of the new functions, like the ability to search for specific items versus scrolling through menus, has allowed BioWare to add more direct-sell items to the market and also bring back some items that people enjoy.
I’m not an advocate of everything that BioWare has added or is doing with the Cartel Market, but I believe that great strides have been made in the right direction. Let me explain what I mean.
Hey, since it’s absurdity week, let’s just roll with it: Twitch is getting in on the lockox/lootcrate/gamblebox action, making every streamer and channel party to the system, even us. Basically, any time you cheer for a streamer with 250 bits (i.e., donate) through the Halloween hoopla, you snag a virtual Halloween crate with a chance for a drop. It’s an emote. It’s a temporary emote. That you can use only on Twitch. From a lockbox. Mind blown.
“From now through November 3rd, go trick or treating on any Bits enabled channel by Cheering with at least 250 Bits and unlock a Halloween Crate containing one of six temporary zombie emotes. Collect all six and Zombie Lord Kappa will be yours forever. We all know, what is dead may never die…”
500 bits runs $3.50, so basically you’re paying $1.75 for a temp emote that you can then use to heckle other streamers. The weird part is that… the streamer gets (most of) your money. So really it’s just Twitch’s incentive to donate to channels you like while taking a (small?) cut.
MMO blogger Serrenity, whom many of you will recognize from his clever comments here on MOP too, has a compelling blog post on his personal site today diving deep into the lockbox debate. But far from merely offering another exhortation to stop buying lockboxes, he’s doing some complicated napkin math (and by napkin math, I mean python scripting) to try to understand why publishers are so fixated on selling them.
Since studios are generally not in the business of handing out detailed sales figures and drop rates, Serrenity is forced to calculate potential revenue based on publicly gathered data, which he admits upfront result in rough estimates. “This information is purely extrapolated and used for demonstrative purposes,” he warns.
Using Guild Wars 2’s wiki data on drop rates for the bank access token, he finds that the revenue from selling lockboxes vs. selling that item directly increases 14-fold – almost 1500% higher. And that’s just a minor, relatively undesirable item with a relatively high drop rate; admittedly, nobody’s going to go ham buying lockboxes just for that (we hope, anyway). Plugging rarer, desirable drops that would cost much more upfront (like weapon skins) into his formula sees the estimated revenue soar as high as 12500%. That is not a typo.
A formal UK petition requesting that video game gambling laws be adjusted to include language covering lockboxes passed 10,000 signatures earlier this week, ensuring that the petition would receive a response from the government, which it now has, although no one concerned about the issue will be impressed at the reply.
Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Tracey Crouch is a bit of a dodge, like PEGI’s statement earlier this week. As Eurogamer points out, Crouch’s reply – repeated verbatim for each question asked – refers to the UK Gambling commission’s paper on third-party gambling websites, which as you’ll recall since we covered it has nothing to do with in-game lockboxes.
The ESRB may not be interested in protecting gamers against predatory business model practices like lockboxes, but European regulators may be joining their Chinese counterparts in at least taking a look before casually dismissing concerns.
As Polygon reports, a member of the UK parliament, Daniel Zeichner, submitted formal questions to the UK’s secretary of state on topic, requesting information on her plan to “to protect vulnerable adults and children from illegal gambling, in-game gambling and loot boxes within computer games,” specifically on the Isle of Man, whose legal code refers by name to “in-game gambling and loot boxes.”
Meanwhile, the European PEGI – akin to the ESRB on this side of the pond – has said that it can’t rule on the issue for game studios because it “cannot define what constitutes gambling” because it’s not a national gambling commission – contrary to the ESRB’s statement.
So, MMO players. Are you tired of hearing about lockboxes and gambleboxes? It feels like we’ve been complaining about them for like six or seven years now, probably because we have. It wasn’t cute back when City of Heroes was trying it, nope. Heck, it wasn’t cute back when Star Wars Galaxies was trying it with card packs. Now it’s every damn game, and it’s gone way beyond MMOs. I’m not sick of hearing about it myself. I’m just sick of dealing with it like a pestilence making me hate the games and developers who exploit them.
Maybe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel: As more AAA online gaming studios figure out that lockbox gambling garbage is a fast ticket to easy money, more mainstream gamers are catching wind of the scam and raising objections, so it’s not just MMO players all by our lonesomes anymore. Indeed, this week multiple game critics, YouTubers, and review services have come out against lockboxes, from Boogie to TotalBiscuit, the latter of whom has called for ESRB intervention. Reviews aggregator OpenCritic has further said it’s “going to take a stand against loot boxes” by taking crappy business practices into account. The ESRB doesn’t care, by the way, and as blogger Isarii has pointed, the self-regulatory body has conveniently twisted the meaning of gambling to avoid dealing with the problem, thereby failing to protect us from it, but that’s just making people angrier.
So hey, you know what, studios? Keep screwing up with lootboxes. Keep attracting mainstream anger, keep disrespecting us, until it all boils over, one way or another, and you can’t exploit us anymore. And in the meantime, people? Stop. Buying. Lockboxes.
MMO blogger Ethan “Isarii” Macfie made an interesting point in one of his recent Critical Writ videos that I think deserves some amplification and debate. He argues that lockboxes are fairly compared to gambling — but in fact, they’re far worse.
In a traditional gambling setup, he notes, you might have 99 losers in a group of 100. The payment provided by the losers literally pays the winners (as well as pays for the infrastructure behind the casino). Without the losers’ cash, the casinos would have nothing to give to the winners – the risk is the only thing the casinos have to trade on.
In video gaming, however, that’s not how it works. A video game company is capable of selling gameplay as a product. There’s no fundamental scarcity of pixels in a digital game, and the profits from lockboxes aren’t going back to the winners in any sort of tangible way. Lockboxes merely allow the studio to create losers from pure greed. As he puts it, “They choose to introduce these goods in a way that creates losers out of their customers who don’t get what they want and have to take more chances possibly still not getting what they want to really purchase what they’re trying to purchase.”
Do you agree with Isarii? Is he right that MMO lockboxes are even worse than gambling?
Warframe’s Digital Extremes
is joining the very small list of online game developers being transparent about just what’s in their lockboxes, lootboxes, gambleboxes, lootcrates
, or whatever you want to call them. In fact, the data dump
it’s produced actually covers all loot drops rates in the game, something researchers have been calling for
“Warframe is free! Which means our drop system is designed to maintain a balance,” DE writes. “Our free players can earn the game’s content, and our paying players who support us with purchases usually get first dibs on the content by using Platinum (which can be traded to free players)! As far as we can tell… we are the first developers to post something quite like this – correct us if we’re wrong! Let’s hope it works out for us and we may start a trend.”
The first and most-backed City of Heroes successor City of Titans has a couple of dev pieces out this month answering questions posed to Missing Worlds Media this past spring. The Q&A itself is relatively brief, letting players know that powerset interactive effects (like team combos) are not on the table, minions will be customizable, the team is working on ways to thwart gold spammers and bots, PvP has a Rock Paper Scissors design goal, and the game is alt-centric but “won’t be ignoring endgame content.”
“Not only will there be content released for the entire level range throughout its lifetime, but we’ve designed several systems, both content centric and others, to enhance the experience of alting,” says the studio.
Last week, MWM told fans that City of Titans model will be a hybrid of a sub and free-to-play system, with an up-front cost that comes with complete access to the game and VIP status for a three months. It’ll also come with an optional subscription and a stipend of currency, dubbed Stars, for spending in the cash shop.