Video gaming

Why Battlefront 2 pay-to-win feature, pulled after gambling accusations, is not alone in testing players’ purse strings

The latest Star Wars game dropped player-enhancing in-game purchases after a huge public backlash, but with games from Overwatch to Call of Duty already popularising the concept of microtransactions, more experimenting will come

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 November, 2017, 7:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 November, 2017, 7:01pm

Imagine buying a new chess set. Chess is your favourite game. Also you love Star Wars. It’s a Star Wars chess set!

Now imagine playing your friend who spent US$200 for the random chance that his pawns obtain the board-clearing powers of a queen. Plus his king looks like Darth Vader and yours still looks like a scruffy-looking nerf herder.

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You might get mad. Or you might up the ante and spend a few hundred bucks to even the odds. Now imagine that you’re both children.

These are some of the questions that have been gripping the video game industry in a controversy leading up to the recent release of Star Wars Battlefront II, this year’s marquee Star Wars title timed to coincide with Disney’s highly anticipated The Last Jedi film next month.

It all started a month ago, when the game’s publisher Electronic Arts (EA) showcased that Battlefront II would have a “loot box” system in place for players. On top of the US$60 to US$80 retail price, the game was going to allow players at home to spend more money on digital “boxes”, which can give you random extra benefits.

Each loot box contains a random reward. You could get abilities to do more damage or move faster, or you might get a dud, like a “dance” emote for your character. And if you get that dud, you might spend even more money and up the chances of permanently becoming more powerful, like the ability to make Boba Fett fly around with 100 per cent invincibility. It’s why critics have called it “glorified gambling”: you don’t know what you’re spending money on, but the more you spend, the higher the chances of winning.

As the website Rock, Paper, Shotgun explained, you could get those same benefits without spending real-life money, but you would have to do it by playing matches against other players to earn fake game money, which could take dozens, if not hundreds, of hours.

Loot boxes have become increasingly normal in recent years, including in games like the popular shooter Overwatch as well as the most recent game in the Call of Duty series. Publishers claim that because development costs of top games rival Hollywood summer blockbusters, selling post-release digital content is needed to make up costs.

But with Battlefront II, creating a random loot economy raised flags because some consider the practice akin to gambling, and the Star Wars brand is marketed heavily toward children. Beyond that, most other competitive games do not offer “pay to win” advantages, which imbalances the game to favour paying players.

Weeks of public outcry culminated in EA posting on Reddit to defend itself on the controversy. That comment became the most downvoted (or disliked) post in the site’s 12-year history:

On the eve of the game’s launch, EA said it had temporarily removed the in-game purchases.

“The ability to purchase crystals in-game will become available at a later date, only after we’ve made changes to the game,” said Oskar Gabrielson, general manager of Dice, the game’s developer. Crystals are the fake currency in the game you can buy for real money, which you then trade for loot boxes.

When asked if players can be guaranteed that “pay to win” mechanics have been removed from the game, an EA spokeswoman said: “With regard to yesterday’s announcement on pulling the in-game purchases for launch, we do not have anything further to share at the moment beyond Oskar’s post.”

Belgium’s gaming commission is investigating whether the game constitutes gambling. But EA asserts that the loot box mechanic (called “crates” in Battlefront II) is not gambling.

“A player’s ability to succeed in the game is not dependent on purchasing crates,” said the EA spokeswoman. “Players can also earn crates through playing the game and not spending any money at all. Once obtained, players are always guaranteed to receive content that can be used in game.”

Americans are falling so far behind what other countries are doing, and it’s all about profit. You have gaming lobbyists who don’t want us to talk about this
Kimberly Young

Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of Disney’s consumer products and interactive media division, made a call to EA hours before the decision was made to pull in-game purchases. The Wall Street Journal reported that the call was to express Disney executives’ unhappiness at how the outrage “reflected on their marquee property”.

A Disney/Lucasfilm spokesman said the company supports EA’s temporary decision to end the purchasing of crates. “Star Wars has always been about the fans – and whether it’s Battlefront or any other Star Wars experience, they come first,” said the spokesman. “That’s why we support EA’s decision to temporarily remove in-game payments to address fan concerns.”

For years, critics and gaming psychologists have criticised loot boxes. While it may not legally be gambling, they say, the same intermittent nature of rewards and spending is in place.

“If you put it in fundamental terms, it’s really the same thing,” said Kimberly Young, a licensed psychologist and founder of the Centre for Internet Addiction. “It’s called gambling.”

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Loot boxes were popularised in China and Korea, where the practice is now regulated. Just this year, developers in China became required to disclose the probabilities of loot boxes in popular games like Overwatch and Hearthstone. In 2012, South Korea introduced a law that would require major gaming companies to add features that let parents limit how long their children can play such video games.

“Americans are falling so far behind what other countries are doing, and it’s all about profit,” Young said. “You have gaming lobbyists who don’t want us to talk about this. We just haven’t had it come to a head yet.”

EA’s temporary pullback may seem like a milestone, but many gamers remain cynical, including Jim Sterling, a prominent games journalist. For years he has been warning that the practice will only become more mainstream which, with publishers like EA and Warner Bros getting in on the act, it now has. He dubbed 2017 “The Year of the Loot Box”, blaming Activision-Blizzard’s Overwatch for popularising the concept.

“In the long run … I believe companies will continue to see how far they can push the envelope,” Sterling said. “This is far from the first time a publisher has reached for too much too quickly, had to walk it back and take baby steps toward its end goal of acquiring as much cash for as little additional effort as possible.”

He believes EA suspended the in-game purchases only to “curry favour with the audience and perhaps make those nervous investors a bit happier”.

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Chief among Sterling’s concerns is that Activision-Blizzard patented a method to encourage these microtransactions. In addition, EA and Activision-Blizzard are far from the only gaming behemoths testing the waters. Sterling said it is almost as if the entire industry “en masse is feeling out the limitations” of the trend.

“From my perspective, the incoming firestorm of retaliation [on Battlefront II] was a given, but this is an industry run predominantly by alienated rich old guys who know little and care less about video games, so it would not surprise me in the least if they were completely taken by surprise when they faced their very own galactic rebellion,” Sterling said.

“Emperor Palpatine always thinks his Death Star is invincible until they blow it up. Electronic Arts and its insidious ilk aren’t much different.”