“We look at them as 'surprise mechanics'.”
June 27, 2019 6:45 AM   Subscribe

EA Says Loot Boxes Are 'Quite Ethical and Quite Fun' [Vice Gaming] “The United Kingdom’s House of Commons grilled representatives from Electronic Arts and Fortnite developer Epic Games for two and a half hours on June 19. It didn’t go well for Epic and EA. When MP Brendan O'Hara asked if loot boxes were ethical, EA took issue with the term itself. [...] Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sports Committee grilled EA and Epic on a wide range of topics—from crunch, to game addiction, to loot boxes, to hate speech—and EA and Epic spent the inquiry dodging questions, avoiding responsibility, and admitting to not always following the law. Along with Hopkins, EA’s UK County Manager Shaun Campbell, Epic’s Director of Marketing Matthew Weissinger, and General Counsel Canon Pence sat for questioning.” [YouTube][Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee][2:19:08]

• ‘People like surprises,’ executive tells UK Parliament [Polygon]
“Appearing before a House of Commons committee on Wednesday, Kerry Hopkins, vice president of legal and government affairs at EA, responded to a member of Parliament who had asked if the publisher had any “ethical qualms” about loot boxes. Their use in 2017’s Star Wars Battlefront 2 kicked off a huge controversy that drew scrutiny from several governments, including those in the United States and Europe. Loot boxes, in the form of Ultimate Team packs, are also a major source of revenue for EA’s FIFA franchise. Hopkins compared loot boxes to other products: Kinder Eggs, a chocolate treat with a toy in its center, and Hatchimals, a blind box-style toy hidden inside an egg. “People like surprises,” she said. But the comparison to Kinder Eggs was quite ironic, given that the chocolate eggs were banned in the U.S. until recently, over concerns the prizes were a choking hazard.”
• Google’s Play Store starts requiring games with loot boxes to disclose their odds [The Verge]
“Google now requires Play Store app developers to disclose the odds of receiving items in loot boxes, among several other changes aimed at making its app store more kid-friendly. This brings its policy in line with the Apple App Store, and it’s happening amid a larger discussion of how to regulate loot boxes — which critics describe as an addictive gambling system frequently aimed at children. Android Police noted that new language had been added to Google’s rules about payments. “Apps offering mechanisms to receive randomized virtual items from a purchase (i.e. ‘loot boxes’) must clearly disclose the odds of receiving those items in advance of purchase,” it now says. Google is coming relatively late to the game here, since Apple changed its policies in late 2017.”
• NHS to open first gambling clinic for children [The Guardian]
“here are 55,000 children classed as having a gambling problem in Britain, according to the Gambling Commission, which also found that 450,000 are gambling regularly – more than those who have taken drugs, drunk alcohol or smoked. Simon Stevens, the NHS England chief executive, said: “This action shows just how seriously the NHS takes the threat of gambling addiction, even in young people. “The links between problem gambling and stress, depression and mental health problems are growing and there are too many stories of lives lost and families destroyed.” Stevens noted that the gambling industry spends £1.5bn on marketing and advertising campaigns, but it has been spending just a fraction of that helping people deal with addiction.”
posted by Fizz (49 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
[Lootboxes Previously.]
posted by Fizz at 6:46 AM on June 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


Jump to 1:14:43 for the 'surprise mechanics' exchange.
posted by Fizz at 6:54 AM on June 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


The same company that was into you grinding for 40-80 or whatever the fuck hours to afford one of the premium characters in Battlefront 2. There are some games that do these things right because they really don't matter (Rainbow Six Siege) and are a nice way to support a game that's being updated with new content. But many companies are of course just greedily making their games horrible slogs so that you will accelerate with the moolah.

Gacha Game Addiction (sorry if this was linked before) is fascinating and scary. Basically just gambling only you can never win money.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:55 AM on June 27, 2019 [7 favorites]


Can the TRIPLE AAAAAAAAAAAAIIII game industry just die already ?
posted by Pendragon at 7:00 AM on June 27, 2019 [9 favorites]


In other news, the tobacco industry reports that actually, cigarettes prevent cancer and are good for your overall health.

