Dammit Australia. As if buying lockboxes in video games isn’t bad enough, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds means to make you chase them in real life.
Apparently, Xbox Australia is doing real-life supply drops in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne this weekend. The “dropped” crates have tons of loot – genuinely good loot, from the sound of it, including Xbox One Xes, controllers, codes, and PUBG loot and codes too. You basically need to hang out on Facebook to puzzle out the clues that’ll guide you to the drops and hopefully get you there first with the password so you can collect your shinies.
It’s basically high-stakes geocaching, but we’re betting that nobody playing has any idea what that is. Then again, you don’t technically need to care about PUBG to participate, now do you? The hoopla kicks off on Saturday, so if you’re down under, check out Facebook for the event deets.
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.
How hard is EA trying to salvage its rep hit from the Star Wars Battlefront 2 drama? It’s hard to judge right now. This week, the game will patch up with tweaks for economy and progression, complete with improved end-of-round payouts (something players complained about bitterly when EA tooted its horn about reducing the cost of heroes while simultaneously reducing payouts and not mentioning that part because EA is sneaky like that). The patch will also generate for players more daily credits from arcade mode and daily login freebies (still crates, though). New characters, including Finn and Phasma, debut as well.
Some gamers, however, are not appeased. There’s at least one petition floating around right now trying to convince Disney subsidiary Lucasfilm to revoke EA’s license to pump out Star Wars games because EA has “proven to [its] consumers that [it] honestly [doesn’t] care about the gameplay experience or content” and instead would “rather rush out a game that will try [to] milk as much money out of consumers as possible.” It’s not the most convincingly crafted petition in the world, but it nevertheless has 120,000 signers so far.
With the rhetoric and discussion around video game lockboxes at a fever pitch, it has drawn the attention of at least one US congressperson who has issued a somewhat dire warning to the games industry: Police yourself or get ready for us to do it for you.
Hawaii State Representative Sean Quinlan is the latest in a string of politicians and governments taking the games industry to task over the design and mechanics of pay-for-loot lockboxes. He said that while he doesn’t want to see the government step in to regulate, he also doesn’t believe that game publishers are going to get their act together on this.
Bloggers and journalists throughout the online gaming industry have been talking about monetization a lot lately. It’s not just lockbox/gachapon scandals, or their relationship with gambling, but basic monetization and what we want from it. Games, after all, don’t make themselves; we have to pay for something to make that happen. But some gamers seem to view free-to-play games as a game that should be free, not one to be supported if it earns respect. And on the flipside of that, far too few game studios give off a vibe not of experimenting with monetization but of maximizing profits above all else while barely veiling their greed.
However, outside the MMO world, there is a company that’s been doing it “right” for a long time: Nintendo. The AAA developer/publisher is known for both innovation and hesitance, following in others’ footsteps with great trepidation, trying to figure out the ins and outs while entering the mobile market long after it’s been established. The company recently released a new mobile title, but what’s interesting is that it and the company’s last four games are all different genres with different monetization strategies. Exploring these titles and their relationship to their monetization plans will not only highlight the potential success of the models but hint at why they work and how they can be curbed into models gamers and lawmakers can better accept.
Among the controversy of EA’s pay-to-win lockboxes in Star Wars Battlefront II emerges a rather reasonable question: Why didn’t the studio create and use cosmetic rewards in these lockboxes rather than selling progression through them?
An EA spokesperson claimed that the company was concerned about “violating the canon of Star Wars” with pink-skinned Darth Vaders and the like, but it turns out that such cosmetic customization was in the works all along. Fans have found a hidden customization menu for characters tucked away in the game’s coding that wasn’t activated for release, hinting that the team had originally envisioned allowing players to adopt and use all sorts of cosmetic skins.
Meanwhile, another one of EA’s upcoming titles is falling under increased scrutiny with its microtransactions model. UFC 3 recently went into beta testing, during which players discovered that “the more a player invests into their account the better their performance will be in game.” Yes, it’s loot crates all over again becoming the gatekeeper to progression, holding access to “every single technique, fighter, and stat roll.”
Not everyone in the video game industry is shying away from lockboxes or denouncing them outright. Take-Two Interactive President Karl Slatoff took the side of the ESA by saying that he doesn’t consider lockboxes gambling and that the Red Dead Redemption 2 studio will continue using microtransactions going forward.
