Bills target video games with rewards for a price

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald "Star Wars: Battlefront II" is available for purchase at GameStop Friday in Prince Kuhio Plaza.

It might be game over for certain video games in Hawaii after state lawmakers introduced legislation to limit the implementation of electronic gambling systems within the popular pastime.

A quartet of proposed bills introduced last month target exploitative monetization techniques in video games that some fear might psychologically condition players to become addicted to gambling.

ADVERTISING


The bills highlight a common mechanism referred to as “loot boxes,” wherein players can use real money to purchase an in-game “box” of items. The contents of the box are randomized, with some items being much rarer than others, and cannot be revealed until the box is purchased.

One pair of bills, House Bill 2686 and Senate Bill 3024, would prohibit the sale of any game featuring a system wherein players can purchase a randomized reward using real money to anyone younger than 21 years old.

The other two bills, House Bill 2727 and Senate Bill 3025, would require video game publishers to prominently label games containing such randomized purchase systems, as well as disclose the probability rates of receiving each loot box reward.

“I grew up playing games my whole life,” said state Rep. Chris Lee of Oahu, who spearheaded the bills. “I’ve watched firsthand the evolution of the industry from one that seeks to create new things to one that’s begun to exploit people, especially children, to maximize profit.”

The bills come after a contentious period in the video games industry, with several recent major game releases featuring the controversial loot box systems.

Some games, such as the popular 2016 multiplayer online shooter “Overwatch,” allow players to earn loot boxes through a relatively short period of standard gameplay — one box in “Overwatch” can be earned in approximately 40 minutes — and only offer cosmetic rewards such as new costumes for players.

Other games, however, make loot boxes much harder to obtain through conventional means and offer the chance to win competitive advantages, tempting players to spend money in order to gain an edge over their opponents.

In particular, the 2017 online game “Star Wars: Battlefront II” incurred significant online controversy for its extensive in-game transaction system, which not only offered gameplay advantages through loot boxes but also locked iconic and powerful “Star Wars” characters such as Darth Vader or Bossk behind a paywall of in-game currency.

While such characters could be unlocked by playing the game long enough — thus earning enough in-game currency to purchase the character — players could unlock them far more quickly by simply purchasing in-game currency with real-life currency, creating a system where players “pay to win.”

Because of the popularity of the “Star Wars” brand among children — “Battlefront II” and “Overwatch” are rated T for teen by the Electronic Software Rating Board — online commentators have accused Electronic Arts and other publishers of exploiting children with psychologically manipulative practices to encourage them to gamble real money on virtual goods.

“Whistleblowers have revealed that psychologists are employed to create these mechanisms,” Lee said.

Lee said he has worked with legislators from other states and countries to create a widespread response to predatory payment mechanisms. More than half of U.S. states are pursuing some form of loot box oversight legislation, he said.

“If enough of the market reacts, the industry would have to respond and change its practices,” Lee said.

In response to heavy criticism, Electronic Arts, the publisher of “Star Wars: Battlefront II,” removed all in-game transaction systems from the game prior to launch, with all rewards able to be earned through standard gameplay. However, last month, the publisher announced that some in-game transaction systems would return later this year, albeit in an as-yet unknown form.

GameStop employee Jacob Dennis said he did not see any demonstrable falloff in “Battlefront II” sales, despite the backlash against the game. Nor, he said, have many parents complained to GameStop employees about in-game purchasing systems.

“The younger kids are already playing things like ‘Roblox’ and ‘Minecraft,’ and they already have a bunch of microtransactions,” Dennis said. “I think parents probably just don’t know about it.”

Another GameStop employee, who requested to remain anonymous, expressed concern about how the proposed bills would cut into game sales, particularly when game retailers already refuse to sell games rated M for mature to anyone younger than 17.

“If you’re old enough to go to war, you should be able to play a video game where you don’t kill people in real life,” the employee said.

On the other hand, one gamer, Pahi Bauckham, said he occasionally finds himself spending additional money in the game “Call of Duty: WWII” simply for the sake of having extra content.

“It does bother me a lot,” Bauckham said. “And then you have kids using their parents’ consoles, and they’re already connected to their parents’ bank accounts.”

