- Electronic Arts, one of the world’s largest video game publishers, defended its business practices during a recent hearing with UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee.
- Lawmakers questioned whether EA’s sale of randomised digital items, commonly referred to as loot boxes, is similar to gambling.
- Kerry Hopkins, EA’s Vice President of Legal and Government Affairs, said the loot boxes are not unlike the surprise mechanics used by popular children’s toys, and said EA’s sale of random digital items is ethical.
- But the trend’s popularity suggests that there’s a vested business interest that goes beyond providing a simple surprise.
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As one of the world’s largest video game publishers, Electronic Arts (EA) has frequently been the target of harsh criticism from both customers and lawmakers for its business practices.
Just last week, EA was called before the UK Parliament’s Digital Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) Committee to discuss whether its games were leading to addiction and introducing children to gambling.
At the center of the gambling concerns are “loot boxes,” a popular sales tactic that offers a random set of digital items for a specific game in exchange for cash. While these microtransactions have taken root in dozens of video games, EA is the publisher most commonly associated with the practice.
During the June 19 hearing, the DCMS Committee asked whether EA felt the sale of randomised items like loot boxes was ethical. Kerry Hopkins, EA’s vice president of legal and government affairs, said the company uses the term “surprise mechanics” to describe the randomised item packs, and compared the sale of loot boxes to several popular children’s toys that are widely available in stores.
“It’s something that’s been part of toys for years, whether it’s Kinder Eggs, or Hatchimals, or LOL Surprise,” Hopkins told the committee. “We do think the way that we have implemented these kinds of mechanics … is actually quite ethical and quite fun.”
Hopkins added, “We think it’s like many other products that people enjoy in a healthy way, and [customers] like the element of surprise.”
The loot boxes in “Star Wars: Battlefront II” gave EA’s “surprise mechanics” a bad reputation.
While some people might be willing to pay for surprise mechanics, EA has a reputation for implementing them poorly.
Back in 2017, EA sparked a huge online controversy with loot boxes in “Star Wars: Battlefront II.” Iconic characters like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker were exclusively available through loot boxes upon the game’s release, causing outrage among passionate “Star Wars” fans.
EA’s calculated response to an upset fan became the most downvoted comment in the history of Reddit, and the backlash prompted EA to remove paid loot mechanics from the game entirely.
“FIFA 19” is EA’s biggest game and loot boxes are at the core of one its most popular modes, Ultimate Team.
In EA’s soccer game, “FIFA 19,” players can purchase loot boxes in the form of randomised player cards. The cards are used to build a team of star players in a competitive mode called “FIFA Ultimate Team,” but the best players are hard to find. In fact, some of the rarest cards in FIFA 19 show up in less than 1% of packs. Cards can be earned by playing, though it can take hours of play to earn new packs.
These factors lead some people playing “FIFA 19” to purchase more packs to find the best players faster. Though Hopkins said that about 85% of card packs are earned through gameplay, coveted cards are rare enough that a small black market has developed for players to sell and exchange their Ultimate Team Cards – violating EA’s terms of service in the process.
Hopkins told the committee that EA bans thousands of FIFA players each year for the illegal sale of items. The company doesn’t limit how much players can spend on card packs, but it does monitor their spending for customer service and security concerns.
When asked if EA would consider limiting playtime, Hopkins said people should be able to determine how much time they want to spend on their hobbies.
The DCMS also asked whether EA monitors or limits individual playtime for players. Hopkins said EA looks at how often players log into a game and which modes are most popular, but doesn’t track raw playtime.
When committee members asked whether EA would consider setting time limits to keep players from playing too much, Hopkins said that gamers should be allowed to choose how much time they spend on their hobbies.
“There are players who play quite a bit and live happy lives, and gaming is what they do. There are players who jump in and out of games like pretty much any sport, any activity,” Hopkins said. “Some people probably think I spend too much time reading books, and I know my partner spends too much time playing pool, but he spends that time playing pool because that’s what he enjoys doing and that’s how he gets very good at it.”
“It’s really not something we could look at and say, ‘well this person played too many hours and therefore its unhealthy,'” Hopkins continued. “Consumers have to have choice, and they have to have a right to privacy, that’s very important.”
Despite the criticism, “surprise mechanics” are still in high demand, and won’t be going away anytime soon.
Regulators in the US, Europe, and China are still exploring how different monetisation practices impact the way people approach video games. While government officials are prioritising the safety of children, understanding and identifying video game addiction remains an issue for adults as well.
Whether players feel compelled to buy loot boxes, or just buy them for fun, the trend’s popularity suggests that there’s a vested business interest that goes beyond providing a simple surprise.
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