Loot boxes were a feature of almost every new big-name video game a few years ago. Even after you’d paid a premium price for a new game, you’d still find yourself being asked to pay more to win randomly generated rewards. Those rewards might be new outfits, new weapons, or entire new maps and levels depending on your game of choice, but they all amounted to the same thing. They offered additional content locked behind a paywall with no guaranteed means of obtaining it.
There’s a word for spending money in return for the chance to win a prize, and that word is ‘gambling.’ It’s the mechanic that drives every online casino website on Mac’s and Windows devices on the internet. There’s no problem with that so long as the casino website in question has the correct licenses, doesn’t offer its services to children, and doesn’t operate in territories where gambling is illegal. That’s where gamification in video games gets into muddy waters. A professional slots website like Bonus Boss works hard to ensure its content isn’t available to minors. There’s no such control over video games and no way of guaranteeing that children aren’t the ones paying for gamification. That creates a problem for lawmakers, and for those lawmakers, the Electronic Arts “FIFA” soccer game series is the biggest target.
Football is a sport played and loved by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. The annual FIFA soccer games are among the biggest sellers on the planet. There are countless Twitch and YouTube channels devoted to players competing in FIFA’s “ultimate teams” mode and opening “packs” in the hope of finding the best players and putting together the best teams. It’s a money-making enterprise, but it’s also heavily reliant on loot boxes. The connection between FIFA and loot boxes has already been talked about a lot in the press, but within the past few days, there’s been an alarming leak from a supposed EA sports “insider.” According to them, loot boxes are the “cornerstone” of the game, and the game itself is configured to funnel players towards those loot boxes. Players might think they’re playing a football video game, but in reality, they’re playing a gambling game that uses football as a window dressing.
The bombshell claim comes from a series of internal Electronic Arts documents that were recently leaked to CBC News. One sentence is especially damaging. In reference to “FUT,” which is the game mode that involved loot boxes, the company says that it “does everything it can” to dive players there. Further along in the same document is the mantra that “all roads” must lead to FUT. Further reference is made to the need to include targeted messages and teasers enticing players to spend money on FUT even when they’re playing other (non-money-making) game modes. The term “grind currency” is also used to describe loot boxes in the same leaked documents. “Grinding,” in video gaming terms, is the process of undertaking repetitive, long-winded tasks in the hope of getting a significant reward at the end of them. The meaning is not lost on people who’ve had the chance to review the leaked documents.
To the surprise of nobody, Electronic Arts have strenuously denied any suggestion that it intentionally drives players toward loot boxes or “nudges” them into spending more. In a lengthy statement published within 24 hours of the leaked internal documents reaching the press. They say the documents have been misunderstood and refer only to “supporting game engagement” during the summer period rather than encouraging people to spend their money on loot boxes or “player packs.” Despite this, they’ve recently released a new set of “high power” player cards based on the top players from the last season and made them available through loot boxes. EA feels that the documents have been specifically chosen so they can be “seen without context” and that the interpretations made of them by the media are “misinformed.” In the meantime, the company made one-and-a-half billion dollars from loot boxes in 2020.
To most industry analysts, the surprise in these leaked documents isn’t that EA is so committed to using loot boxes on an ongoing basis, but that they’re so candid about it. Their denial rings hollow when contrasted against their conduct, and the fact remains that all the significant updates that have happened within the FIFA franchise within the past decade have been focused on FUT. Every year players ask for a more immersive, modern career mode, and every year they get given a rehashed version of the previous year’s mode. There’s a pervasive feeling that development time and money are spent on FUT mode and nothing else, and the rest of the game is incidental to it.
The issue of loot boxes remains a controversial one and will probably have its fate decided by forces that exist outside the video gaming industry. Loot boxes are not illegal in the United States of America or Canada, but gambling is illegal in many of those territories. If a judge were to decide that loot boxes are a form of gambling, EA would be in hot water immediately. There’s a lawsuit in process in Canada at the time of writing that may ultimately reach that conclusion. Elsewhere in the world, there’s a government review of loot boxes in video games being carried out in the UK and a total ban on loot boxes in Belgium. EA’s games have to be specially configured for release in Belgium, or they can’t be released at all. If more territories banned loot boxes – especially (with no disrespect intended to Belgium) – some of the larger ones, the incentive for EA and other companies to include them would no longer exist. There have been reports of players getting addicted to spending money on loot boxes for years, but thus far, the industry has remained unused. If it’s determined not to clean its act up, then someone else will have to step in to force action to be taken. This document leak might prove to be the trigger for that process to begin.