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coolbeans

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Tired of this Schmidt: Loot Box Resistance

There's never been a more curious case of controversy for me than microtransactions & loot boxes in AAA games. The warning signs blaring in my head years ago (1) have slowly been reconsidered as an uncomfortable acceptance depending on their implementation and how they've usurped the old map-pack model, keeping the community unified in the process (2). But there's two aspects I'm not convinced to waver on:

1.). The eye-rolling, over-simplified views developers & CEO's trot out defending loot boxes (3)
2.). Government regulation is the key to handling this

That 2nd point is of critical importance in considering this too. Nearly a decade since that last grand tidal wave of US government nannying came into view via Jack Thompson, it seems like gamers are running back towards that inherent evil in order to quell publishers’ collective greed. The mostly-positive reaction from Jim Sterling's "Year of the Loot Box" video (4) seems to suggest I'm not plucking from some isolated cluster of gamers either. So then the question becomes: is government enforcement the best means going forward?

That needs to be answered quickly because these recurring payment strategies aren’t going anywhere of their own accord for a long, long time—least of all loot boxes. There's special cases like Overwatch wherein loot-box purchases shovels in more yearly revenue than base game purchases; more startling, Halo 5's REQ Pack system has filled Microsoft's pockets more successfully than all of the previous Halo map packs COMBINED. For perspective: the first 6 months of loot-box money in Halo 5 accumulated more revenue than any of the previous games’ DLC packs (5).

This does show how much of a behemoth this craze has become and continues to be as it stands. There's already been pushback from various countries though. Both Belgium and The Netherlands have crafted new laws rendering lootboxes illegal, with financial damages and jail time for those who don't comply (6) (7). A Hawaii lawmaker attached himself to the Battlefront II controversy of last year as well (8), churning up a state-wide debate; since then, new state laws have been introduced (9). And I can't help but wince seeing this reactionary governmental presence hovering around games.

"Well, government is involved in regulating gambling, beans. And these are nothing more than glorified SLOT MACHINES."

So...there's a lot to unpack there in calling these "slot machines," "glorified gambling devices," or whatever else you name them. If we're going to dive into semantics—which I think we ought to here—we may as well reconsider how we categorize a chance at a random toy in crackerjack boxes, or the collection of cards you'll randomly receive within a Pokémon pack, or prizes found behind a plethora of other mystery boxes that have been part and parcel for decades. There's countless other chance-based examples not considered here that could also fall under such a broad-based definition of "gambling" or "slot machines."

[Understand this: I’m not discounting what I’ve stated in the past regarding how these systems may work on a psychological level; it’s in respect to LEGALITY that I fear we’re treading into murky waters indicating these purchases are the same as, say, betting on horses for example.]

Second of all, if gambling were such a high priority to curb the masses from indulging in then why is the lottery still a thing? Worse yet, why do some state-sponsored commercials try to consider it some form of investment (10)? When you look at it from the abstract, it’s not about these governments CARING about the more susceptible; rather, they’re disgruntled that citizens are less interested in the ones they have a stake in. Aside from notions of age restrictions and animal rights, that’s the central idea behind government’s involvement of what is/isn’t allowable forms of gambling.

"Well, they keep things so hidden and they're designed to pick at your brain in such a dishonest way. The game of chance is too overwhelming, without knowing your chances that anything is worth it."

Okay, so there's an unfair percentage game. But by this logic, isn't the randomized chance of deflated value of in-game items virtually the same as the majority of purchases consumers make to begin with? How's this danger of depreciated consumables any different from day-to-day interactions? I'm not...trying to renege on the mental tricks involved in getting people to pony up dough for said loot boxes. Just trying to take a logical approach as to how we can categorize these chance-based purchases; which is especially important if we're now asking the government to play referee.

What prompts my unease is that before those Western European countries even began rolling out their new rules capitalism made a quicker & tougher response! Star Wars: Battlefront II (2017) bother you with their pay-to-win lootbox setup? EA seemed to get the message when those important first-week sales were cut MORE THAN 50% from that of its just-okay predecessor. One could've made a killing in YouTube views just by ranting about this one game for a whole month. EA was eventually prompted to apologize for how they handled them in BF II (11) and now has instituted a "Morality Compass" system for monetization practices down the road (12). Could this be just an empty gesture in the long run? Without a doubt the whole idea could be bulls***. But the fact remains: consumers made such an impact to EA's bottom line that they had to desperately placate fans into buying a Star Wars game—of all things! Can we really credit any Scandinavian countries with having remotely the same impact?

