Electronic Arts, one of the largest video game companies in the world, has lost more than $3 million in stock value because of one bad marketing idea.
Its use of the so-called “loot box” system, where gamers pay for randomly generated in-game rewards, such as extra weaponry and special abilities, is considered as illegal gambling by both the Hawaiian state government and by Belgium.
The Belgian gaming commision wants loot boxes in games, often played by youths, to be considered as gambling and wants to ban them across Europe. A Hawaiian legislator described loot boxes in one particular game as a “Star Wars-themed online casino.”
Loot boxes can allow players to unlock purely cosmetics upgrades. Some developers will provide the base game for free and charge for new content. Blizzard’s Hearthstone game is a free game that charges approximately $1.99 for a five card pack. In order to play at a high level, players need to buy multiple packs. Similarly, EA’s loot boxes unlock in-game content needed to win or advanced in the game. The boxes function as a variable reward system, where the user doesn’t what item they’ll receive in the box.
The uncertain nature of the reward system has prompted a backlash in the gaming and international community.
The flashing lights and the thrill of rewards from earning and opening loot boxes make it similar to a slot machine, according to Hawaii and Belgium authorities. Officials are calling in addiction advisors for help.
This also raised ethical questions in the video game industry and has started to worry Humber students who aim to work in the video game field, like first-year game design student Sam Hamilton.
“I can kind of understand how in [Star Wars] Battlefront 2 it can be seen as gambling,” he said. “Because to advance, you have to essentially pay to play the game.”
He said this may change the future of the gaming industry, but only that companies would simply have to change loot box systems. Whether or not this effects how and where Hamilton works would “depend on who I end up working for, or if I start my own company.”
Second-year animation student Kate Xagoraris doesn’t agree.
“I’ve mostly heard about how people are cancelling their subscriptions for the game because they didn’t want the game after that controversy,” she said.
Xagoraris, while not an avid gamer like Hamilton, has been keeping up with trends in the international gaming community.
As an animation student, she would design the characters and locations in video games and is worried that this might impede others in the field. While game designers don’t have much input in how loot boxes are used, they are usually responsible for how the boxes act when rewarded.
“For a lot of games, like [Blizzard’s] Overwatch, loot boxes are a huge thing and people enjoy them,” Xagoraris said. “But EA is a massive, massive gaming company and they control of a lot of the Triple A games out there.
“If they get taken to court over this, it might change their whole production line of video games forever,” she said.