(Note to the younger readers: this is a thing that actually happened.)
posted by suetanvil at 7:05 AM on June 27, 2019 [12 favorites]


The best response to this was someone saying if EA wants to use "Surprise Mechanics" in their games they can look forward to players using "Surprise Ownership" rather than buying them.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 7:07 AM on June 27, 2019 [33 favorites]


The Vice article doesn't really come off badly for EA. It seems to be a series of "Did you do the get thing?" "No, we don't think so" back-and-forths. Perhaps there's a big moment in the video itself, but as it is it hardly seems like EA feels on the ropes.
posted by Going To Maine at 7:09 AM on June 27, 2019


I feel like anything that's described as 'quite ethical' definitely, really, super-duper isn't. It's like putting a sticker on your ground beef that says "Contains no human remains". Like it's good that it doesn't, but the fact that you even need to address this raises more questions than it answers.
posted by cirgue at 7:11 AM on June 27, 2019 [33 favorites]


Suprise mechanics is when I take my car in for an oil change, and end up having the head gasket replaced. Lootboxes are exploitative rubbish.
posted by zamboni at 7:19 AM on June 27, 2019 [6 favorites]


Boycott EA. Markets don't work if people aren't willing to stop buying products, and companies will continue pushing their exploitation farther.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 7:20 AM on June 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


I'm trying not to get my hopes up, but I really am hoping at some point games companies get told that they get a choice: they can either sell games for a standardized fee and keep being the relatively lightly regulated companies they are, or they can go through the onerous (and potentially unsuccessful) process of applying to be a gambling company in a highly regulated space, with their products specifically locked behind age restrictions and verification. This shit where they pretend they aren't running casinos because they've dressed them up in a videogame veneer has got to stop.
posted by tocts at 7:22 AM on June 27, 2019 [26 favorites]


. Perhaps there's a big moment in the video itself, but as it is it hardly seems like EA feels on the ropes.

EA probably isn't too concerned about their optics (fairly certain they are too busy counting money to care about how they appear in the public eye), but I made this post because I want people to see how craven they are with their euphemistic phrasing & predatory business ethics. Fuck EA.
posted by Fizz at 7:23 AM on June 27, 2019 [15 favorites]


I feel like anything that's described as 'quite ethical' definitely, really, super-duper isn't. It's like putting a sticker on your ground beef that says "Contains no human remains". Like it's good that it doesn't, but the fact that you even need to address this raises more questions than it answers.

Yes, but this is kind of a bind brought on by the question. In this case, EA has been put on the stand and asked if they thought their loot boxes were ethical. Their range of possible responses at that point becomes decidedly limited. ("Yes" would have been better, as it is pithier and equally untrue.)
posted by Going To Maine at 7:26 AM on June 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


Boycott EA.

It's getting harder to rationalize buying from companies like this because of all of the awful bullshit they engage with: gaming crunch, sexual abuse/harassment, queer/trans-phobia, racism, sexism, poor working conditions, not protecting worker's right to unionize, etc.

I use my wallet and vote with my dollars, but I fully understand how difficult it is to make these kinds of decisions. Up until the last few years, I would still buy some games they made.

EA is a publisher and while I hate them and their microtransaction/loot-box mentality, some of the developers they work with are pretty good. Respawn makes some great games and even though they put those loot-boxes into the game, for the most part you can ignore that and I want to support the developers who make games like Titanfall 2 because that was a fun ass game and I enjoyed my time with it (still do). DICE also makes good games (though they also institute those microtransaction/loot-boxes) probably because they're contractually obligated to.

It's just hard to justify continuing to pay money to these greedy overlords because the dollars I pay to them only encourage them to continue to exploit their workers and their customers.

I know I've had some soul-searching moments when I hover my mouse cursor over the "Purchase" button. Is this worth it? Should I support them?

The answer is probably not.

I just want to set the gaming industry on fire. Let's just start over. Fuck EA.
posted by Fizz at 7:49 AM on June 27, 2019 [7 favorites]


Very legal, and very cool.
posted by gauche at 7:55 AM on June 27, 2019 [5 favorites]


Honestly, the only right way to do loot boxes is the way Borderlands does it: fight through an area, find boxes, loot them. Some of the guns are crap, some are gold. None of them cost you one extra cent of real money.
posted by SPrintF at 7:58 AM on June 27, 2019 [13 favorites]


EA is less concerned with any ethics, than they are with any legislative move to define "surprise mechanics" (etc.) as a form of gambling, which would then make these games age-limited/regulated products.
posted by carter at 8:07 AM on June 27, 2019


Loot boxes bring in more profit for game publishers than all other sources of income combined. The in-game gambling market is expected to top $150 BILLION (with a 'B' and in all caps) yearly by 2022. The entire US petroleum industry was only $135 billion in 2017.

