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A gaming insider says an internal company document proves video game giant Electronic Arts is trying to drive players into a type of game play that encourages them to spend more money and which has come under fire for possible links to gambling.
The leaked 54-page document comes from the company’s sports division in Burnaby, B.C., where a team works on EA’s hugely profitable FIFA soccer games. It appears to be a presentation, featuring numerous slides with bullet points, about the release of FIFA 21 and was shared internally.
It discusses a mode of play that lets players buy “loot boxes” within the game to improve play or increase their chances of winning, such as by adding a better player to their team.
It says the mode that allows loot box purchases, called FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT), is the “cornerstone” of the game.
“We are doing everything we can to drive players there,” a bullet point close to the top of the document says.
Another page of the presentation refers to “content teasers” that will “drive excitement & funnel players towards FUT from other modes” under a bullet point labelled “All roads lead to FUT.”
But gamers never know what they’ll get when they buy a loot box. Critics say that randomness — coupled with bells and whistles that go off when a box opens within the game — makes them addictive and akin to gambling.
“The features of a loot box are similar to a slot machine,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the U.S. National Council on Problem Gaming. “Nothing is more attractive — and in some people, addictive — to the brain than intermittent, variable reward.”
Indeed, online message boards and forums are flooded with people who admit they’re trying to break free from loot-box addiction and experts such as Whyte say they’re increasingly hearing from problem gamblers who are spending savings and even going into debt to experience the high of opening a loot box.
Around the world, countries are grappling with whether loot boxes constitute gambling and should be banned, as Belgium did in 2018. Several lawsuits underway — including a proposed class-action in Vancouver — allege EA is violating gambling legislation.
‘We can’t really do anything about it’
It’s that backdrop that the insider says compelled him to leak the document. He says he and others he knows who work on video games don’t feel good about projects that include loot boxes. CBC News has agreed not to identify him, as he says he fears professional repercussions.
“We can’t really do anything about it because at the end of the day, [the] company is trying to make money and satisfy investors.”
An EA spokesperson declined an interview request and wouldn’t comment on the document, which, he noted, was “marked privileged and confidential,” other than to say it is being “viewed without context” and that interpretations of what it 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 players do not spend,” Charlie Fortescue said in a statement.
Loot boxes are not illegal in Canada or the U.S., and many game and app companies offer similar enticements — letting players spend money on options and add-ons that enhance game play and are profitable for the companies.
And EA is earning big bucks from loot boxes.
Based on annual reports, the California-based multinational company earned $1.49 billion US in 2020 from loot boxes in its sports titles alone, almost triple the $587 million generated in 2015, according to Niko Partners, a firm that specializes in video game market analytics.
Loot boxes, also known as “card packs,” can be purchased with real money or “coins” earned in the game. But the insider says there’s pressure to cough up real cash.
“You can play … without spending a dollar,” he said. “But you’ll learn it takes a long time to earn coins and you’ll get frustrated pretty fast.”
Loot-box modes are optional
He provided another, slightly shorter, internal EA document that refers to currency earned in the game as “grind currency.”
“‘Grinding’ in video games is slang for doing the same monotonous task over and over again to the point where it’s no longer fun,” said the insider. “It seems like [EA games] are designed to be boring, to be a grind, and to encourage people of all ages to spend money on card packs.”
He says the company has always emphasized that the Ultimate Team mode is optional and that players don’t have to use real money for loot boxes. So he says he was shocked to see the industry giant acknowledge that it’s doing everything it can to steer players into the mode.
“For years … they’ve been able to act with a layer of plausible deniability,” the insider said. “Yet in their internal documents, they’re saying, ‘This is our goal. We want people driven to the card pack mode.'”
Fortescue said the mode has been consistently popular with players.
“Modes like Ultimate Team, which has been part of our FIFA games for more than a decade, are some of the most popular game experiences in the world,” the EA spokesperson said.
Tens of millions of players, he said, “from all parts of the world love the experience.”
Asked why EA refers to virtual currency as “grind currency,” Fortescue said only: “‘Grind currency’ is not a term we typically use.”
Fortescue said the Belgian ruling is unique and that gambling regulators in several jurisdictions have found that loot boxes do not constitute gambling if they are confined within the game and cannot be cashed out.
“We take great care to ensure that all activity related to playing EA games is designed to stay in the game, and we actively police and take action against anyone found to be attempting to violate those rules.”
Player describes loot-box ‘rush’
Jonathan Peniket, 22, says he knows the draw of loot boxes too well. He’s a self-declared former loot box addict living in York, England.
“I started using card packs as a way to cope at a time when I felt so unhappy in my life as a whole, when so many difficult things were going on,” he said. “I could essentially buy a little rush of 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 that’s their strategy for a long time, but it’s still shocking to actually see a document from within EA stating it in writing,” he said. “They are driving everyone towards the casino, basically.”
WATCH | Gamer talks about allure of card packs:
EA has publicly denied that any facet of its video games constitute gambling. EA prefers to describe loot boxes as using “surprise mechanics” — saying they are similar to the thrill of opening a Kinder Surprise egg.
Fortescue said all EA games can be played without spending on in-game items and that the majority of players do not spend.
“We take great care and responsibility to ensure that our games and experiences are appropriate for their audience, and that any purchases within the games are entirely optional,” he said.
He also said EA doesn’t encourage young players to spend in games.
“We also actively encourage parents to use the family controls available on the 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 in games, how much they can spend and how much time they can play,” Fortescue said.
The larger internal document says targeted messaging within the game will “funnel players towards [FIFA Ultimate Team] from other modes.”
The insider says that caught his eye in part because players who have already paid about $80 for the game will be getting messages encouraging them to switch to a mode in which they will potentially shell out more money.
He says pushing players toward the mode that offers loot boxes runs against EA’s claim that players can choose which mode to play.
“I don’t know why anyone would ever put that in print at the company,” he said. “It’s getting harder and harder to defend what is very obviously unregulated gambling.”
More data, transparency needed: researcher
David Zendle, a gaming researcher and computer science lecturer at the U.K.’s University of York, says some jurisdictions have declared loot boxes aren’t gambling because their laws around games of chance haven’t been updated for decades.
Zendle is one of the world’s leading researchers on loot boxes. He’s conducted several studies involving thousands of participants who play video games.
“Every single time we look for it, we find the same relationship,” he said. “The people who spend heavily on loot boxes tend to have high levels of problem gambling.”
WATCH | Researcher frustrated at lack of data:
What the research doesn’t tell him is whether problem gamblers are drawn to loot boxes or whether loot boxes are creating problem gamblers. Zendle says to figure that out, he and other researchers need video game giants to be more transparent about the data they collect.
“Who are they [the top players]?” asked Zendle. “How much are they spending? These are the basic questions that we can’t answer because industry is not sharing this data.”
While governments, regulators and courts figure out how to handle loot boxes, the insider says he doesn’t think they need to be done away with entirely.
“I think you just need to eradicate the monetization of it, allow players to earn coins in game and then let them spend those coins on card packs,” he said.
“Don’t let anyone open their wallets on this stuff.”
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