And it doesn't really have to stop there, nor has it. One of the crowning features displayed on the Definitive Edition of Middle Earth: Shadow of War is the removal of their lootboxes (13). Forza Motorsport 7 did the same as well from the backlash (14).

In conclusion, it’s frustrating to see how there’s this quietly-agreed-upon journalistic arrangement of reporting how some publishers are changing their tune without crediting the free-market solutions that got us here. Now, I’m not going to pretend to play arbiter for what is/isn’t acceptable supplementary revenue methods for AAA games; I’ve argued that there is some nuance to consider but that doesn’t mean it flies for other people. But that’s the great thing with technology today: it takes little effort to start an anti-lootbox coalition that’ll never pay for another AAA game with that pricing structure (if they actually stick to their word). Or perhaps another cluster draws the line at pay-2-win elements in their games. Whatever the case, the point remains the same: the bite such a clearly-voiced body of dedicated gamers can make sounds more appealing than busybodies playing ‘benevolent babysitter’ over people’s spending habits, especially when said babysitter has a habit of voicing unfounded concerns about video games causing real-world violence & mass shootings. But maybe that’s just me.

Links:

1. https://n4g.com/user/blogpo...
2. https://n4g.com/user/blogpo...
3. https://www.gamespot.com/ar...
4. https://www.youtube.com/wat...
5. https://wccftech.com/halo-5...
6. https://www.eurogamer.net/a...
7. https://www.ign.com/article...
8. https://twinfinite.net/2017...
9. https://www.polygon.com/201...
10. https://www.youtube.com/wat...
11. https://www.eurogamer.net/a...
12. https://www.overclock3d.net...
13. https://www.eurogamer.net/a...
14. https://www.eurogamer.net/a...

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coolbeans23d ago

Hey! Hope everyone enjoyed the blog. Feel free to comment down below.

So...similar to my last blog (cross-play) I'm not going to disregard the questionable timing with which I completed a rough draft of this and some publisher (maybe 2K?) calling for gamers to demand Belguim rescind their loot-box law. Sure, that's pretty cringy stuff and I'm not ignorant of the optics. With that said, hopefully we can focus on the points raised and not bring up any smarmy nonsense paralleling this to what 2K has said.

If you're pro-gov't intervention on this topic I would like to ask one thing: how consistently do you believe this rule will be applied? B/c, at least in the US, the end result only seems to spell potential lobbyists circumventing the rule based on one little trick here or there. Bureaucracy all the way down. So I'm definitely interested in what you'd have to say.

rainslacker22d ago

I think the classification of loot boxes is something that's only important for the government to decide if they have to regulate it.

We, as a community, or as an individual, can decide how we feel about it on our own terms, and it really won't have much effect on the reality of what they are.

I personally feel there is a gambling aspect to it all. My general disposition prefers to know what I'm getting for my money, or at least be willing to live with disappointment, but for something as ultimately meaningless as in game content, which isn't even required for the game itself, disappointment just ends up feeling like wasted money for something I'm unlikely to use. It'd be different if there was at least some value in that content to me even if it isn't exactly what I wanted.

I honestly believe the backlash against the loot boxes was more because the community just keeps expressing their annoyance with MT in general, and been ignored by both the media and the publisher, and then a small opening happened which made it more mainstream, and finally their years of grievances finally had a chance to make an impact. Couple that with LB being the culmination of all the worst parts of MT that the community hasn't come to terms to accept over the years, and we get the outcry that we got.

coolbeans21d ago

-But why? Sure, I see the 1:1 of the rulemakers making such determinations of what is/isn't "gambling," but the way we got here is modern parlance blurring that legal line of something psychologically similar to gambling and actual gambling as defined.

-"We, as a community, or as an individual, can decide how we feel about it on our own terms, and it really won't have much effect on the reality of what they are."

But that's often how words are redefined over time. See words like "decimate" or "literally" for example.

-"I personally feel there is a gambling aspect to it all...."

I'm in a similar boat. That's was part of the indecision in how to actually tackle this argument; but then again, entire pockets of certain industries also have a gambling aspect to them that don't have coddling governmental oversight attached. And I can see where you're coming from in wanting to know what you're in for. But, if necessary, you can withhold on even purchasing said base game in question until your wants are met.

-" I honestly believe the backlash against the loot boxes was more because the community just keeps expressing their annoyance with MT in general, and been ignored by both the media and the publisher..."

