Amidst the static cracklings of vintage CRTV’s, titles like Pong, Space Invaders and Pac-Man sparked the imaginations of an entire generation. Although, I doubt any of those double-denim-clad teens, chasing the high-score in Donkey Kong down at their local Denny’s diner could have ever imagined video-games would someday grow into the most profitable entertainment market in the world.
Looking back now, 38 years since the world was introduced to a certain jumping, moustachioed, Italian plumber, it’s clear the perception, popularity and influence of video-games has come a long, long way. In 2018, the Digital Australia Report claimed 67% of Australians were gaming, suggesting a hobby, often criticised as mind-rotting and anti-social, has begun to break the chains of its ludic stigma, burgeoning into a fully-fledged cultural phenomenon.
Gaming’s cultural journey mirrors an economic progression that’s equally as impressive, considering the entire industry was essentially bankrupt following the video-game crash of 1983, which saw gaming’s potential revenue cascade from 3.2 billion USD to a paltry 100 million. Following the crash, few could’ve foreseen how an insolvent platform made-up of anti-social, basement-dwelling nerds could ever boast an annual revenue of 135-billion-dollars. An eye-watering figure which eclipses the totals of both film and music… combined. Amazingly, this gap is actually increasing, with the gaming industry as a whole growing incessantly, while mediums like broadcast television are in annual decline.
But where’s the money come from? Games are still being purchased at standard retail prices, with the same relative demand as a decade ago. Hell, eight of the ten best-selling games of all time were released prior to 2010, yet developers are somehow turning over record profits.
Let’s take a look at one of the industry’s cash cows, FIFA 18. According to much maligned developer Electronic arts, the 26th title in the wildly popular soccer series sold 24 million copies during its year of production, raking in an estimated 3 billion USD. A head-scratching figure when you consider video-games retail for about $70 at launch, dropping to around $40 come the end of their relevance. Assuming copies of FIFA 18 averaged out at around $55 a unit for the year, the sale of those 24 million units amounts to about 1.32 billion USD… Meaning roughly 1.9 billion dollars (more than half of the games revenue) came from in-game transactions, following the sale of the game.
For the non-gamers out there, in-game transactions encourage gamers to drop some extra cash on virtual rewards, like new weapons in Call of Duty, or cars in Grand Theft Auto. In some cases, these add-ons are optional, and purely up to the discretion of the player as to whether they want to buy them or not.
However, when these purchases occur in online games, things get problematic.
You see, when players spend more than others online, these purchases can often upset the balance of gameplay. Gamers are able to buy better guns in a shooter, faster cars in a racing-game or better players in a sports game, giving an unfair advantage to those who invest more.
While all players can ‘technically’ earn these items, paying unlocks them faster, often sparing gamers hundreds of hours of laborious ‘grinding’. These ‘pay-to-win’ systems, are a symptom of the biggest issue with modern day gaming, exploitation and commodification. Everyone wants to win, so why not put a price-tag on competitiveness?
It’s this exploitive system which accounts for FIFA 18’s monstrous additional revenue. The game’s flagship game-mode, ‘Ultimate Team’, epitomises these pay-to-win systems.
Ultimate Team is a mode where gamers build virtual squads of real-world players, which are then used in online competitions. Naturally, better players increase your chances of winning, so upgrading your team is crucial to earning good results. Unfortunately, improving your team is an arduous, or incredibly costly experience.
Below are the three types of squads you’ll see on Ultimate Team:
#1 The ‘No0B’ (Newbie)
Oh dear… All players start with teams like this, and this poor gamer is about to get completely steamrolled. Even if this player was technically better at the game than his opponent, the opposition has players that can score 40 metre screamers, while this lot couldn’t even finish their dinner.
#2 Average Joe
I think I’ve played this team 100 times. A perfectly standard team, good enough to be competitive, but always at a disadvantage against the big boys. It would take a few weeks, but building this team is definitely possible without resorting to spending any real-world money.
#3 – The God Squad
This is what EA mean when they say “Ultimate Team”, and it can be all yours! For a small fortune. Honestly, what chance do other teams have when monstrosities like this are upsetting the competitive balance of the game?
The team name, “Pay To Win” is spot-on.
But what if you don’t want to spend money? Well… I hope you have a lot of free time, as upgrading your team without spending money is an exercise in extreme patience. It’s insane, but it can be done. Gamers can buy specific players using ‘FIFA coins’, which are earned for free by winning games and selling players. Trophy players like Cristiano Ronaldo require around 2 – 6 million coins to buy, and winning one, 15-minute game only earns you around 500 coins.
So hypothetically, in order to field the best versions of both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the same Ultimate Team squad, some psychopath would need to win at least 20,000 games of Ultimate Team. A feat which would mandate about 5000 hours of gameplay, which equates to a vitamin D deprived, 208-day marathon of FIFA. By the time you’d possibly have played enough games, FIFA 19 would be out, making all your efforts in FIFA 18 obsolete. Of course, trading players and completing specific ‘squad challenges’ will speed up this process, but there’s still no way of achieving this team before everyone’s moved on to FIFA 19.
However, rather than grinding for weeks to afford a specific player, your hard-earned coins can also be exchanged for randomised loot-boxes in the form of ‘player packs’, which arbitrarily gift players of variable value, relative to the price of the pack you purchased.
Although, the odds aren’t great. To say your chances of ‘packing’ Ronaldo are slim is an understatement, even with the games biggest packs, which cost 125,000 coins (50 hours of gameplay), you still only have a 3.4% chance at landing any 90+ rated player. Some of which are worth less than the 125,000 coins you spent.
