(versione italiana di tutto il post qui, sul blog del grande Michele Di Paola, coautore di questo articolo)
This is a good story that shows how bad guys don’t always win.
And when Star Wars is involved, this is particularly true.
A couple of weeks ago, the publishing colossus Electronic Arts (which owns other immensely popular game franchises like FIFA, The Sims or Need for Speed) released the latest, widely anticipated Star Wars videogame, “Battlefront II“.
In short, the game was a true delight for eyes, ears and everything else that makes a gaming experience.
The problem: besides its normal purchase price (60€ for the basic version, or more, depending on the platform), on launch the game relied heavily on a system requiring hours and hours of play (hundreds, some say) to unlock the best content, like Darth Vader or other iconic characters of the series.
As an alternative, players could avoid all the hard work by spending real money to participate in a in-game lottery, and hope to win big getting the so called random “loot-box” prizes.
This is so much like gambling, that in Belgium the game is currently under investigation by authorities for… being gambling. More about this, later in the article.
Or – in other words, for using highly addictive risk-reward mechanisms which involve money, in a product that is essentially aimed at
40 years old kids and teenagers. An unsettling thought.
What happened next? The gaming community REBELLED (pretty much what you would expect from Star Wars fans, right?)
A single Reddit comment trying to explain the official EA policy has been downvoted almost 700 thousand times in 48 hours; gamers have created organised protests online and flooded reviewing sites and aggregators like Metacritic with extremely negative comments and reviews – the game right now has a 67% review score, and a less than flattering really 0.8 (that’s right, zero point eight out of ten) user score, an “Overwhelming dislike based on 1760 Ratings”. Not so cool.
And remember, this all happened in more or less two days.
At that point, EA had to do something. And they reacted with an historical announcement saying that the micro-transactions were “temporarily removed” from the game.
Here is the official tweet:
Moreover, DICE studio, which directly developed the game on behalf of EA, issued as a statement:
As we approach the worldwide launch, it’s clear that many of you feel there are still challenges in the design. We’ve heard the concerns about potentially giving players unfair advantages. And we’ve heard that this is overshadowing an otherwise great game.
This was never our intention. Sorry we didn’t get this right.
We hear you loud and clear, so we’re turning off all in-game purchases. We will now spend more time listening, adjusting, balancing, and tuning. This means that the option to purchase crystals in the game is now offline, and all progression will be earned through gameplay. The ability to purchase crystals in-game will become available at a later date, only after we’ve made changes to the game. We’ll share more details as we work through this.
– Oskar Gabrielson, General Manager at DICE
Such a public apology has been a historical step in the videogames industry – and maybe in the media in general. I have never seen a movie producer, for example, apologizing for releasing a bad movie and say “sorry guys, you are right! We will take it back and make things right”.
This is due to the uniqueness of the a medium. Videogames owe everything to its interactive nature and to the close connection with their users. The power balance is very different. Gamers have little power individually to influence the medium, but they are very good at a few things: strategic thinking, teamwork, organized action to reach their goals. [I wonder where and how they did learn all this stuff, by the way ]
And when these skills are applied to something else than a game, impressive things can happen.
Think about it: the case was the perfect scenario for Star Wars fans. A diverse, ragged band of rebels mounting resistance against a tyrannical global Empire, in order to restore balance in
the Force their favorite game franchise.
A typical “David Vs Goliath” case in the digital age, one that has had very interesting outcomes – especially when more than 700 thousand Davids were able to coordinate their action in one day.
EA paid a bitter price, as their stock crashed as a consequence of the (lost) battle.
Imagine if the same passion was turned towards government, or in an electoral campaign!
Focus: Gambling or not? What’s your bet?
In Belgium, the Gambling Commission looks determined to investigate the connection between gaming and gambling in depth, while Belgian Justice Minister is already asking EU to altogether ban this mechanisms.
It looks like the next title to be checked will be the massively popular Overwatch, which has a similar in-game reward system based on payments and random rewards, but the authors at Blizzard answer that their in-game purchases and lottery-like rewards do not affect the game dynamics, being just ways to get better looking characters and purely aesthetic improvements to their equipment.
We could agree with this position, but the whole “freemium” model (= the game is free to play, yet premium content is available to users who are willing to pay an extra), looks like a possible way to validate the idea that you can spend money on a random base and get something good for you, which is already a step in the gambling direction.
On the other side, the European game rating authority (PEGI) operation director, Dirk Bosmans, stated in an interview to WCCFTech that it is not up to them to decide whether this mechanism is to be considered gambling or not:
(…) we cannot define what constitutes gambling. That is the responsibility of a national gambling commission. Our gambling content descriptor is given to games that simulate or teach gambling as it’s done in real life in casinos, racetracks, etc. If a gambling commission would state that loot boxes are a form of gambling, then we would have to adjust our criteria to that.
While PEGI still defines as gambling games only those representing “classic” casino-style gambling, other titles have been put under scrutiny by the gaming community itself, as for instance another Blizzard title, Hearthstone (a virtual card game featuring World of Warcraft characters), accused of introducing gambling dynamics towards an audience which massively includes kids.
We have seen this coming from far: many will remember cases of kids draining thousand of euros from daddy’s credit cards or phone bills to buy some in-game pets or gear in their mobile games, a few years ago. Regulations were introduced on this aspects, and now all in-game purchase has to be announced and can be disabled with passwords and other security mechanisms.
Nevertheless, mobile app stores contain still plenty of apps using slot-machine-like mechanisms to give in-game prizes. Even if this happens without money, or it is not relevant for gameplay, this aspect has been questioned by gambling-prevention movement as a way to hardwire gambling mechanisms in the brains of kids, making gambling more familiar to them, and therefore acceptable, when they grow up and will be able to dispose of their own money.
Moreover, the “freemium” games often leave the free part of their business model behind very soon: if I give you 50 dragons eggs for free for a while, you will build your game play on the availability of these resources; then after a while, all of a sudden your free supply of dragon eggs will be shortened to 20… at that point, you will be more keen to consider buying some more eggs, to keep up with your standard pace of getting results and score points.
If you are a kid, your parents will soon get a lot of begging and praying from you, until eventually… money will be spent*.
There is a complex design behind this mechanism, and it looks very similar to those exposed by Addiction by Design, the recent and already famous study by MIT Natasha Dow Schüll investigating Las Vegas slot machine system and machine-based gambling in general.
It might be time for all those active in gambling-prevention activities to learn about the Battlefront pay to win attempted “scam” (as it is being called online), and start consider that gaming is more and more connected to gambling, even though in hidden and not so clear ways.
The good news, as reported, is that in the Battlefront case the first victory is on the people side.
Will we – the people – be able to keep up? Or the money flood which is lobbying to shape the current (ineffective) gambling prevention policies will take care of the gaming world too?
Once again, it would be great to see the organized power of the net go chase some real life problem and try to fix it once for all. It is called active citizenship, and we badly need a new way to make it work. Maybe this story could teach us something about it.
* (thanks Aikokami from GameMonster.pl for this example!)