I'm not sure I'm willing to go all the way there. Publishers? Yeah, sure. Media? I think mainstream gaming media has done a decent job of highlighting this trend for a while, either pro- or con-. Getting certain quotes from Overwatch devs, defending them in some case, lambasting them in others. I think the much-maligned Kotaku & Polygon were some of the first to report on Middle Earth: Shadow of War and Destiny 2 for example (both in grabbing quotes and leaking the info). Obviously I found Poly's defense of some game's MT's poorly-argued, but you and I are both capable of acknowledging their reporting whilst disagreeing with whatever op-ed's they make.

With all that said, I guess the question comes down to this: "why weren't their voices heard?" There's a loud, independent contingent of PC gamers that'll never play a game which can't do 60 fps due to dev meddling. Totalbiscuit's influence in particular is one that clued me into this being a thing back in the day--and without needing any gov't to intervene to fix it. It seems like an influencer such as Sterling is just as capable of creating a petition, coalition, or whatever that'll stamp their foot down on any loot boxes in AAA games. Someone can make a site color-coding and cataloging all AAA games' supplementary revenue streams as a sort of buyer's guide. This is why it's so weird to see this agnostic viewpoint about the notion of gov't intervention (into videogames no less).

rainslacker21d ago

"But Why?"

I think the why has to deal with the money, and the vocal outcry, which was apparently enough to get some lawmakers attention. There is still this mentality about games by some that it's all about protecting the kids from themselves, or exploitative practices, and politicians tend to love a good chance to posture in public.

"But that's often how words are redefined over time"

In the two cases you cite, constant repetition of the word being used wrong, and being understood wrong is what caused the contextual definition to change. In the case of LB, it can be argued that since there is an element of chance, coupled with real money being involved, hence the chance for loss, that it can be seen as gambling. As such, it can be seen in the literal sense as gambling to any individual who feels this way.

Further though, and more off the track, it isn't uncommon for things to be changed over time, and what we or politicians consider LB now, may not be what they consider them in the future.

" entire pockets of certain industries also have a gambling aspect to them"

True. but if you start trying to say its done elsewhere, so it shouldn't be applied here, then your argument starts to fall apart. Inconsistent consideration by lawmakers is a different problem. LB either are gambling or they're not. Or maybe they're something in between. All you can do is focus on the topic, and make your argument based on that, and not worry so much if regulators or lawmakers are doing their job well.

"I think mainstream gaming media has done a decent job of highlighting this trend for a while"

To a degree maybe. But like politicians, they're inconsistent in representing the extent of the problem, or highlighting where it exists. For instance, during the SW:BF fiasco, a game from Activision barely got mentioned. Can't remember which one....COD perhaps? Even among a single publication, they can be inconsistent in reporting or their stance on it. Overall though, I'd say that the media seems more concerned about the controversy involved, and if they can get clicks from it.

"I guess the question comes down to this"

What happens is a constant vocal outcry over things people don't approve of, even if a large number don't care, or never say anything, tends to have a psychological effect of people feeling that they're being dismissed or ignored. Those vocal people tend to stay vocal, and as things get worse, they get more vocal, and more people join in. The so called snow ball effect. There may be those who boycott, maybe even a significant number, but those numbers don't quell the continuation of unsatisfactory practices.

coolbeans19d ago

-I think there's a miscommunication when it comes to this "but why?" portion we're launching with. Correct me if I'm wrong here too. For me: the hidden vein of how you started that came off as suggesting "why bother?" Not in any sneering way; more with the notion that it's out of our hands now. Tying this into the 2nd quoted part now, well let's try a different example: games relation with "art" especially during the Jack Thompson era (granted, the SC hearing itself focused on "protected speech"). When the courts were wading through those testy waters, creators and game pundits alike provided their own take on how we're to define such a malleable term--and still does.

You'll have to course-correct me to make sure we're not talking past each other on this beginning.

-"Further though, and more off the track, it isn't uncommon for things to be changed over time, and what we or politicians consider LB now, may not be what they consider them in the future. "

Sure, their definition may change too; then again, that's never stopped gov't from continuing to enforce regulations. This is a major influence as to why I put the blog in this perspective: once applied, gov't application rarely ever ends at a reasonable stopping point. This is why I find the lack of hindsight from Sterling & co. especially astounding.

-"All you can do is focus on the topic, and make your argument based on that, and not worry so much if regulators or lawmakers are doing their job well."

But my argument relies on potential drawbacks of gov't involvement. You have a certain cluster of contented gamers fine with that despite a.) perhaps not having a good working definition of gambling and b.) a free-market solution of simply not buying the game already resulting with more of an immediate impact.

