Is gaming’s industry shift making loot boxes even more controversial?

The controversy surrounding microtransactions in gaming is back, and – you guessed it – EA is at the forefront.

There are a few constants in life: the sun will rise and fall, seasons will come and go, and EA will continue to cause a raucous in the gaming community for an excessive focus on microtransactions within its games.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term microtransaction, it refers to in-game purchases that convert real money into digital currency that can be spent on skins, characters, or consumables. Ranging anywhere from $1 to around $80, packages are available to directly obtain specific items or – and this is where it gets a little problematic – to purchase loot boxes with randomised items inside. It’s the modern equivalent of spinning a slot machine, but instead of a pocket full of coins you’re paying with bank account details logged on your console account.

In gaming circles, EA has become the memeable benchmark for promoting gambling behaviours and pay-to-win tactics in recent years. In 2017, Battlefront 2 was slammed for its overtly aggressive use of loot boxes tied to a multiplayer progression that incentivised regular spending. The fallout was such that EA was forced to withdraw all in-game purchases before the game even hit mainstream release, and to publicly apologise on multiple occasions.

Despite vows to ‘be better’ in the years ahead, EA’s FIFA Ultimate Team – a PVP multiplayer mode that allows the player to construct their own team of athletes from leagues all around the globe – raked in a staggering revenue of $1.5 billion in 2019, which is more than sales of the FIFA 20 achieved in itself. Now, with FIFA 2021 on the market and EA continuing to accumulate a fortune built on microtransactions, several nations including Belgium, Japan, and the Netherlands have taken steps to regulate loot boxes by placing limits on players’ in-game purchasing power.

Most recently, a class action lawsuit has been brought against EA in Canada with the plaintiffs echoing a widespread feeling that the gaming giant is profiting off mechanics geared toward child gambling. Though this civil suit has no actual bearing on government regulation, a successful case would no doubt heap pressure on policymakers to consider making wholesale changes.

In a time where gaming subscriptions are becoming a winning formula for game developers and publishers, it no surprise that loot boxes continue to crop up. With next gen console releases just around the corner, AAA titles are slated to retail at $70 and as a result people are turning to gaming subscription services like Game Pass and PlayStation Network to get more bang for their buck. With rotating libraries of hundreds of quality games instantly available for a reasonable monthly tariff, gaming has become biggest entertainment industry of the year for the first time in history.

Anyone who tunes in for gaming expos regularly will know that accessibility is the dominant industry driving force and the reason for gaming’s massive surge in recent years. Cloud technologies will soon mean that we can play games across multiple devices without even being at home, console cross-play is being touted as a regular feature, and Microsoft has just forked out $7.5 billion on acquiring a single licence to add to its subscription service. In that sense, single games pushing players to spend in-game currency on a regular basis just feels way out of tact with the direction the industry is clearly headed in.

One could argue that rarely having to purchase full-price games at launch will prompt more spending on loot boxes, but a persistence with these kind of mechanics will be a seriously risky move for a publisher’s reputation as the industry pushes for a more accessible future. The likes of EA will have to move with the times to prevent its reputation crashing, as it did back in 2017.

While I’m not completely adverse to opening an Ultimate Team pack on FIFA 21 or purchasing an XP boost on Gears 5, it’s clear that publishers and developers are having to put more emphasis on providing actual ways of earning in-game currency through playing – making microtransactions more of a choice and less of a necessity.

For now, I dream of the day I can have a decent Ultimate Team squad without spending ten times the game’s actual worth.

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