“Star Wars Battlefront II created a massive debate within the world of gaming about in-game purchases, and now officials in Belgium and a representative from Hawaii are likening its in-game economy to gambling. NPR’s Ari Shapiro spoke to Allegra Frank of the video game news site Polygon about the game’s controversial “loot-crate” system.”
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
One of the most anticipated video games of the year has created a huge debate that is reaching beyond the world of gamers into government policy. The game is “Star Wars Battlefront II.” And the debate has to do with one of the ways the game creators are trying to make money. Allegra Frank is with the video game news site Polygon and joins us now. Welcome.
ALLEGRA FRANK: Hi. Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: This controversy has to do with something called loot crates, which is basically an industry term for paying to advance in a game. Tell us how it works.
FRANK: Right. So they’re sort of akin to gambling. Essentially, you pay for a loot crate and inside of a loot crate is a random item. These can be costumes. These can be different attacks or abilities for your characters to make you stronger in the game. It’s a variety of things. But the main issue with loot crates is that you never know what you’re going to get. It’s completely random.
SHAPIRO: Purchases in a game are pretty common in smartphone apps or Facebook games, which are usually free or cost very little to play. Why is it so much more controversial in the “Star Wars” video game?
FRANK: So in “Star Wars Battlefront II,” people really sort of got fed up and threw up their hands because loot crates don’t only include costumes, which you don’t need to have, but they actually include different sorts of items that help you in other modes that will put you against other players. So essentially, there are modes where you have to compete with other people. And if people are willing to spend the money to get those extra items that power them up and give them an advantage, essentially, in the game and you’re not willing to spend that money, you will not win. And that is not a lot of fun for people.
SHAPIRO: So part of the outrage was from gamers who said, I already spent $60 on this game. I don’t want to have to spend more to advance through the levels. Separately, politicians started expressing concern that the game is encouraging gambling. Tell us what’s happening in the government related to this game.
FRANK: Right. So we’re actually seeing two major fronts of politicians speaking out against these. In Belgium, there’s the Belgian Gambling Commission, which is actually pointing at certain examples of different games saying these economies are really akin to gambling and sort of investigating those. And then earlier this week we had a Hawaiian rep, Representative Chris Lee, actually say a similar thing of – you know, it’s sort of akin to gambling is essentially what he’s saying. So we have these high-profile cases now. And one of the major issues here is that these are games that children have access to. So the fact that these games have systems very much similar to gambling and that children can play them is not really sitting well with different government officials and the public at large, frankly.
SHAPIRO: How has Electronic Arts, the company behind the game, responded to all of this?
FRANK: The first step that EA took is they slashed the prices of some of the characters that were locked behind these loot crates – There were certain characters like Darth Vader that would require a ton of in-game currency or real money to actually access – which didn’t exactly sate the fanbase because you still could spend a ton of money trying to get Darth Vader even with the discount. On the night before launch they actually said, we’re going to take out the paid economy entirely and try and rework it – they saw all this consumer feedback – and then bring it back into the game at some undefined date.
SHAPIRO: Is this just the future of game play and gamers are fighting against a tide? Or do you think Electronic Arts has really been burned with this and other game creators are going to take note and change plans?
FRANK: It’s interesting to see because microtransactions, loot crates and in-game purchases, that’s nothing new. And this isn’t even necessarily the most egregious example. I think it’s just sort of been the apex. This is sort of representative of the apex of, as you said, a rising tide. So it will be interesting to see if other publishers are sort of going to shy away from the reliance on paid economies. But I doubt they’ll actually go away because the way that these games can maintain their longevity for the publisher and the player is introducing additional amounts of content. And oftentimes to recoup the development costs, publishers are sort of – their hands are forced. They have to charge money for these.
SHAPIRO: Allegra Frank of the video game news site Polygon, thanks a lot.
FRANK: Thanks for having me.