Electronic Arts may not bring microtransactions back to Star Wars Battlefront II, the chief financial officer of Electronic Arts told a gathering of investors earlier this week. This is the first time EA has publicly acknowledged that the controversial money-making system may not return to the Star Wars game.
Also on Tuesday, one of the Hawaiian state representatives looking into EA's use of microtransactions in the game released a video calling for viewers to write their local politicians about the practice. State representatives Chris Lee and Sean Quinlan talked viewers through the process of creating a bill that would prohibit loot boxes to people who are under 21.
While the specter of government intervention into video games continues to threaten the game industry's long-fought independence from government oversight, the industry's major publishers and organizations all remain relatively quiet about any form of self-regulation when it comes to the use of microtransactions in video games. That could be in part because microtransactions represent such a large portion of the video game industry's income. Analysis group Superdata estimates that the transactions tied to free-to-play PC games accounted for $19 billion dollars of the industry's revenue in 2016, while traditional PC and console game sales only accounted for $8 billion.
Electronic Arts found itself at the heart of the controversy earlier this year when it released a beta for Star Wars Battlefront II that contained what players believed was an overly aggressive use of microtransactions.
While the game sells as a full-priced retail title, it was originally set to have a microtransaction system that asked players to invest extra time or money to unlock major playable heroes. The outcry, which resulted in the most downvoted comment (by EA) in the history of Reddit, led the company to temporarily pull the microtransaction system on the eve of the game's launch. It also led to comments from both LucasFilm and Disney, seemingly condemning EA’s approach to microtransactions in the game.
At the time, EA said that microtransactions would "become available at a later date, only after we've made changes to the game."
But speaking at the 37th Nasdaq Investor Conference on Tuesday, EA CFO Blake Jorgensen noted that microtransactions may not return to the game when asked about how the company is dealing with the backlash.
"Clearly we are very focused on listening to the consumer and understanding what the consumer wants and that's evolving constantly," he says. "But we're working on improving the progression system. We turned the MTX off as an opportunity to work on the progression system inside the game. We're continuing to do that. I think there's an update this week and again next week.
"Overtime we'll address how we will want to bring the MTX either into the game or not and what form we will decide to bring it into."
Meanwhile, in Hawaii, the video released by State Rep. Chris Lee offered some insight into the thinking of law makers there when it comes to microtransactions, something referred in the video as predatory gaming practices.
Lee points out that in working to draft a bill they are also trying to pave the way for lawmakers in other states to draft their own bills on the matter. Lee notes that his office has been receiving calls from politicians all over the country, noting specifically a state representative from Missouri asking about the law.
He also brings up the patent filed by Activision, and unearthed by Glixel, earlier this year for a system that seemed designed to tweak gameplay and the way players were paired up to try and get people to spend more money on those items. Activision later said the tech isn’t being used in any current games, but it raised some legitimate questions about how far a developer and publisher will go to squeeze out more profit from a released game.
Lee says that the first step is limiting predatory microtransactions and that he hopes that will be enough to get the game industry to change the way it makes money. He also called on viewers to start a grassroots movement to reach out to politicians in their areas about the issue. Lee even created a template "predatory game letter" that can personalized and sent to politicians.
In the letter, Lee draws a straight line between loot boxes and gambling, noting that the "loot box game mechanism is designed to exploit the same psychological responses that make slot machines addictive, posing a significant risk to vulnerable consumers" and that loot boxes are often designed to look like slot machines in how they pay out their non-monetary rewards.
The letter calls for politicians to limit the availability of loot boxes to those 21 and over, have loot boxes and the games that include them be regulated by the same groups that regulate gambling, require a clear disclosure of the odds of winning items in loot boxes, enable regulators to audit loot boxes.
Glixel has reached out to EA, the ESRB and the ESA for comment and will update this story when they reply.
While Electronic Arts hasn't responded to emails seeking comment from Glixel, nor has it done any interviews since the controversy started, this is the second time that CFO Jorgensen has discussed the issue with analysts.
Speaking earlier this week, Joregensen called the turmoil surrounding the game a learning experience.
"But it's been a great learning experience for us; we consider ourselves a learning organisation," he told the gathering of analysts. "If we're not learning, that means we're failing in some way and we're constantly trying to watch what people do and how they play and listen to them to decide what's the best way to build great games."