“The whole gambling regulator thing, we don’t view that sort of thing as gambling. Our view of it is the same as the ESA statement for the most part,” Slatoff said during a recent confererence. “That’s going to play its course, but in terms of the consumer and the noise you hear in the market right now, it’s all about content […] You can’t force the consumer to do anything. You try to do your best to create the best experience you possibly can to drive engagement. And driving engagement creates value in entertainment. That’s just how it’s always been and always will be.”
As the conversation over lockboxes continues to ramp up, a story of one teen who got caught up in online gambling and spent over $10,000 on video game microtransactions is drawing the attention of many — as is this scathing piece at Polygon taking EA’s poor apologies over Star Wars Battlefront 2 to task.
It looks as though the rebels may have defeated the empire — or at least struck a mighty blow to give the latter pause.
CNBC is reporting that the fallout from EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II and its lockboxes has done serious damage to the company’s bottom line. EA’s stock price dove 8.5% following the uproar over Battlefront’s egregious lockboxes, the resulting decision to (temporarily) remove them from the business model, and weaker than expected sales. This means that $3.1 billion of shareholder value has now vanished. That’s no small potatoes.
Wall Street Analyst Doug Creutz said that this may be the catalyst that sets some serious changes in motion for the video game industry: “We think the time has come for the industry to collectively establish a set of standards for MTX implementation, both to repair damaged player perceptions and avoid the threat of regulation.”
A group of “industry leaders and experts” have apparently formed what they’re calling National Committee for Games Policy (NCGP) – a “coalition to fight the lootcrate gambling crisis.”
“We made this decision in response to the current crisis regarding the expansion of loot crate economies and concerns about unregulated online gambling, but also as an acceptance of a long in coming decision that we knew would eventually become necessary,” the press release says. “Games are not represented or understood in the modern political and judicial world, and that needs to change.”
Setting itself apart from developer-oriented groups, NCGP says it intends to form a think tank and provide guidance to policy makers “where video games, politics, and law intersect.” It also declares its intent to form “the video game industry’s first, and de facto, self regulatory organization” that seems to have its sights set on defending devs from their employers.
While you were eating turkey and buying loot this past weekend, the lockbox saga was trundling onward.
The UK Gambling Commission has formally stated that it does not believe lootboxes and lockboxes should be classified as gambling – yet. “A key factor in deciding if that line has been crossed is whether in-game items acquired ‘via a game of chance’ can be considered money or money’s worth,” says the commission. “In practical terms this means that where in-game items obtained via loot boxes are confined for use within the game and cannot be cashed out it is unlikely to be caught as a licensable gambling activity. In those cases our legal powers would not allow us to step in.”
That said, the commission further notes that even if certain “activities” like lockboxes fail to meet the legal definition of gambling, it has a responsibility to parents and children.
“We are concerned with the growth in examples where the line between video gaming and gambling is becoming increasingly blurred. Where it does meet the definition of gambling it is our job to ensure that children are protected and we have lots of rules in place, like age verification requirements, to do that.”
The controversy over lockboxes and their legal status continues to draw more attention from governments, with Australia now weighing in on the issue. Not the whole country, mind you, but the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR), which wrote a letter stating that lockboxes were considered gambling under the country’s laws.
While the VCGLR doesn’t typically oversee video games, its opinion does carry weight in the government and could prompt action on the proliferation of lockboxes in online games. The problem? The government body says that it’s very hard to regulate and that “there are a lot of variables at play.”
“What occurs with ‘loot boxes’ does constitute gambling by the definition of the Victorian Legislation,” wrote VCGLR Strategic Analyst Jarrod Wolfe. “Unfortunately where the complexity arises is in jurisdiction and our powers to investigate. Legislation has not moved as quick as the technology; at both State and Federal level we are not necessarily equipped to determine the legality of these practices in lieu of the fact the entities responsible are overseas.”
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?
You might have missed the riots in the streets over lockboxes these past few months, but we assure you, the controversy is very real. One game where this won’t be a problem? City of Titans.
The team opened up about its business model this week, explaining how it will make money as an indie superhero MMORPG. Despite needing revenue as badly as any other small game, City of Titans promised not to include lockboxes as part of its business plan. For the record, the game is adopting a buy-to-play model with a cash shop and optional subscription.
“We’ve put a great deal of thought into how to finance profitably but ethically,” the team said.