EA insists it is not pushing players into spending money in its FIFA Ultimate Team mode, following a leaked marketing document.
Ultimate Team is a game mode where players build their own football teams. These teams can be improved by obtaining coins and buying mystery packs of players -- also known as loot boxes -- in the game. These packs can be obtained through the game, or players can buy them with real money. It's a hugely lucrative mode, but it has come under fire from players, media and even politicians, with investigations ongoing as to whether it should be classed as a form of gambling.
A leaked marketing document from CBC yesterday revealed that the firm wanted to funnel players from the game's other, non-monetised modes to Ultimate Team, with the aim "to convert" them. It describes the mode as the cornerstone of FIFA and that "we are doing everything we can to drive players there."
However, in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz, FIFA's VP of brand David Jackson says the document was a specific campaign that ran during the summer last year, and the "incentivized to convert" line is in reference to convincing players to move from FIFA 20 to FIFA 21.
"Realistically, Ultimate Team is the most engaged mode that we have," Jackson explains. "It is also the mode that is updated most regularly with the latest and greatest content. Engagement is the No.1 success metric that we have as a company. If we want players to play, that is the place where we want them to experience and receive the ability to engage with the latest content. Especially in the summer months. We're a football title, so in-between football seasons, there isn't a huge amount of real world interactivity that we can create. But we can create that engagement in Ultimate Team. And that is the reason why we like players to be playing and engaging during that bridge period between cycles. It's not about monetisation, it's about engagement for players."
He continues: "In that summer period where the engagement rolls out from one game to the next, we want players to be engaged with the content and the real-world of football -- so summer transfers. If you google it, Summer Heat was a programme that we ran between 20 and 21, which celebrated the summer and celebrated the fact that was when transfers happened in the real world of football. And if you wanted to engage with that content, Ultimate Team was the place where we held that new content."
EA says it does not encourage young players to spend in its games, and suggests the use of family controls to prevent such behaviour.
"It's important to say that we never push people to spend money in the game. We do encourage engagement in the game, and every single item that you'd like to engage with in that mode can be engaged with for free. Play is the No.1 success metric, it's not about incentivising people to spend."
Jackson is in charge of brand at FIFA. He's responsible for the marketing, so he isn't best placed to discuss the political issues the game faces, or answer questions as to why it's not using a more palatable monetisation method like season passes.
In his view, the marketing activity it was running last summer was simply about keeping its community engaged with the title via the one mode that was still actively being supported. During the football season, EA can keep people coming into FIFA by linking the game to the main sport -- for instance, allowing users to act out and play the matches that were going on that weekend. That's not possible during the summer, which is why Ultimate Team becomes more of a focus.
"Nothing in that document contradicts our position, which is that engagement is our No.1 success metric"
Nevertheless, Ultimate Team is still the monetised mode of FIFA. And although EA insists the game doesn't encourage people to spend money, and that loot box mechanics are not akin to gambling, it's not a view shared by some of its more vocal fans and influencers.
In addition, Jackson may see a distinction between keeping players engaged and promoting the monetisation methods, but that's why engagement is so important. A more engaged audience typically means one that is willing to spend more money on the product.
"Our job is to inspire the world to play. Play is the metric, and engagement is how we define that success," Jackson defends. "Monetisation regularly follows that, but not always, and it's certainly not here."
EA's decision to respond to the latest story reflects the ongoing sensitivity and controversy around Ultimate Team. The mode is the most popular part of FIFA and a significant part of EA's revenue, but its monetisation has been heavily criticised and debated both within and outside of the games business. It's a situation that continues to not just plague FIFA and Ultimate Team, but the games industry as a whole.
"It's important that we offer the opportunity for people to understand our perspective," Jackson says. "Ultimate Team is one of the most popular game modes in the world, it's got millions and millions of fans engaging with it every single year. And I think the narrative on it at the moment is challenging, through sensationalist reporting a little like this. But the opportunity to discuss with people like yourself offers a balance point-of-view."
He concludes: "Nothing in that document contradicts our position, which is that engagement is our No.1 success metric. We want players to play. Nothing in there contradicts that. Nothing in that document concerns us. I think it has been taken out of context, and I think some of the reporting hasn't been as balanced as it should or could be. It's the reason why we wanted to have this discussion."