EA: Our Loot Boxes Are Actually 'Surprise Mechanics' That Are 'Quite Ethical'

Image: Star Wars Battlefront II

Given that 2017's Star Wars Battlefront II is broadly considered the tipping point in an anti-loot-box conversation that has recently led to a loot box bill in the United States senate, you might be forgiven for thinking that Electronics Arts games have loot boxes.

Not so, says its VP of legal and government affairs; they merely have “surprise mechanics.” And they’re “quite ethical.” Phew!

EA’s Kerry Hopkins made those comments as part of an oral evidence session with the UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee today (via PCGamesN).

Scottish National Party MP Brendan O’Hara said that evidence suggests a “close” link between loot boxes and gambling, especially among adolescents. He then asked Hopkins, as well as a representative of Epic Games, who was also in attendance to talk about Fortnite, if they considered loot boxes to be an “ethical” feature.

“We don’t call them loot boxes,” Hopkins began her response, adding that EA instead refers to them as “surprise mechanics.”

She then elaborated on what exactly that means and why so-called “surprise mechanics” are just like blind-packed toys. “If you go to—I don’t know what your version of Target is—a store that sells lots of toys, and you do a search for surprise toys, what you’ll find is that this is something people enjoy. They enjoy surprises.

And so, it’s something that’s been part of toys for years, whether it’s Kinder Eggs, or Hatchimals, or LOL Surprise. We do think the way that we have implemented these kinds of mechanics in FIFA—[which] of course is our big one, our FIFA Ultimate Team and our packs—is actually quite ethical and quite fun. Enjoyable to people.”

She also said that EA does not consider loot boxes—sorry, “surprise mechanics”—to be gambling, and “we also disagree that there’s evidence that shows it leads to gambling.” However, that evidence has been enough for countries like Belgium and The Netherlands, both of which have banned certain types of randomised loot boxes under their gambling laws.

Hopkins said those decisions were rooted in the laws of each land, and EA doesn’t agree with them, either, although it has made necessary changes in those regions to comply with their laws.

The rest of the session proceeded apace, with government officials asking questions about how games work and trying to corral game company representatives into confessing culpability for people selling in-game items for real money via third-party sites—which is of course very against those companies’ terms of service. Hopkins repeatedly shrugged those issues off as actions of “bad guys” and said that those bad actors, not the way loot boxes and surrounding systems are currently designed, are the problem.

“The packs, the surprise—that’s fun for people,” she said. “They like earning the packs, opening the packs, building the teams, trading the teams.”

Which comes closer to inadvertently addressing the real problem: the compulsiveness of the broader systems and the clear intentionality of their design. They’re built on finely-calibrated systems of chance. Everything from underlying statistics to the way opening them looks and feels is built to maximise Christmas-like anticipation.

As Kotaku’s Heather Alexandra put it in a piece chronicling her own experiences with loot boxes: “Moment for moment, loot boxes are engineered to capture attention with a mixture of spectacle and psychological trickery not unlike what you might find at a slot machine.”

In an update earlier this year, Epic removed the random element from for-purchase loot boxes in Fortnite’s non-battle-royale mode, Save The World. During today’s session, a representative of the company conceded that “there’s more that the industry can do.” EA, however, is standing firm.

“I don’t think we can agree to say that games are addictive,” said Hopkins. “I would tell you that Electronic Arts already is a very responsible company.”

NSW And Victoria Push For Loot Boxes To Be Classified

With just under a month until the Senate inquiry into "gaming microtransactions for chance-based items" - loot boxes and such - reports back, more submissions to the inquiry have been made public. Two of those submissions have come from the Victorian Minister for Gaming and Liquor Regulation, as well as the NSW Government's deputy secretary of Liquor, Gaming and Racing, and both submissions are encouraging an update to the classification guidelines to recognise loot boxes.

Read more


Comments

    I mean if loot boxes are gambling isn't buying pokemon card packs or yu gi oh card packs also gambling?

      Yes it is a form of gambling, albeit they have fixed odds on what you are obtaining. Example a pack of 15 cards usually contains 1 rare 5 uncommons and 9 commons or how ever the formula is done. So I believe that is how the get around the gambling laws.

