A controversial story has been unfolding over the course of the last two weeks around the use of loot boxes in EA’s recently released Star Wars Battlefront 2. This is a system of ‘in-game’ purchasing that allows you the opportunity to open a box that contains a selection of bonus power-ups or other in-game content.
These can be bought by accumulating in-game currency – or much faster by paying with real money. The sense of accomplishment by playing the game normally will obviously be reduced if anyone with enough money to spare can get ahead with in-game purchases.
More sinister is the fact that EA has begun to include these in-game purchases far more often in their products, in order to nickel and dime their customers. What is abhorrent about this practise is that a large percentage of their customers are under the age of18. This system straddles the line between a legitimate business practise and grooming children into gambling habits.
As the practise has come under fire, several countries’ governments have launched investigations as to the legality of the practise. In the US, the Hawaiian legislator Chris Lee has openly criticised the game and described it as a “Star Wars-themed online casino designed to lure kids into spending money” Belgium, Australia and the United Kingdom have also opened enquiries to determine whether spending money on ‘lootboxes’ is a form of gambling.
At the same time of these enquiries, Activision, the developer of the Call of Duty games, recently took out a patent on a new online matchmaking system. This system pairs players with others that had made in-game purchases in order to encourage them to consider making the same purchases to level the playing field.
While the company released a press statement assuring that this was taken out by their Research and Development department and has not been implemented in any games, the trend remains worrying.
While this is not a new concept in gaming, it has begun to be used in a more predatory manner since the introduction of ‘micro-transactions’ into the video game market. Usually associated with games that are ‘free-to-play’ but in fact require purchases to progress in any real way, these micro-transactions have now moved into full priced triple A games.
As an example, the retail price of Battlefront Two in Ireland is €70. However, the full priced game further attempts to extort additional money from its players – a practise hard to describe as anything other than corporate greed and a predatory desire to exploit young people.
The negative response from the gaming community forced EA to pull the purchasing system from the game the day before release, but they have left the door open to re-introducing the system at a later date. Whether or not these systems officially constitute gambling or not is still up for debate.
If consumers vote with their wallets, the success of these games will likely decide the future of in-game transactions.