Video game giant EA is steering gamers towards loot box option in popular soccer game, insider says

A gaming insider says that an internal company document proves video game giant Electronic Arts is trying to lead gamers into a type of game that encourages them to spend more money and has been criticized for possible links with the game.

The 54-page document that was leaked is from the company’s sports division in Burnaby, BC, where a team is working on the highly profitable EA. FIFA soccer. This is a presentation, with many slides with bullets, on FIFA 21 and has been shared internally.

It deals with a game mode that allows players to purchase in-game “loot boxes” to improve the game or increase their chances of winning, for example by adding a better player to their team.

He says the mode that allows loot box purchases, called FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT), is the “cornerstone” of the game.

“We are doing all we can to get the players there,” a point near the top of the document said.

Another page of the presentation refers to “content teasers” that “will generate excitement and lead players to FUT from other modes” under a bullet titled “All roads lead to FUT”.

But players never know what they’ll get when they buy a loot box. Critics say the randomness – coupled with the bells and whistles that go off when a box opens in the game – makes them addictive and akin to the game.

“The characteristics of a loot box are similar to those of a slot machine,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the US National Council on Problem Gambling. “Nothing is more appealing – and in some people, addictive – to the brain than an intermittent and variable reward.”

Indeed, electronic bulletin boards and forums are inundated with people who admit they are trying to break free from the loot box addiction and experts like Whyte say they are hearing more and more about problem gamblers spending savings and even going into debt for experience opening a loot box.

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All over the world, countries are wondering whether loot boxes constitute games of chance and should be banned, as Belgium did in 2018. Several ongoing prosecutions – including a proposal Vancouver class action lawsuit – alleges that EA is in breach of gambling laws.

‘We really can’t do anything about it’

It was this backdrop that, according to the insider, forced him to disclose the document. He says he and others he knows who work on video games don’t feel comfortable with projects that include loot boxes. CBC News has agreed not to identify him because he says he fears professional repercussions.

“There’s really nothing we can do about it because at the end of the day, [the] the company is trying to make money and keep investors happy. “

EA unveils its FIFA 16 game ahead of the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, in Los Angeles on June 15, 2015. (Kevork Djansezian / Reuters)

An EA spokesperson declined an interview request and did not comment on the document, which he noted was “marked as privileged and confidential” except to say that it is “seen without context” and that interpretations of what he says “are misinformed.” When asked to clarify, he did not respond.

“All EA games can be played without spending on in-game items, and the majority of gamers don’t spend,” Charlie Fortescue said in a statement.

Loot boxes are not illegal in Canada or the United States, and many game and app companies offer similar incentives – allowing players to spend money on options and add-ons that improve the game. game and are profitable for business.

And EA makes a lot of money from loot boxes.

Based on annual reports, the California-based multinational corporation earned US $ 1.49 billion in 2020 from loot boxes from its sports titles alone, nearly triple the $ 587 million generated in 2015, according to Niko Partners, a company specializing in the analysis of the video game market.

Loot boxes, also known as “card packs,” can be purchased with real money or “coins” earned in the game. But the insider says there is pressure to spit out cash. real.

“You can play… without spending a dollar,” he says. “But you will learn that it takes a long time to earn coins and you will quickly be frustrated.”

EA says all of its games can be played without spending on in-game items, but Ultimate Team modes are some of the most popular. (CBC)

Loot box modes are optional

He provided another slightly shorter internal EA document that refers to the currency earned in the game as “grinding currency”.

“Grinding” in video games is slang for doing the same monotonous task over and over to the point that it’s no longer fun, ”the insider said. [EA games] are designed to be boring, to be a grind, and to encourage people of all ages to spend money on decks of cards. ”

He says the company has always emphasized that Ultimate Team mode is optional and players don’t have to use real money for loot boxes. He is therefore shocked to see the industry giant admit that he is doing everything he can to guide players in this mode.

“For years… they’ve been able to act with a layer of plausible deniability,” the insider said. “Yet in their internal documents they say, ‘This is our goal. We want people to be pushed into card pack mode. “”

Fortescue said the mode is still popular with gamers.