Whether consumed by children or adults, however, in-game purchases provide massive profits. Activision Blizzard, publisher of “Overwatch,” announced Friday the company made $4 billion from in-game transactions in 2017.

ADVERTISING


“It’s a $30 billion industry,” Lee said. “It’s bigger than Hollywood. It’s an industry that can reach into everyone’s pockets and phones and consoles and PCs, but there’s no authority to force them to disclose their practices.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

  1. PapaSpud February 12, 2018 10:05 am

    More, protect the people from themselves…. ridiculous. Make everybody stay at home all day, that way they can’t get hurt going outside.


    1. Jumbo Jango February 12, 2018 3:05 pm

      The way i understand it, its just calling for the same rules that are applied to any other form of gambling. Kids shouldn’t be exposed to this


    2. johnnythexxxiv February 12, 2018 3:31 pm

      One thing this article highlights really well that most of the others don’t is that much of the time, a credit card can be set up for a parent’s account and their child can sign in under their own account and spend their parent’s money since the card is tied to the console itself instead of the account holder. That’s a problem for hopefully obvious reasons, and locking the card to an account instead still comes with issues (would have to manually log in every time you wanted to sign in to a game, creating hassle that no one wants to deal with). Punching in credit card info every time you make a purchase is probably the “smartest” way to do it, but that’s also a hassle, meaning that people aren’t going to spend anywhere near as much on recurring microtransactions, and major publishers are never going to let that happen if they can help it.


    3. Bilateralrope February 12, 2018 5:09 pm

      This bill does three things

      – Age restriction on lootbox games.
      – Forcing games to be upfront on if they have lootboxes.
      – Forcing developers to reveal the drop rates from lootboxes.

      I can see how the first one can be seen as something to “protect the people from themselves”. But what about the other two ?

      Giving people more information so that they can make a more informed purchasing decision is something I always view as a good thing. Especially when it’s important information that is currently withheld from the public. For example:
      – If a multiplayer game doesn’t have lootboxes today, there is currently no reliable way to know if it will have lootboxes added in an update tomorrow. Even if they say they won’t add them, they can change their mind. Under this law, developers/publishers have to state if the game will have them or not and they don’t get to change their mind later.
      – By not knowing the drop rates, we don’t know if one “legendary” item drops as often as all the others. Or if it drops at all. Or if the drop rate is altered for each person based on an algorithm designed to squeeze as much money out of each player as possible. Forcing devs to disclose drop rates lets us make decisions like “the thing I want has a 1% chance to drop, I’ll take the risk” or “the thing I want has a 0.00001% chance to drop, which isn’t worth the risk”.


      1. Realitystrikes96778 February 13, 2018 8:07 pm

        People can decide for themselves if they have enough information to make a purchase. We really don’t need the government looking after us all of the time. Also, the few games that I am familiar have a legion of website devote to information about the game, drop rates, how to obtain items, etc. Google is your friend. The government is not.


  2. EX+ February 12, 2018 1:03 pm

    Great job Mr. Lee, and everyone else who has contributed to these bills. No industry should be allowed to exploit the easily exploited with impunity and regulation. It’s not efficient.

    It’s now up to the consumers to keep pushing, in support of this legislation and in the direction of getting more introduced in other locations, and against predatory monetisation practices in the game industry used for profiteering.


  3. NoBS NoSpam February 12, 2018 1:17 pm

    If one is dumb enough to pay more 20 dollars once, then twice is how humanity weeds out the failures.

    Why is organic natural selection so evil if it includes imbeciles?


  4. MrGutts February 13, 2018 1:11 am

    Good, at least one state is doing something. Unlike the other States where they are getting corporate donations to NOT do anything.


  5. KozmoOchez February 13, 2018 3:46 am

    Good thing the law to stop the sale of mature rated games to people under 17 has kept children from playing games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. Oh wait…

    As someone who used to work at multiple locations that sold videogames, you are trained to warn these parents if it looks like they are buying the game for minors. The problem is, they don’t care. I’ll get the, “oh all the kids are playing, or “its fine my child plays this all the time”. Also, as someone already stated, these things can be added in later as updates. Call of Duty: World War 2 added it’s lootboxes a few weeks after launch. Star wars removed theirs and then readded them.