There will be no meaningful regulation of in-game gambling on a wide scale. There is simply too much money to be made.
posted by FakeFreyja at 8:41 AM on June 27, 2019 [4 favorites]


Euphemism treadmill in action....
posted by CrowGoat at 8:49 AM on June 27, 2019


Honestly, the only right way to do loot boxes is the way Borderlands does it

So I'm not trying to be super critical, but it's important to distinguish that this isn't what a lootbox is. Getting random rewards for spending time playing a game is an old concept, and a distinct one from a lootbox. When we talk about lootboxes, we're specifically talking about systems wherein players pay real money (directly or indirectly) to be allowed a random chance at in-game rewards, with the number of chances they're given being directly tied to the amount of money they spend.

It only helps EA obfuscate to talk like getting a rare sword in WoW from spending the time to execute a raid is remotely similar to handing real world money over to spin a wheel that grants you prizes of varying worth for each dollar you pump in.
posted by tocts at 9:03 AM on June 27, 2019 [17 favorites]


Japan is theoretically the video game arcade capital of the world, and when I visited it was definitely interesting to see some very fancy looking games on the second floors of arcades. The first floors of arcades, however, were almost entirety dedicated to carnival grabber-games. Very low tech, almost offensively cheap, and very obviously a scam. We are easily addicted to instant gratification.
posted by Going To Maine at 9:05 AM on June 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


No, EA, Loot Boxes Aren't The Same As Kinder Eggs [Cracked]
And to be clear, Kinder Eggs aren't gambling in the way that loot boxes could very well be deemed to be. You always get the same value of product (terrible chocolate and half a cent's worth of plastic), as compared to clearly valued green, blue, and epically purple loot box items. There's also no way for a Kinder Egg to be used as a currency, outside of the toughest of kindergarten timeout corners.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:12 AM on June 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


Gacha Game Addiction (sorry if this was linked before) is fascinating and scary. Basically just gambling only you can never win money.
posted by OnTheLastCastle

Thank you so much for posting this. That was saddening and frustrating and fascinating.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:35 AM on June 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


I think it's more like the tobacco industry arguing that people love surprises, and what's more surprising than finding out whether or not you have cancer? I mean, it doesn't get better than that!

It's a good thing that the video game industry only makes products that rob you, and not, uh, well literally any physical product in the real world. Both good for all of us, and also good for them, because no way would they be allowed to get away with the shenanigans they do if they were operating in a legitimate industry. Which, let's be honest, video games isn't.

The manufacturers of pinball machines have better ethical standards than video games, because they went through all of this and almost got regulated out of existence for being gambling devices. That's what's going to have to happen to the big video game companies: they need an existential regulatory threat if they're going to change their behavior. It's the only thing that causes companies to change their tune.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:19 AM on June 27, 2019 [6 favorites]


I find the clip of the EA Executive so fascinating.

Absolutely everything about her body language, speech patterns and vocal tones shows she *knows she is lying* yet is committed to the lie.

It's fascinating and also horrifying. Like the psychological equivalent of a watching a writhing insect nest.
posted by Faintdreams at 10:48 AM on June 27, 2019 [7 favorites]


I mean sure, cocaine is quite fun too.
posted by symbioid at 11:00 AM on June 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


Stanford University has a school dedicated to psychologists learning ways to make video games more addictive.

Game developers consult with these and other psychologists, paying them to integrate addiction-promoting, revenue-generating play mechanisms into their products.

It might well be fun, but if this isn't gambling, what is it?
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 11:05 AM on June 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


In order to understand why EA is so determined to defend loot box gambling, you need to look past the headline-grabbing Battlefront 2 and examine the real cash cow, FIFA Ultimate Team. FUT is a competitive team management mode in EA's FIFA football (soccer) simulation series. You build a team out of real athletes, set their tactics, and play them against other teams online.

Naturally, your main way of obtaining players for your team is to buy them in packs. Each player is rated on a 100 scale, and having higher-rated players gives a competitive edge. As of last year's FIFA 19, the official odds of finding players of a given tier are now public; in prior games odds were hidden. Here's the odds table, from a FUT fan site. Note that the best odds you can get of obtaining a 90+-rated player is 3.4%. From that same site, a price table of the available packs. That "Ultimate Pack" that gives a 1/30 chance of a 90+ player will set you back about $20.

There are ways to get players without buying packs with real money. There's an in-game "coins" currency that can be earned very slowly through play. You can use coins to buy and sell players on an in-game marketplace, but those players ultimately came from a pack. You can also spend coins on packs, but that's a trap because the market value of the players from the pack will usually be less than you spent. Thus gamers determined to play FUT for free do so by grinding coins to play the market for players cast off by other gamers who spent real money, ensuring that EA gets their cash one way or another.

