‘Star Wars’ video game faces gambling charges

Washington Post
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Imagine buying a new chess set. Chess is your favorite game. Also you love Star Wars. It’s a Star Wars chess set!

Now imagine playing your friend who spent $200 for the random chance that his pawns obtain the board-clearing powers of a queen. Plus his king looks like Darth Vader and yours still looks like a scruffy-looking nerf herder.

You might get mad. Or you might up the ante and spend a few hundred bucks to even the odds. Now imagine that you’re both children.

These are some of the questions that have been gripping the video game industry in a controversy leading up to the Friday release of Star Wars: Battlefront II, this year’s marquee Star Wars title timed to Disney’s highly anticipated The Last Jedi film next month.

It all started a month ago, when EA showcased that Battlefront II would have a “loot box” system in place for players. On top of the $60 to $80 retail price, the game was going to allow players at home to spend more money on digital “boxes,” which can give you random extra benefits.

Each loot box contains a random reward. You could get abilities to do more damage or move faster, or you might get a dud, like a “dance” emote for your character. And if you get that dud, you might spend even more money and up the chances of permanently becoming more powerful, like the ability to make Boba Fett fly around with 100 percent invincibility. It’s why critics have called it “glorified gambling”: You don’t know what you’re spending money on, but the more you spend, the higher the chances of winning.

As the website Rock Paper Shotgun explained, you could get those same benefits without spending real-life money, but you’d have to do it by playing matches against other players to earn fake game money, which could take dozens if not hundreds of hours.

Loot boxes have become increasingly normal in recent years, included in games like the popular shooter Overwatch as well as the recent Call of Duty game. Publishers claim that because development costs of top games rival Hollywood summer blockbusters, selling post-release digital content is needed to make up costs.

But with Star Wars, creating a random loot economy raised flags because some consider the practice akin to gambling, and the brand is marketed heavily toward children. Beyond that, most other competitive games do not offer “pay to win” advantages, which imbalances the game to favor paying players.

Weeks of public outcry culminated in the game’s publisher, EA, taking to Reddit to defend itself on the controversy. That comment became the most downvoted (or disliked) post in the site’s 12-year history.

On Thursday night, the eve of the game’s launch, EA said it had temporarily removed the in-game purchases.

“The ability to purchase crystals in-game will become available at a later date, only after we’ve made changes to the game,” said Oskar Gabrielson, general manager of DICE, the game’s developer. Crystals are the fake currency in the game you can buy for real money, which you then trade for loot boxes.

The Washington Post asked EA if players can be guaranteed that “pay to win” mechanics have been removed from the game.

“With regard to yesterday’s announcement on pulling the in-game purchases for launch, we do not have anything further to share at the moment beyond Oskar’s post,” an EA spokeswoman said in response.

Belgium’s gaming commission is investigating whether the game constitutes gambling. But EA asserts that the loot box mechanic (called “crates” in the Star Wars game) is not gambling.

“A player’s ability to succeed in the game is not dependent on purchasing crates. Players can also earn crates through playing the game and not spending any money at all,” said the EA spokeswoman. “Once obtained, players are always guaranteed to receive content that can be used in game.”

On Thursday, Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of Disney’s consumer products and interactive media division, made a call to EA hours before the decision was made to pull in-game purchases. The Wall Street Journal reported that the call was to express Disney executives’ unhappiness at how the outrage “reflected on their marquee property.” And a Disney/Lucasfilm spokesman said the company supports EA’s temporary decision to end the crate-purchasing.

“Star Wars has always been about the fans – and whether it’s Battlefront or any other Star Wars experience, they come first,” the Lucasfilm spokesman told the Post on Friday. “That’s why we support EA’s decision to temporarily remove in-game payments to address fan concerns.”

For years, critics and gaming psychologists have criticized loot boxes. While it may not legally be gambling, they say, the same intermittent nature of rewards and spending is in place.

“If you put it in fundamental terms, it’s really the same thing,” said Kimberly Young, a licensed psychologist and founder of the Center for Internet Addiction. “It’s called gambling.”