EA, headquartered in Redwood City, Calif., Earned US $ 1.49 billion in 2020 from loot boxes from its sports titles alone, according to Niko Partners, a company specializing in analyzing the gaming market. video. (Paul Sakuma / The Canadian Press)

“Modes like Ultimate Team, which is part of our FIFA games for over a decade, have been some of the world’s most popular gaming experiences, ”said EA spokesperson.

Tens of millions of gamers, he said, “from all parts of the world love the experience.”

Asked why EA refers to virtual currency as “mill currency,” Fortescue said only, ““ Grind currency ”is not a term we generally use.

Fortescue said the Belgian decision is unique and that gambling regulators in several jurisdictions have found that loot boxes do not constitute gambling if they are confined in the game and cannot be cashed out.

“We ensure that all activity related to EA games is designed to stay in the game, and we actively monitor and take action against anyone who attempts to violate these rules.”

Player describes the loot box ‘rush’

Jonathan Peniket, 22, says he knows the loot box raffle all too well. He is a self-proclaimed former loot box addict living in York, England.

“I started using packs of cards as a way to deal with a time when I felt so miserable in my life as a whole when so many difficult things were going on,” he said. “I could basically buy a little happiness.”

He spent over $ 5,000 – money his family had given him for his future – before getting help.

Peniket says he, too, finds the EA leaks disturbing.

FIFA Players have thought this has been their strategy for a long time, but it is still shocking to see a document from EA saying it in writing, ”he said. They’re pushing everyone to the casino, basically. ”

WATCH | The player talks about the allure of card packs:

Former loot box addict Jonathan Peniket shares how much he spent on FIFA matches. 3:49

EA has publicly denied that any facet of its video games constitutes gambling. EA prefers to describe loot boxes as using “surprise mechanics” – saying they’re similar to the fun of opening a Kinder Surprise egg.

Fortescue said all EA games can be played without spending on in-game items and the majority of players don’t spend.

“We take great care and responsibility to ensure that our games and experiences are suitable for their audience, and that any in-games purchase is completely optional,” he said.

He also said that EA does not encourage young gamers to spend on games.

“We are also actively encouraging parents to use the Family Controls available on major game consoles, which allow parents or guardians to manage the type of content their children are allowed to access, whether or not their children can spend on games. , how much they can. spend and how long they can play, “said Fortescue.

The larger internal document states that targeted in-game messaging “will direct players to [FIFA Ultimate Team] other modes. “

The insider says this caught his attention in part because players who have already paid around $ 80 for the game will receive messages encouraging them to switch to a mode in which they could potentially shell out more money.

He says pushing players to the mode that offers loot boxes goes against EA’s claim that players can choose which mode to play.

“I don’t know why anyone would ever put this in print form in the company,” he said. “It’s getting harder and harder to defend what is clearly an unregulated game.”

More data, transparency needed: researcher

David Zendle, a gaming researcher and professor of computer science at the University of York at the UK, says some jurisdictions have declared loot boxes not to be games of chance because their gambling laws do not. not been updated for decades.

Zendle is one of the world’s leading loot box researchers. He has conducted several studies involving thousands of participants who play video games.

“Every time we look for him, we find the same relationship,” he said. “People who spend a lot on loot boxes tend to have high levels of gambling problems.”

WATCH | Researcher frustrated by lack of data:

Researcher David Zendle explains why he’s frustrated with big game companies. 1:14

What the research doesn’t tell him if problem gamers are attracted to loot boxes or if loot boxes create problem gamers. Zendle says to understand this, he and other researchers need the video game giants to be more transparent about the data they collect.

“Who are they [the top players]? Zendle asked. How much are they spending? These are fundamental questions that we cannot answer because the industry does not share this data. “

As governments, regulators, and the courts figure out how to handle loot boxes, the insider says he doesn’t think they need to be eliminated altogether.

“I think you just need to stamp out the monetization of it, allow players to earn coins in the game, and then let them spend those coins on decks of cards,” he said.

“Don’t let anyone open their wallet on this thing.”

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