    The proper solution is to stop saving your card info on your children’s’ devices and monitor what they do. I know with PlayStation Network, Google Play, Steam, and I believe Xbox live that you get an email for every single purchase made, including those in-game lootbox currency purchases. If you are going to leave your card info on there for convenience, make it so that there’s a password required for each purchase, or at least attach it to an email address that you actually look at so you can see when things are being purchased.

    You don’t need to be a computer genius to monitor what your children are doing these days. These console companies go out of their way to make parental controls easy so they don’t get sued if kids get their hands on something they aren’t supposed to play. PSN’s last two or 3 updates all added more to the parental controls suite. Just do your job as a parent/guardian and read a little – you don’t even need to sit over their shoulders, everything will be automated.


    1. Bilateralrope February 14, 2018 4:30 pm

      How well have age limits worked at keeping kids from playing the lottery ?


      1. KozmoOchez February 15, 2018 7:12 am

        age limits only keep the kids from purchasing things themselves, doesn’t keep them from getting what they want. Age limit in US for drinking is 21 and smoking is 18 – how many kids under those ages are drinking and smoking? Some of which in their own homes with parent/guardian knowledge.


  6. Michael February 13, 2018 4:58 am

    So, does this also apply to Trading Card Games like Magic the Gathering? Because other than video game lootboxes, TCG boosters provide real resell value and could be much more considered as “gambling”. I wonder about this very narrowed down perspective on the real world. Magic the Gathering, Pokemon and other TCGs are here for years now.


    1. KozmoOchez February 13, 2018 6:19 am

      just an over-sensationalized response to the star wars thing. Mobile games have been thriving off of these types of transactions along with other console games now, but now that the precious Star Wars has been tainted, we must act.

      Activision Blizzard made $4billion in microtransactions alone last year. I know that’s not just loot boxes, but that’s a lot of money to be made AFTER the purchase of the game. They also said about half of that was from developer King, which makes Candy Crush among other mobile games…


      1. Aptonoth February 14, 2018 12:25 pm

        Mobile games are almost always free. If the big AAA publishers want to have a mobile economy then make your games free to play and people would have a lot less of an issue with it. They want fee-to-pay where you have the privilege to pay to pay more money to them.

        At this point BF2 is basically just a mobile game anyways. I see no reason to charge for it anymore when they make more money from loot crates and micro transactions. if anything keeping the price charge up front model is hindering those who would be willing to try their games.


  7. Brain Scan February 13, 2018 8:11 am

    yeah cus origin and steam check how old you are before you buy a game…NOT


    1. Ule || TSR February 13, 2018 11:40 am

      Steam always asks you to input your date of birth in orderto access certain titles for adults. Kids can easily fake their age in their account though.


    2. Bilateralrope February 14, 2018 4:38 pm

      So they have a choice:

      – Figure out an age check that works.

      – Stop stocking games with lootboxes

      – Keep breaking the law and facing punishment.


  8. Lucciano Bartolini February 13, 2018 11:40 am

    So the games that has the loot box system implemented in Battlefront II cannot be purchased by anyone below 21 years old?

    In other words, none of the people that were complaining about the loot boxes?


  9. Realitystrikes96778 February 13, 2018 8:01 pm

    By the same reasoning, stores should not be allowed to sell grab bags. Any restriction placed on the games are easily circumvented by purchasing the game online. If there are age restrictions, Mr. Lee needs to be reminded that people are legal adults at the age of 18. Extending the minority to 21 for purchasing a video is absurd. A marine comes back from war with an arm missing and you want some video store clerk to tell him he can’t buy a video game because he is only 20? Moronic.


  10. Robert Chartier February 14, 2018 5:42 am

    I’m in my fifties. I’ve played video games for close on 30 years, which was long before online games came about. The only time I’ve EVER gotten these loot boxes is when they were given away. (Elder Scrolls online recently had a week long event where subscribers were rewarded with one of their loot crates every day for logging in.) I have never purchased one, because I do some research on drop rates before I do. And I have NEVER seen favorable percentages on anything of real value.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email hawaiiwarriorworld@staradvertiser.com.