It’s an interesting time to be a gamer. While 2017 has been one of the best years on record for critically acclaimed games, it’ll likely be more widely known as the year publishers really pushed the boat out with microtransactions. Previously used as a model for free to play games to stay afloat, publishers like EA and Activision have now begun to flood full priced titles with what is dreadfully referred to as “recurrent spending.” It presents a somewhat confusing picture of what is essentially one of the best years in gaming for a while juxtaposed with the artistic cancer of loot crates and microtransactions. Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Divinity: Original Sin 2 and Nioh are among some of this years best but they sit alongside some of the highest profile examples of cynical consumerism.
Following an absolutely disastrous Reddit AMA and weeks of constant furore EA has announced that it’s going to temporarily remove any and all microtransactions from Battlefront II with reports that even Disney is allegedly considering taking the Star Wars license from EA. On the surface, this seems like a positive step in the right direction and a big win for consumer rights in the games industry but as the the story unfolds it becomes clearer every day that the issue isn’t quite as black and white as it first seems.
Like most corporations that push their luck a little too hard EA seem too insistent to lean on the ‘whoops, didn’t mean it’ card. The primary thrust of peoples concerns with Battlefront 2 is that people willing to spend money on loot crates can effectively break the balancing of the game to gain an upper hand. To this, EA states: “this was never our intention. Sorry we didn’t get this right.” It’s rather admirable to admit wrongdoing, but if this sounds rather suspect, that’s because it is. It’s difficult to believe that EA somehow mistakenly balanced the economy of the game to favor their wallets and cast it off as something of a mistake. Instead, this reads much more like someone that was caught with their hand in the cookie jar and can’t say sorry quick enough. By EA’s own admission, the economy in Battlefront II will be back but the more you dig down deeper into this issue the more you uncover a dizzying array of gray area in-between. As a result, it’s a lot more difficult to tell right from wrong
That’s not to say that EA isn’t in the wrong. While the Belgian Gambling Commission is breathing down EA’s neck, the Battlefront II publisher released a statement insisting that “microtransactions are not gambling.” There is certainly a lot of clarity needed as to the extent of gambling and chance in loot box mechanics but it doesn’t befall EA to determine what is or is not gambling. In a situation where EA are the benefactors of such a controversial system clearly there is a definite conflict of interest. it’s not exactly kosher for EA to manufacture premise or to preside over nomenclature and naming conventions when they’re the ones that stand to benefit the most from doing so. As governments and gambling commissions across the world are starting to take notice of loot crates in video games it’s becoming more and more vital for impartial 3rd parties to oversee precisely what all of this means.
But 3rd party interventions also introduce their own problems into the mix. Yes, loot crates represent a particularly venomous strain of consumerism but asking for government regulation and inviting gambling commissions to gaze upon the video game industry also likely has it’s own equally dangerous end results. By introducing microtransactions and loot crates, publishers have somewhat lowered the bar to the point where they may have accidentally potentially poisoned the well by drawing the ire of gambling commissions across the world. Either gamers have to put up with a prison of paywalls or suffer the wrath of government censorship and regulation. Neither option is particularly preferable.
There’s also that highly contested claim that video games are too expensive to make to not put microtransactions in place. This is a particularly fierce point of contention, one that would only really be quelled with hard facts and evidence. Some people claim it’s just naked avarice but others see microtransactions as a necessary evil. With such a huge split in opinion, it’s really hard to know who to trust. It’s likely that the cost of games can take a chunk of change out of a publisher’s bottom line but it’s a wonderful thing to watch a publisher’s devilish loot box schemes get explained away as a problem for the consumer. If it turns out that games really are too expensive to make then the responsibility shouldn’t fall on gamers to foot the bill beyond that which they already pay for.
This is surely isn’t the last we’ve heard of microtransactions and loot crates, and indeed by EA’s own admission microtransactions will return to Battlefront II eventually. But as pundits, critics, capitalists and governments stew over the issue of loot crates in games it’s worrying to examine from afar. On one hand, paywalls and dollar signs devalue and delegitimize the creative potential of this great medium – it feels like an unfair compromise between art and consumerism. But at the same time the question of intervention must be answered: is the regulating hand of the government really what we want?