It's easy to go on Twitch or YouTube, search for FIFA and find hundreds of gamers sharing their FUT gameplay. Many of them have 90+ players in more than half their positions. There are streamers who spend hours opening pack after pack.

Maybe the most amazing thing about all of this is that FUT resets with each annual FIFA release. None of your players carry over. If you spent hundreds or thousands of dollars building a team for FIFA 19, you'll need to start from scratch when FIFA 20 comes out in a few months and the community moves over.
posted by skymt at 11:26 AM on June 27, 2019 [10 favorites]


Does anyone know if there is any kind of cap on how much in-game content you can spend on loot-boxes or micro-transactions? Does Fortnite or Battlefront II have a daily cap where you cannot spend more than $500? One of the very first questions in the video has one of their representatives denying that someone could spend £1600/$2,028.

Are they this bold-faced in their lying or this ignorant of how their profit model works in their games? Either way it's depressing as fuck.
posted by Fizz at 11:46 AM on June 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


I've never heard of a game with a cap lootbox purchases, no.
posted by tobascodagama at 12:18 PM on June 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


Stanford University has a school dedicated to psychologists learning ways to make video games more addictive.

Here's an especially choice pull-quote from their website:
Yes, this can be a scary topic: machines designed to influence human beliefs and behaviors. But there’s good news. We believe that much like human persuaders, persuasive technologies can bring about positive changes in many domains, including health, business, safety, and education.
We'd never use this research for evil, pinky-swear!
posted by Aleyn at 12:47 PM on June 27, 2019 [9 favorites]


You know, I never thought there would be days where I'd be thinking to myself: "maybe the Butlerian Jihad had a point ..."
posted by tocts at 1:45 PM on June 27, 2019 [6 favorites]


I once had my car broken into and my radio stolen by a surprise mechanic.
posted by Groundhog Week at 1:59 PM on June 27, 2019 [10 favorites]


How do people feel about the Overwatch model? That is there are loot boxes, you can buy them with real money, and the rarity/gambling aspect is all there, but the items are purely cosmetic and have no effect on gameplay. It is entirely possible to play and never open a loot box. Does this feel more ethical to people?

Also I would like to add: Fuck EA.
posted by iamnotangry at 2:55 PM on June 27, 2019


Does this feel more ethical to people?
In the abstract, sure, they could be?
In practice though, they're still optimized and A|B tested to hell and back to entice whales into dropping hundreds/thousands on packs trying to get "the right one".
posted by CrystalDave at 3:03 PM on June 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


Cosmetic-only lootboxes aren't in any way more ethical. Most of the biggest offenders are in fact cosmetic-only. The problem isn't purely "pay to win" (though that can be an issue); the idea that virtual fashion somehow isn't "real" does not hold up to scrutiny. People will spend thousands of dollars opening up lootboxes to get a fancy hat.
posted by tocts at 3:04 PM on June 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


The difference between Kinder eggs and loot boxes is, a kid can't sit at home on the computer/console and bulk-order 50 Kinder eggs which get delivered electronically to them for an instantaneous dopamine hit, using their parent's credit card.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:30 PM on June 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


iamnotangry: " That is there are loot boxes, you can buy them with real money, and the rarity/gambling aspect is all there, but the items are purely cosmetic and have no effect on gameplay. It is entirely possible to play and never open a loot box. Does this feel more ethical to people?"

Game quality-wise, I'd say it's a lot better. Ethically, I'd say it's a weird area:

The issue isn't that EA is promoting gambling to win games, but that it's promoting gambling at all, so what you're gambling for isn't really the issue. That said, if the thing you're gambling for isn't that enticing, people will gamble less, so gambling for cosmetics is likely to produce slightly less gambling that gamble-to-win.

So, in a way, it's like saying "Running cool advertisements that promote cigarettes to kids is unethical. Would it be more ethical to run really lame advertisements that promote cigarettes to kids, since these kinds of ads would be less effective?" Well, technically, since they're less effective, they produce less harm, but I think I'd need to take a philosophy course or two to figure out how the ethical mathematics work.
posted by Bugbread at 11:03 PM on June 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


Ex-husband's family has had problem gambling issues going over generations, and obsessive behaviour seems to manifest regularly, so as for prophylactic purposes dealing with teenage boys, I have two copies of "Addicted by Design" by Natasha Schuell.

