Authored by Ivan Kvapil, Pagesculptor Studios Strategic Manager
Disclaimer: This piece is largely meant to be opinion based in nature and I do draw a lot of my information from a single source for this article. However, the source is a veteran of the industry and while frequently is decried by other members of the video game industry he frequently goes above and beyond to provide truthful and accurate information. If you wish to gain further knowledge about the topics presented in this article I recommend checking out his YouTube channel.
If you are vaguely aware of video games, or have a friend who is vaguely aware of video games it is likely you’ve heard something regarding Electronic Arts (EA) loot box controversy. To sum it up, EA released early access copies of Star Wars Battlefront 2 to people so they could get feedback from their audience before an official release. During this “beta,” gamers frequently complained that the system was intrinsically tied to loot boxes, and heavily favored those willing to pay for them rather than play for them.
For those unaware of what a loot box is think of it as a pack of digital trading cards. You’re vaguely aware as to the possible rarity of the cards inside the pack, but have no way of knowing what’s actually inside until you buy it and open it. Now this is a system that has been used inside video games for years, other Triple AAA games such as Overwatch, Shadow of War, and the Fifa series have been using them without major controversy. So, what happened this time?
What changed was how EA did it. They linked loot boxes to in-game progression. It was impossible for you to progress though the game mechanically without obtaining these loot boxes, which could of course be purchased with real currency or a special in-game currency, in which you got a minimal amount each game, and suffered a daily cap on. Often these were loot boxes with no control regarding their contents, potentially giving items that were entirely useless to actually leveling up, or even duplicates. This created a system where bigger bonuses or quick access to new equipment required large amounts of money, since the only other option is playing over 4,500 hours to collect everything in the game.
So, back to this question: Is this marketing to predatory? To long time video game YouTuber and commentator Jim Sterling it is. Before the controversy with EA came into the mainstream Jim Sterling had been arguing that loot boxes where merely a glorified form of gambling. Jim Sterling is adamant to point out that while they are not legally gambling, companies are still preying on the same sort of impulses that drive gambling. I highly recommend watching the Jimquisition episode titles “Turning Players into Payers” in which he goes more in depth into how companies are preying on gamers. And even if it isn’t gambling, no one has the time required to play a game for 4,500 hours to obtain everything in a game they already paid a full $60 for. As Jim Sterling likes to point out, these companies don’t care about their consumers, only more ways to make money.
This idea is starting to gain some traction across the world. Belgium is petitioning the European Gambling commission to consider loot boxes gambling. One state representatives of Hawaii directly called out EA’s loot box system as gambling, stating it as a threat to children.
Likely though we will only see systems like this become more and more popular and subtle as companies find ways to make it around new legislation. As Jim Sterling describes in his video mentioned above, companies are now finding ways to use analytics collected digitally from peoples devices to specifically target people with tailored prices for in-game products, which if that isn’t the exact definition of predatory marketing, I don’t know what is.