Electronic Arts and The Gambling Debacle

It seems like every few years developers come up with a new scheme to siphon even more money out of their customers – but never has it been as successful as loot box gambling.

Brace yourselves, folks – we may have finally found the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Well, not maybe the camel’s, but certainly one of the world’s largest video game publishers. Electronic Arts has been no secret to consumer slander and ire over the years, having won “Worst Company in America” multiple times – yet their profits continue to rise astronomically.

What could be behind this meteoric rise to shareholder happiness? Well, it’s twofold: the willingness of the consumer to open their wallets once more when gameplay footage is revealed of whatever this season’s hottest new AAA game is, and EA’s relentless pursuit of finding countless new systems to monetize and generate revenue streams from.

Just in case the $60.00 price tag wasn’t enough, most AAA games now upsell their product with “deluxe” and “complete” additions, with feature digital goods at oftentimes double the price. And while these inclusions are indeed heinous, the greed takes a turn for the worse when it comes to loot boxes.

These loot boxes, as the name implies, are boxes that often require some sort of key or token to be opened, and have traditionally contained only cosmetic items – such as in the case of player skins, weapon skins, and emotes. For a long while, the gaming community seemed to tolerate them because ‘hey, at least they’re not selling things that can give you an in-game advantage, right?’

That used to be the case, but no longer. The pay-to-win debate has never really left the gaming industry, but found another outlet – and it’s all culminated in the great Battlefront 2 Gambling Discussion. For the uninitiated, EA recently dropped Star Wars Battlefront 2 – a game that was supposed to make up form the shortcomings of the pathetic attempt that SW: Battlefront was. Unfortunately, it’s not only managed to stumble out of the gate, but shoot itself in the feet several times as well.

Star Wars Battlefront 2 did remedy the complaint of light amounts of content that plagued its predecessor, but introduced an even bigger issue that has ignited a wildfire in the gaming community. BF2 launched with a loot box system not unlike many other big-budget titles, but their mistake lied in how brashly they attempted to manipulate their users.

All heroes, crafting parts, items and the like are locked behind paywalls that can be taken down with in-game credits. Credits are doled out at the end of every match, but also with every loot box purchase. Remember, these loot boxes are a microtransaction that are handed over only when the player ponies up real money for them. As such, there are certainly two avenues for obtaining them – but the issue is that one is blatantly the more optimal: then one that results in you forking more money over to EA.

Wasting no time, a Reddit user compiled the data of how long it would take a player to unlock hero characters like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker – arguably the franchise’s most recognizable figures – and the hourly tally notched in at around 42 hours. The post reached the top of subreddits like r/Gaming in no time, and the community backlash was massive.

EA attempted to mitigate the damage by offering an official response in the thread, but the half-baked PR blurb only managed to provoke the ire of their consumers even more. Since then, the company has drastically cut down the amount of credits required to obtain the prestige heroes like Vader, but has largely stayed mum on the bigger problem: the inherent gambling within the loot box system.

Regardless of whether or not the boxes offer cosmetic or gameplay-altering items, the fact of the matter is that users are feeding money within a system that has a chance percentage to give them the result they are hoping for. Slot machines pay out in funds, while loot boxes pay out in virtual currency for that game or items.

Many developers have maintained that because the flow of money only goes one way, it is not gambling in the manner that a slot machine is – but that’s a poor attempt to skirt around the issue. The problem with gambling doesn’t arise from the distribution of funds, but from the addictive feedback loop that entraps certain personality types. Oftentimes, these loot crates are sold in bundles for “optimal value”, goading the player into spending more than they had initially planned.

The destructive power of addiction to microtransactions has been widely documented. Just as a gambler will throw more money down against the house when they’re winning, so too will they when they are losing – and the same logic applies to loot boxes. Got an awesome item? Who’s to say you won’t get another in your next crate? Didn’t get what you wanted? Maybe another try will fix that. It’s not hard to see how viciously this can spiral out of control.

What EA should be blasted for is not including some arbitrarily high number of gameplay hours needed to obtain heroes, but for how willing they are to exploit the psychology of their customers all in the pursuit of more money. Ultimately, however, nothing will change so long as the market forgets their qualms against them the moment a shiny new teaser trailer for their next game drops. So it goes.

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