-"There may be those who boycott, maybe even a significant number, but those numbers don't quell the continuation of unsatisfactory practices."

SW: BF II, Shadow of War, etc. seem to disprove that. Again, a sequel to one of the most financially-successful SW games of all time getting less than HALF of those 1st-week sales sent them reeling. Now virtually all of their games implementing MT's are on the hot seat. Obviously, that should be expanded where necessary but I think the narrative of a 'vocal minority not being heard' lost a lot of fuel in 2017. But think of how much MORE influential such an anti-lootbox stance would be under one banner? Keeping games regulatory to the consumers & ESRB (MT's labeling can help) should be enough imo.

rainslacker19d ago

I wasn't trying to imply that we shouldn't bother. Although, i think at this point, I'm unsure if we're talking about the same thing, at the same time. Maybe we're getting things jumbled up.

I don't really think that the classification is out of our hands now, because I really think that it was never really in our hands. We can only decide for ourselves how we feel about it. We can express how we feel to lawmakers, but ultimately, I think that the classification by the government is only relevant to if it should be regulated or not.

"gov't application rarely ever ends at a reasonable stopping point."

I can concede to that. Which is why I'm somewhat hesitant to say that the government should intervene here. However, I've also seen that the vocal outcry isn't really reaching the publishers ears, or at least, there isn't enough to compel them to change their practices because of it. This changed when just the threat of government intervention cropped up, and I think that had more to do with EA's back peddling than our voices, which caught a lot more fire because of the government stuff. That eventually hit more of the mainstream, and it affected the sales, and the sales are what ultimately changed things.

So, in this case, maybe it's good that the government decided to look into it, but also good that they didn't find any reason to assert any control over it.

But I will say that people should also consider what they hope for, because if you don't look at the long term effects of what could happen, you may get more than you actually want....which it seems you are trying to say could happen.

"But my argument relies on potential drawbacks of gov't involvement"

Which is fine, but distracting the issue to inconsistent regulation doesn't help the overall argument. Your previous comment was enough to address this, without changing course to this argument.

"SW: BF II, Shadow of War, etc. seem to disprove that"

To a point, but we've seen the backing off of stuff before, only to come back in force quietly without any mention anywhere. If there is one thing you can rely on from EA, it's that they will try and find something to part the customer from their money, regardless of how it affects their core product.

"Keeping games regulatory to the consumers & ESRB (MT's labeling can help) should be enough imo."

Maybe, but the ESRB is run by the ESA. Some countries have their own rating run by governing bodies. Anyhow, the ESA is a lobby group for the industry, not a group who'se sole purpose is the protection of the consumer. They will work for consumer benefit only when it's beneficial to the industry. One such instance was the implementation of the ESRB to make sure the government didn't gain control over the industry. however, with MT, I feel that it's not as beneficial to the consumers, or at least in this case, the vocal minority feels it's not a suitable solution for what we've seen as a problem for so long.

coolbeans16d ago

Ah...okay. I have a better understanding now. I know this communication thread has been annoying and I apologize for that. It's like right after submitting this my work week left my brain partially jumbled.

-"So, in this case, maybe it's good that the government decided to look into it, but also good that they didn't find any reason to assert any control over it."

This whole portion is an interesting angle to consider. As though two disparate paths of *consumer outrage* and *gov't intervention* met at a crossroads to make publishers sweat over their potentially lost treasures. I mean...so long as just that threat alone makes publishers wise up and listen to their customers demands with more intent I can give some props in that respect; although, I think eventually consumer demand would hit that tipping point tightening their wallets to EA's schemes anyways.

-"Which is fine, but distracting the issue to inconsistent regulation doesn't help the overall argument."

I don't think we'll reach an agreement on this, and I'll explain why. Admittedly, these regulatory inconsistencies are borne out of frustration that I've personally witnessed and/or dealt with from the "regulation now!" acolytes on twitter. So my intent is shooting at them for not really voicing any concerns about other chance-based gimmicks like Magic: The Gathering cards, despite being structurally similar (on a legal/economic basis). Perhaps that harms the body of the work, but I see it differently.

-"Anyhow, the ESA is a lobby group for the industry, not a group who'se sole purpose is the protection of the consumer. They will work for consumer benefit only when it's beneficial to the industry."

Fair point. But, as I've mentioned before, that still means an independent coalition could potentially be created that could be another step beyond the ESA including loot boxes on game ratings (when applicable).

Again, sorry for being so inconsistent with my own blog's comment section but I was just scatter-brained this past week and going through some new reviews. I DO think we made some great headway with your last comment though and presented some good insight.

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