      Technically I'd say yes. With that said, even the most useless, common cards of any TCG have some level of value so they can be re-sold, the same can't be said for loot boxes where useless crap is useless crap.

        That's been the argument why loot boxes aren't gambling. Because a loot box has a fixed value (nothing) verses resell-able items like cards where one pack could be worth tens of dollars and another could be worth thousands. Basically defining gambling as random chance mechanics that result in potential monetary gain. CS:GO crates would fit under that definition though.

          The fact that people are willing to spend money to acquire the goods in the loot boxes would seem to indicate that they have some value. Not being able to directly convert those goods to cash doesn't change that.

            Being willing to spend money does not mean the product has any value.

            For example, globally, people spend millions of dollars on homeopathy. It doesn't do anything. You could argue that they are paying for the belief that something is improving their health... but it's just a bottle of useless water.

            I think sorry for the rehash of the subject the actual problem with loot boxes is no guarantee of a specific outcome of the roll of the dice.
            Not being able to choose between cosmetics or skills, are you getting a fifty dollar darth vader skin? Are you getting a fifty dollar darth vader skill? Are you getting a universal skill or skin? Or are you putting fifty dollars into an RNG with no guarantee of anything? None of the skills are universal, none of the skins are.
            That "surprise" mechanic is clearly in overdrive.

            Last edited 20/06/19 4:09 pm

          Does that mean basic loot boxes say for example overwatch boxes they would be not loot boxes but Dota 2 and cs go would be?

          In that case what does the overwatch box be called?

      Also the Trading Card defence is only subject under US law as a precedent. There is no legal definition defining if trading cards are legal or illegal under any other jurisdiction.

      In most regions its exception is rather an oversight of the law.

      An Australian study has already proven that the brain processes involved in opening lootboxes are more similar to using a slot machine than they are to a TCG.

      The comparison to card games is a poor one at best. Similar to comparing bicycles to roadtrains just because both can be used as road transport.

      Technically so are raffles, lucky dips, buying kinder eggs and a bunch of other things. I guess the biggest issue is ratio of cost-reward. Take a kinder egg as an example. Even if you don't get the toy you wanted you still get a toy and you get chocolate. With some of the loot boxes the "prize" is either what you want or it's rubbish (and there's no chocolate). So the kinder egg creates a sense of satisfaction even if you didn't get what you wanted where the lootbox *just* creates a feeling of disappointment.

      I know I spent far, far too much gambling on the WoW TCG packs trying to get a spectral tiger mount back in the day. It's how gambling works, "I didn't get it last try I *must* have a better chance to get it next time".

    Gambling is also a surprise mechanic, and is also 'ethical' when presented correctly. But it shouldn't be presented to impressionable children.

      Also gambling is regulated by law by licensing and auditing to ensure customer protection from malicious acts including hidden mechanics, odd fixing, predatory sales, financial and criminal fraud.

      How are the children buying the loot boxes though? The parents must have to pay for it, so you can't really blame the game company for that.

        would you blame a school if they put pokies in the classroom? cause the parents must have to pay for it.

    "Suprise Mechanics" instead of "loot boxes" sure does sound like "Surprise sex" does to....well you know.

      I was thinking more "Suprise! We've got all your money" but your comparison is apt too...

    It's not gambling at all. People love surprises. Hahahahahahahahahaha.

    Damn. How do they sleep at night?

    I mean, isn't the loot box random prize mechanic just like pokies? Or just like that experiment that was done with mice, where the mice press a button and randomly get pieces of food, so they end up just sitting there pressing the lever continually and irrespective of hunger? But mice who get a piece of food every time, only press the lever when hungry. Jesus EA and all others, make good games and charge more for them. If they are worth it, people will pay. Won't they/we?

    And how is it ethical to put profit ahead of the welfare of the folks out there that are prone to compulsive behaviours with poor outcomes? Ya know, the folks who probs buy a lot of the loot boxes....

      Damn. How do they sleep at night?

      Very well on huge piles of money.

    Wow EA, as long as you believe your own bullshit (y)

    Last edited 20/06/19 10:04 am

    If its a surprise mechanic, EA should be okay with removing any ability to purchase them, or any purchasable ability to accelerate their acquisition.