Truthfully, your chances of packing Ronaldo is about 0.00055, which is roughly the same as:
Getting a straight flush in poker.
Getting struck by lightning in 2019.
Or my personal favourite:
Actually becoming a professional footballer in real life.
So how do gamers have the patience to put up with splashing their hard-earned coins on such long odds? Surely the ludicrous imbalance between time played and coins earned, coupled with the cost of players and packs is enough to dissuade gamers from playing altogether? This is partially true, but 100% intentional. This arduous system doesn’t deter players from the game, rather, FIFA coins.
You see, as oppose to coins, EA offers ‘FIFA points’, a very profitable form of alternative currency, which can be purchased using real world money.
Why spend 50 hours grinding to afford a pack, when the process can be skipped altogether by forking out $12 AUD? Realistically, anyone willing to waste weeks at a time to earn enough coins to open two or three packs, is obsessed enough with the game to just spend 50 bucks and open four of them in two minutes.
Given there is no other way to spend money in FIFA, this FIFA points system is responsible for the staggering, 1.9-billion-dollar slice of the game’s total revenue. Even worse, using real world money still doesn’t guarantee a return on your investment, your odds of getting a game-breaking player still comes down to the random number generator behind the pack odds.
Your chances are so dire that popular FIFA YouTuber ChrisMD decided to test the probabilities by spending £5000 on FIFA 18 packs. After selling all the players he’d earned, Chris had made back 9.875 million FIFA coins. If Chris had paid for his packs with coins, he’d have made a 500% loss. For Chris to break even on his investment, he’d have needed to pack 94 rated Cristiano Ronaldo… 16 times.
Imagine getting struck by lightning 16 times in 1 year.
To watch Chris’ descent into madness, click here.
So what we have here is a ‘G’ rated game, played by millions of children…
Where the only way to be competitive is to spend real world money…
On a random outcome….
That’s negatively skewed…
Sounds a lot like, uhhhh…
But let’s not jump to conclusions yet! After all, it’s a choice to play FIFA, and obviously winning Division 1 on Ultimate Team is not as universally appreciable as winning actual money when gambling in a casino. In truth, a lot of casual players are perfectly content with fielding mediocre teams and can accept being rolled by a super-squad every now and again…
Idiots, how dare they play games for fun! Don’t they realise? FIFA only exists to satisfy our unrelenting power fantasy by crushing some poor kid 15-0? Honestly, it depends on your personal valuation of the game. While having a beastly team means a lot to me, most of my fellow 21 year-old mates could care less about my win/ loss ratio, and it’s certainly not courting any results on Tinder.
However, the major concern of this link to gambling lies with impressionable younger gamers. In the vicious realm of the schoolyard, childish concerns like being the best at a game is exactly that, childish. It all plays into playground politics and what matters most to kids, and as far as they’re concerned, the cultural capital behind being a demigod on FIFA is a one-way ticket to cool-town.
I hate to seem clichéd, but won’t someone please think of the children?
According to a study by the Australian eSafety commission, 80% of kids aged 7-16 play online games, with 52% of kids making at least one in-game-transaction a year. Now imagine these kids in an online environment like FIFA’s, where paid, randomised chance is deemed necessary for success.
To gain some professional insight into the addictive tactics of loot-boxes, I got in touch with game developer, Patrick Coleman. When asked about the techniques of game-design, which promote addiction, Patrick stressed a new tactic, which hadn’t occurred to me - “audio-visual stimulation”. According to Patrick, when slot-machines generate a win - “specific sensory cues are triggered, rewarding players through flashing lights, positive animations and sounds”, suggesting to players their random luck was an achievement. These stimulants also feature in loot-boxes, overwhelming players with similar fanfare. It is this intense, feel-good euphoria which is addictive, a high which players are incentivised to chase.
As a gamer, it pains me to be so critical of the industry I adore. So often is gaming unfairly plagued by narratives like associative violence and anti-sociability. Despite this, most gamers will concede, these pay-to-win systems have become a genuine issue with the platform. Loot-boxes in particular, are manifestations of a festering corporate greed which is driving the industry, normalising reckless spending habits in the minds of gamers. Resulting in games like Fortnite, which is “free-to-play”, somehow making 2.4 billion USD in 2018, as gamers splurge money on in-game items.
I mean, how often do you hear stories about some kid spending thousands on a video-game?
A 2018 study conducted in the UK found the number of children with gambling issues had quadrupled since 2016, with professor of behavioural addiction, Mark Griffiths believing ‘simulated gambling’ in video games, is to blame.
So what’s being done about it?
Thankfully, the issue is finally drawing attention following a nation-wide ban of loot-boxes in Belgium. This action has spurred several other countries to launch their own investigations into the ethicality of loot-boxes, with Greens senator Jordan Steele leading the charge in Australia following unanimous support from the senate.
These diplomatic movements aren’t the only force pressuring the industry to clean up its’ act, with FIFA 19 recording a 25% decrease in sales compared to its predecessor, it’s clear gamers are fed up with the cash-mongering antics of developers. This activism is being acknowledged as well, with EA themselves recently vowing to remove loot-box systems from their upcoming Star Wars title, but given how that game is exclusively an offline, story driven game, the lack of online purchases is the expectation.
While these outcomes suggest a short-term win for gamers, the damage done by years of loot-box corruption may have already resulted in thousands of kids with a heightened susceptibility to gambling and impulse spending. Furthermore, while developers like EA are seemingly apologetic, much like the gamblers they preyed on, they’ve had a taste of the jackpot, and it’s only a matter of time before another manipulative game-mechanic slips under the radar, and into our wallets.