The video game ecosystem rarely gets a look in when it comes to the Irish media apart maybe from the odd trailer around Christmas to entice the little ones or a write up about how Red Dead Redemption 2 is the best thing since sliced bread. But in reality, fans are lucky to get a consistent review section in a national newspaper. Though, when unsavoury gaming news rumblings about exploitation and underage gambling start emerging, you imagine the power elites here would act. Well … they did, then swiftly washed their hands of the subject. “Anyway, here’s another PlayStation 4 advert. Enjoy.”
Over the last few weeks, many fans – and government officials – have debated the legality of loot boxes and micro-transactions (in games purchases, represented by virtual containers, that gifts players with items, weapons, and modifications based on chance). The main issue is the way games ask players to unlock, often pay-walled, content, encouraging gambling, especially amongst the current generation of youngsters.
The Irish Government, however, have no plans in cracking down on the questionable “loot boxes,” after initially joining an international declaration condemning the “blurring of lines between gaming and gambling.” David Stanton, Department of Justice, has since clarified that the declaration “does not have legal effect.”
Presently in Ireland, we don’t have a clear and concise, legislative stance when it comes to online gambling – this concerns video games also. A number of European countries have called for an EU-wide ban on the loot box algorithms, following an investigation into four high-profile games by the Belgian Gaming Commission.
As far as Ireland is concerned, however, Mr Stanton says: “It should be understood, that if a game offers in-game purchases – be they loot boxes, skins, etc. – which are promoted to gamers as increasing their chances of success, such purchases are essentially a commercial or e-commerce activity. This activity would fall within normal consumer law.”
In short, this doesn’t concern the Department of Justice, unless a game offers the possibility of placing a bet or the risk for financial reward within the game, then it must be licensed as a gambling product.
But that covers the situation from a government standpoint, what do the game developers have to say about it? These are the people who dedicate months, even years to expertly craft a playable experience worthy of purchase. So, surely, they have their opinions on such an important issue concerning their industry.
“As I gamer I enjoy a micro-transaction when it’s cosmetic. Since I play mostly competitive games, if there is a micro-transaction that says ‘buy this sword or item for more damage’ it kills the game. It would be comparable to sports if they made steroids legal but too expensive for everyone to play evenly,” says Michael McNabola, Director of Operations at Hail Games.
Of course, as a fan, everyone has that purist belief that every game should serve its original purpose – escapism at its finest. But once you swap the casual gamer life for a vocation, that perspective begins to shift.
“I can see the necessity of micro-transactions in free to play games in order to make their income. This is their business model and it’s a requirement to make a profit as ad revenue in free to play games are not nearly as lucrative. However, there is no justification in my mind for full priced titles from large developers like EA and Ubisoft having micro-transactions in their game,” adds Stephen Farnan of SavePoint Studios.
Loot boxes don’t have to be wholly negative, though, if introduced honestly and in a way that doesn’t hinder the gameplay. Epic Games unearthed a highly-profitable gem this past year when Fortnite – specifically its Battle Royale mode – became a runaway success.
Though such innovation should be championed, seeing free-to-play games (F2P) generating such a copious amount of money has altered the large developers’ motives. Often obsessed with a game’s longevity, developers employ F2P economies into their projects, while also slapping on a hefty retail price.
“It involves locking away content that five years ago would have been freely included in the game. There is an argument from some that this is required since games are more expensive to make now, but the biggest games are making more money than ever and recent titles like the new Spiderman game released with no micro-transactions and has sold extremely well,” says Stephen.
Whether micro-transactions should be regulated or monitored is regularly debated by developers, and there isn’t a simple fix, sadly. These gaming economies affect the balance of the game.
“In order to crowbar in a system to an existing game, you may have to make normal progress slower to make micro-transactions valuable or lock away previously free content. This means the original vision of the developer becomes blurred and tainted,” says Michael.
Disappointed by Ireland’s official response to loot boxes, Stephen says: “Loot boxes are a form of gambling that is extremely predatory in practice while being aimed at children, they are in desperate need of official regulation. In some cases, the line between micro-transactions and loot boxes, and online games on sites, such as Paddy Power, are being blurred.
“In both instances, you pledge real money in order to win a game of chance. The only distinction is one potentially gives you a real-world reward, while the other does not, so you could argue that money spent in loot boxes is lost already, win or lose, and thus is potentially even worse than gambling in some ways.”
Ireland’s lack of understanding and interest in the industry is a core component as to why the topic is continually being overlooked.
“The Irish government doesn’t have enough knowledge diversity be able to help; greedy developers and investors will just work on ways around how to take as much money from their consumers as possible regardless of any regulations. There should be a not-for profit organisation that rates and reviews the quality of games and companies’ reputations,” adds Michael.
Suffice to say, micro-transactions do not belong in retailed games. As Fortnite has shown, if a game is free-to-play (F2P) and the developer actively listens and converses with an audience, then the game is less likely to be embroiled in ignominy. But in an age where downloadable content (DLC) and season passes are a permanent bedfellow of major titles, it’s inevitable that micro-transactions will continue to grow, as all power elites, even in gaming, are driven by money. Hopefully, the gaming community will vocalise their gripes and concerns, deterring these financial predators, and prioritising legitimate projects.