      I don't think there's a problem with being able to purchase a loot box. Just like being able to purchase a scratchie ticket or the lotto. However, that raises the question of whether purchasable loot boxes should be limited to adults and not available to kids (who notoriously have bad impulse control).

      I think also, that it would be simple and likely helpful to limit the amount you could purchase in a set time frame. ie: you could only buy one a week.

        Thats the elephant that game devs don't want, that it is a gambling mechanic. If we want to call it gambling and limit it to adults, meh, so be it.

    The only thing I have to say about this is unprintable.
    Even my 'internal dialogue' voices put their hands over their mouths and gasped, 'Oh my, that's a bit strong' in response.

    I love the irony that EA has to now defend its practice on loot boxes after it was the one that took it too far. If they had just been reasonable with them they could have continued to make obscene money off FIFA ultimate team without anyone batting an eye, instead they ruined the rort for the entire industry and put their FIFA profits at risk.

    I totally agree with EA's first point - Blind Bags, Mystery Packs and card game booster packs are a lot of fun if you're into that sort of thing. I honestly don't have an issue with that side of things at all. After all, many game reward systems, like Diablo and Borderlands use, basically boil down to one giant random loot pack and generally, that's perceived as fun.

    I totally disagree with their second point, that they do this in an ethical way. What people are up in arms about is that many games take this to the next level, and apply psychological manipulation, combined with limited (glacial paced) opportunities to obtain the rewards without spending money on them.

    And then companies like EA take it even further, and make the price for purchasing these random packs obscene.

    My daughter is currently into How to Train Your Dragon blind bags. They cost from $3 - $6 AUD each, and every single one of them gives her a cool figurine. If she gets doubles, she trades them to get the ones she wants.

    Meanwhile in EA's Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes, a "Shaak Ti" shard pack which rewards random amounts of shards from 15 - 330 per attempt (with 17 being the most common), costs $31 AUD per attempt. Yes, it costs hundreds of dollars to obtain this character using their "surprise mechanic", if you want the character any time soon. Or you can wait 3 months and do it the "free" way, using the "free surprise mechanic" system, which will take you anywhere from another 3 - 6 months to complete the character. At which point, the character is obsolete and probably rarely useful to you.

    Other packs they offer as "micro transactions" (rofl, you can buy a whole AAA game and a console to play it on for some of these "micro" amounts) are the typical "here's a bunch of junk you don't need and a few really rare things you need in copious amounts" kinda packs.. and of course, you can't trade the stuff you don't need like you can with real blind bags.

    I just keep picturing a comically cliche Communist dictator attempting to explain something dodgy to a group of international investigators.

    "Oh no no, that's not a concentration camp. That's actually um... a surprise day spa? Yes and they are the guests, NOT prisoners. No those are NOT gunshots you hear, it's obviously their transport vehicles backfiring."

      Never thought I'd see someone call the current American government "comically cliche communist" but there you go lol.

      So true but - I mean, in everything the EA rep says through that - how can you not see that you're clearly the villain here? Like, what?? "No, this green toxic waste we're selling you is actually yummy cordial! People love cordial!"

        One of the prerequisite qualities of a henious villain is that they don't care that they're the villain. All they care about is getting away with their villainy.

    “The packs, the surprise—that’s fun for people,” she said. “They like earning the packs, opening the packs, building the teams, trading the teams.”So we thought to ourselves, "Maybe people would be ok with paying for that fun. It's wouldn't be our fault if they pay us an indefinite amount of money chasing an item, they're having fun."

    "This is not one of those shady pyramid schemes you've been hearing about. No sir, our model is the trapezoid"

    Of course! It’s all about ethics in videogames.

    You know what else is ethical? Professor Genki!

    Maybe Deep Silver had inside knowledge of EAs argument when they made that recent tweet.

    The fact that people are not surprised that this is something EA have said might be my favourite part.

    A whole new low. Thanks for cementing my resolve to never buy EA product again.

    Last edited 20/06/19 9:26 pm

    Oh wow, the disingenuous, patronising language and rhetoric. Are they just hoping that these people are old and ignorant enough not to know any better? "Aww don't be silly gramps, ha-ha, you don't know about these things so let me explain: We create magic and fun for kids, and well it's just fair that we get a bit of money so we can keep up this charitable enterprise!"

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