Why you should care
Because the future of video games is at stake.
When EA, the American video game company, launched Star Wars Battlefront II in November, it was seeking redemption. The previous edition of the game, in 2015, had left fans vastly disappointed. But even before the formal launch, players who had early access to Battlefront II — by paying more than the standard cost — began crying foul. Classic Star Wars characters like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker were locked until players accumulated a small fortune of in-game currency.
To do that, they had to either play the game long enough or convert actual money into Star Wars credits. Conner Rust, a Reddit user from North Carolina, did the math and posted a spreadsheet showing it would take players 40 hours of game time to unlock a hero. EA has since temporarily disabled microtransactions for Battlefront II, but the damage is done. The company lost $3 billion in stock value following the backlash.
The response to Battlefront II is part of a growing retaliation by users against the increasing takeover of video games by so-called loot boxes that combine microtransactions with a randomized, slot machine–style payout to dictate player progression. Microtransactions in themselves aren’t new and have become ubiquitous across the gaming world over the past decade. The $40 billion–strong mobile gaming market is primarily built on free games that offer small in-game purchases that advantage buyers over players who don’t put as much money into the game. But “pay to win” mechanics have now crept into many multimillion-dollar flagship games, even story-driven, single-player affairs, sparking a backlash in both the virtual world — where many have taken to Reddit and other platforms to decry what many see as corporate greed–fueled exploitation — and in the real one, as EA has discovered.
The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
EA, responding to criticism of its Battlefront II loot box
Even the critically lauded single-player adventure of 2017, Horizon: Zero Dawn, in which no other microtransactions are present, uses loot boxes as an inventory mechanic. Ubisoft’s Middle-earth: Shadow of War was panned across the internet for ruining its predecessor’s inventive achievements by adding orc-containing loot boxes to its single-player campaign. No matter the game’s other strengths, Shadow of War has a user rating of 3.6/10 on Metacritic, compared to an 80/100 score from critics. Players claim that the sudden influx of such a mechanic across a genre-defying panoply of titles makes the games feel “homogenous” and too often degenerate the experience into a grinding match of who can get the most loot boxes open and reap the most advantages. And efforts by companies at defending their strategy aren’t working either.
“The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment,” starts the Reddit post by EA in defense of Battlefront II. It quickly became the most downvoted post in the site’s 12-year history.
At its heart, the debate centers on the shift in the gaming experience over the past quarter of a century. Gaming used to be simple: You walked into your local brick-and-mortar shop and bought a cartridge or disc whose code was set in digital stone when it left the factory. Then you played it. No updates, no patches, no fixing mistakes and no responding to community feedback. Cheat codes offered a way to alter the way you played the game. Extra lives, better equipment — all things were fair game. That is, unless you were playing against someone else, in which case a cheat code could earn a stern talking-to from Player 2 on fairness. In the modern era, however, the internet has replaced split screens and shared couches with matchmaking algorithms, and advantages come with the CVV code on the back of your credit card. Cheat codes have all but disappeared.
That companies are looking to constantly cash in on the gaming market in newer ways isn’t surprising. According to NewZoo, the video game industry made $108.9 billion in 2017. Compare this to the $41.2 billion that Hollywood made in the same year. A like-for-like comparison isn’t appropriate, as they compare sales of hardware and peripherals along with the games themselves to simple box office receipts. But the figures underscore how big the gaming industry business is. According to a Pew Research Center survey, nearly half of all Americans play games for more than three hours a week. As any modern gamer will tell you, however, the biggest factor contributing to this massive money pile is also its most controversial.
Governments have taken an interest in the loot box drama as well. A regulation from China’s Ministry of Culture, which took effect in spring 2017, forces companies like Activision Blizzard — makers of the massively popular shooter Overwatch — to release the odds for loot crate items. Hawaii Representatives Chris Lee and Sean Quinlan referred to Battlefront II as a “trap” and called the game an online Star Wars–themed casino “designed to lure kids into spending money.” Belgium’s justice minister has called for new laws to regulate loot boxes.
As games become more popular and more expensive to make, they are actually cheaper than ever to buy. When adjusted for inflation, according to Ars Technica, 1992’s Final Fantasy III for the Super Nintendo had a $116.18 price tag. And the microtransactions and loot boxes wouldn’t have grown as much as they have had there not been enough gamers willing to pay. Still, the relationship between creator and consumer is more strained than ever, even as the amount of money in the gaming industry has never been greater. The tussle over the future of gaming is heating up, and in this real-world debate, it will take more than a loot box to settle on a winner.