Back in 2017, EA managed to single-handedly slow the infection of loot crate mechanics taking over AAA games. Star Wars Battlefront II went from a new hoped-for sequel to a towering heap of bantha fodder in a matter of weeks once gamers discovered exactly what kind of loot system EA had designed.
Not only was Battlefront II’s progression almost entirely chained to loot crates, but there was also virtually no way to earn anything specific to the class or game types you actually wanted to play. Loot crate rewards were completely randomized, unlike in previous games, where playing a class and/or using specific abilities typically earned you experience in that class or improved your skills. There was no guarantee that the loot you received would even be related to the game modes you wanted to play, which meant you might spend 8 hours in starfighter dogfights and receive only infantry upgrades.
Players who refused to play the loot crate game and wanted to collect heroes instead were still screwed; pre-launch estimates suggested it could take 40 hours to unlock a single hero. The company initially doubled down on virtually every aspect of its hated strategy, before Disney literally intervened at the 11th hour to prevent the game from swan diving into the Death Star’s reactor core. Even after EA removed the pay-to-win model hours before the game launched, overall sales were below expectations.
Given this kind of history, you might expect EA to be a little humble when testifying in front of a government panel investigating whether loot crates are dangerously close to prohibited in-game gambling mechanics. You would be wrong. According to the company that turned the phrase “loot box” into a curse word, its blatant attempts to wring the player base like a dishrag are “surprise mechanics.” And they’re “quite ethical” according to EA.
Now, in fairness, calling something a “surprise mechanic” does not imply anyone will enjoy the surprise they are receiving. One of the differences between being a child and an adult is that children expect to receive surprises like toys, candy, or a trip to McDonald’s, whereas adults expect to receive surprises like medical bills and home appliance failures.
I was, for example, quite surprised last month when I took my car for routine maintenance and my mechanic informed me the oil had gone missing. As “surprise mechanics” go, that one was a doozy. On her way to pick me up from the AMD E3 event, my fiancée was surprised by a deer striking the rear driver’s side quarter panel of her car. Sadly, the deer didn’t drop any alternative currency or rare items, unless you count fur and excrement among your most valued possessions. (Who am I to judge? Have you seen EA crafting requirements lately?)
According to Kerry Hopkins, VP of Legal at Electronic Arts, loot boxes are most comparable to Kinder Eggs, Hatchimals, or LOL Surprise. When asked if it considered loot boxes to be ethical, Hopkins replied:
We do think the way that we have implemented these kinds of mechanics – and FIFA, of course, is our big one, our FIFA Ultimate Team and our packs – is actually quite ethical and quite fun, quite enjoyable to people…
We do agree with the UK gambling commission, the Australian gambling commission, and many other gambling commissions that they aren’t gambling, and we also disagree that there’s evidence that shows it leads to gambling. Instead we think it’s like many other products that people enjoy in a healthy way, and like the element of surprise.
(Hopkins’ testimony can be seen here, starting at 15:43:15.)
It’s entirely predictable that EA would try for this kind of dodge, but arguing that loot boxes are equivalent to simple “surprise” toys like Kinder eggs ignores huge, practical differences in how loot boxes are implemented in games.
Obviously the details can vary depending on how the game is structured, but locking core components of gameplay, necessary upgrades, or rare items required to compete with upper-tier players behind random mechanics that require players to buy an unknown number of loot crates for real money (or to grind for that same currency at painfully slow rates as an incentive to spend money) is not remotely equivalent to handing a small child a surprise toy. That’s before we address the question of resale markets or the idea that rare skins you can get from loot boxes may have a substantial cash value. In games with an accessible resale market, the idea that loot crates aren’t gambling gets even harder to defend. The goods inside may be virtual instead of physical, but that’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not they have value.
The idea that players engage with these mechanics because they love them, however, doesn’t survive first contact with the enemy. Loot boxes come in basically two flavors: “Bonus” or cosmetic content that you don’t really need to interact with in any way to play or beat the game, and necessary power-ups, skills, or items that are functional requirements if you don’t want to grind for an insane amount of time. Purely cosmetic loot boxes that you buy at a regular rate with the currency you earn easily don’t really push many people’s buttons. Original BFII-style loot distribution that chains your entire progress through the title to random unlocks are loathed by virtually everyone.
The idea that EA has designed these systems to provide Kinder Joy-style bursts of dopamine out of an innocent desire to do good for humanity is a joke. Whether they are formally ruled equivalent to gambling or not, loot crates are a financial profit center. It’s no accident that EA debuted the system that it did in BFII after first promising to overhaul how it monetized its open-world multiplayer combat titles — it intended to replace money from sales of DLC with money from sales of loot crates. It designed its entire game loot system around loot crates for this exact reason.
The only good thing about the Battlefront II debacle is that it seems to have scared other publishers from following suit. The degree to which loot boxes represent gambling is a difficult question that may well vary from game to game. The idea that EA was simply attempting to deliver a little fun and joy to its players with some innocent “surprise mechanics” doesn’t deserve the paper it isn’t printed on.
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