You want to see gateway behaviour to problem gambling - loot boxes are front and centre. Schuell points out that the whole "gaming"/"gambling" design process is to get you into "the zone" with the random hits and near-hits to keep you playing because you are "winning".
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 11:42 PM on June 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


MMORPGs started down this slope when the game companies decided the best solution to the problem of gold-sellers was to sell gold themselves.

For some reason, governments haven't decided to take the same approach to deal with drugs or prostitution (not overtly, anyway).
posted by Cardinal Fang at 4:56 AM on June 28, 2019


... and General Counsel Canon Pence sat for questioning

If the Catholic Church did loot boxes...
posted by Cardinal Fang at 4:57 AM on June 28, 2019


I have two copies of "Addicted by Design" by Natasha Schuell.
posted by Barbara Spitzer

I can't recommend this book highly enough. I have read it twice now -- once, a few years ago, and then, because I thought of it so often, again this spring. Those interested in this thread should give it a look. It's horrifying and very enlightening. I am still reminded of it at least once a week.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:08 AM on June 28, 2019


MMORPGs started down this slope when the game companies decided the best solution to the problem of gold-sellers was to sell gold themselves.

I think it's not helpful to conflate gold buying with lootboxes.

By way of example, you have been able to buy gold in WoW since forever (at first illicitly, now from Blizzard directly). Many people frown upon it, but what you are paying and what you are getting are known quantities. There is no random chance; you give $X and get Y gold. Even if you're going to then use that to buy virtual fashion accessories, you know up front how much you're going to spend and what you will receive. There's no way in WoW to spend real money to do something like "re-roll this loot drop".

Random lootboxes are an entirely different beast. They are an exchange of real money for what amounts to a pull of a slot machine lever, the odds of which are completely controlled by the company (and often opaque). This makes how people interact with them fundamentally different. It's designed specifically to get people sucked into the kind of dopamine rush cycle that keeps people gambling in casinos, because, well, that's literally what they're doing. They're dropping money in a slot machine and pulling the lever, over and over, but the games companies want to pretend like that's not what's going on.
posted by tocts at 11:55 AM on June 28, 2019 [5 favorites]


If the Catholic Church did loot boxes...

Indulgence packs! What sin will you be forgiven for? It's a delightful surprise every time! Collect all 7 of the Deadlies (<1% drop rate each), if you're a True Christian.
posted by tobascodagama at 12:03 PM on June 28, 2019 [2 favorites]


ctrl_f ... I guess I might be the only one. But when I hear EA talk about "surprise mechanics," I can only think of / hear the horrible euphemsim "surprise sex." Every time I hear or read this. And I'm left wondering that someone really thought the phrasing of "surprise mechanics" was better than "loot boxes."
posted by nobeagle at 12:19 PM on June 28, 2019 [1 favorite]


I remember debating heatedly whether or not one could guarantee getting 3 cherries in a row on the Super Mario Bros. 2 bonus screen by pressing the button at a specific timing/frequency. I can't imagine how much I would have spent if there were actual money being spent.

Legal issues aside, the main reason that loot boxes bother me is that these systems break the trust between players and designers. Video games are seen as deterministic, deliberately constructed spaces, where puzzles can be always be solved, challenges are surmountable, and risk/reward can more or less be calculated. Loot boxes violate this trust by making the only input the player has the spending of actual money, and are calculated for maximum profit instead of the player's enjoyment. This violation of trust degrades the medium as a whole.
posted by subocoyne at 3:25 PM on June 28, 2019 [3 favorites]


Here's a new video on the videogaming industry's monetization techniques and their human cost: The Addictive Cost Of Predatory Videogame Monetization by Jim Sterling
posted by primal at 1:53 PM on July 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


Legal issues aside, the main reason that loot boxes bother me is that these systems break the trust between players and designers. Video games are seen as deterministic, deliberately constructed spaces, where puzzles can be always be solved, challenges are surmountable, and risk/reward can more or less be calculated. Loot boxes violate this trust by making the only input the player has the spending of actual money, and are calculated for maximum profit instead of the player's enjoyment. This violation of trust degrades the medium as a whole.

This is an interesting angle. I'm going to have to think about this in combination with the maxim in slot machine design that "a slot machine is not a video game."
posted by PMdixon at 3:29 PM on July 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


Hopefully publishers can learn that the inverse is also true: "a video game is not a slot machine".
posted by subocoyne at 4:43 PM on July 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


« Older A certain Essexion of society   |   Nobody Cares What Happens After the Lights Dim Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments