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EA has loot boxed itself in with FIFA Ultimate Team | Opinion

Publisher is in the position of having to fix its gambling problem without admitting there's a problem to fix

Electronic Arts yesterday unveiled FIFA Playtime, a new feature for FIFA 21 players that allows them to see how much time and roughly how much money they've spent on the game, and to set limits on both.

"We built these tools with you in mind to give more transparency and control over your experience," EA said. "These are two steps in a long-term initiative, and there will always be more work to do. We want to continue leading the way with helpful solutions. Our hope is that we make it easier to remove barriers, so you can get to the fun faster and to make play positive."

Tools such as these should absolutely become the standard in this industry, and EA is among the first publishers with a loot box business model that has introduced such options for players. It is progress, and it should be welcomed.

Having said that, FIFA Playtime is also the most substantial acknowledgement yet that the incredibly lucrative FIFA Ultimate Team mode has had a negative impact on some players. (It's perhaps the only such acknowledgement beyond the decision to pull an ad promoting FIFA Points to children and a statement implying that was irresponsible on the company's part.)

Calling Playtime a fix for FIFA's problems may be overly generous, as EA did its best not to frame it as anything of the sort.

"The integration of both tracking and limits in FIFA Playtime is grounded in research that shows that having access to more information helps players feel comfortable with how they play," EA explained. "When combined with smart prompts to guide choices, players were able to better find a comfortable balance in their gaming."

EA finds itself in the position of trying to fix a problem without ever admitting it has one. As believers in the 12-step approach to addiction treatment would tell you, that might not be the best place to start

Going by EA's statements, this move is solely about comfort. It's not about addressing concerns over gaming disorder, because as an ESA member company, it argues games are not addictive. And it's certainly not about gambling disorders, because it says Ultimate Team loot boxes ("surprise mechanics," if you will) are not gambling.

EA finds itself in the position of trying to fix a problem without ever admitting it has one. As believers in the 12-step approach to addiction treatment would tell you, that might not be the best place to start.

The company's decision to gesture vaguely in the direction of shortcomings instead of identifying some concrete failure that this move addresses is understandable for a few reasons.

First of all, while EA is preaching transparency and comfort to parents and players, its lawyers are taking a very different stance on loot boxes, and any kind of public admission of wrongdoing could have undesirable implications in court.

It certainly wouldn't have helped EA last month, when a Netherlands District Court squashed the publisher's attempts to escape €10 million in fines (the maximum allowable amount) over FIFA violating the country's Betting and Gaming Act.

The court also dismissed EA's attempts to keep the fine from ever being made public, because the company's stated interest in transparency stops short of anything that would damage its reputation. Appropriately, the failed attempt to cover-up the fine only multiplies the reputational damage while undermining EA's attempt to tout transparency as a key value in the Ultimate Team discussion.

EA is appealing that court decision, so it's still going to argue that Ultimate Team is an utterly harmless bit of frivolity. And even if that appeal somehow goes EA's way, it is facing a rash of class-action lawsuits in the US and Canada -- three of them filed in the past three months -- over its Ultimate Team loot boxes and the patented ways it pushes players toward buying them.

Clearly, EA has understandable legal reasons for not talking about the elephant in the room here. But those reasons aren't necessarily the only motivations guiding the company's actions, or even that its steps to address concerns are being made in good faith.

EA also has plenty of direct financial incentive to drag its heels on this front, and it has done so for years. Ultimate Team was introduced more than 13 years ago, in EA's UEFA Champions League 2006-2007. It was adopted into the FIFA franchise the following year.

EA has more insight into FIFA Ultimate Team than anyone else possibly could. It has known how people engage with it for over a decade now

The mode was popular enough that by 2011 there was already a cottage industry of fraud built around it. As recently as 2017, EA CFO Blake Jorgensen was bragging about people spending 5,000 hours a year (an average of almost 14 hours every single day) playing Ultimate Team.

EA executives were less brazen about the clearly unhealthy and excessive engagement around Ultimate Team as pushback against loot boxes grew louder, but like the rest of the industry, they dragged their feet when it came to curbing it in any meaningful way.

EA has more insight into FIFA Ultimate Team than anyone else possibly could. It has known how people engage with it for over a decade now. Even as red flags came up, as gamers complained, researchers warned, and legislators threatened, EA's efforts to address the problem are the sort of marginal improvements that should have been implemented at the first sign of concern.

If lawsuits and regulators are going to put an end to EA's Ultimate Team mode, the publisher has incentive to stall it for as long as possible.

According to EA's annual reports, Ultimate Team modes made up 27% of EA's net revenue for its last fiscal year, or $1.49 billion. The year before that, they were $1.39 billion. The year before that, $1.18 billion. For fiscal 2017, the most recently completed year when Jorgensen made those comments, Ultimate Team revenues were $775.2 million, just 16% of the company's business.

Even as FIFA games get steadily decreasing review scores from critics and players alike, Ultimate Team modes bring in more money and make up more of EA's business

Even as FIFA games get steadily decreasing review scores from critics and players alike, Ultimate Team modes bring in more money and make up more of EA's business. Every year EA can put off having to meaningfully fix the problem is billions more in the bank.

At this point, the strategy appears to be parking the bus, retreating into a defensive shell and doing as little as possible to delay that worst-case scenario as long as possible. That might seem like a prudent, risk-averse strategy to those looking at EA's bottom line on a quarter-to-quarter basis, but it's a massive gamble in the long run.

There's a reason so many in the industry have pivoted away from loot boxes and toward Battle Passes and other recurring monetization schemes that aren't so nakedly fueled by gambling psychology. Beyond pushback from players and press, the potential regulatory and reputational damage that loot boxes could cause the entire industry is immense.

I understand EA isn't going to just pull the plug on a quarter of its business overnight without some dire existential threat forcing its hand. But I do believe responsible stewards of the business would be forward-thinking enough to see where all this is headed and begin weaning the the company off of Ultimate Team.

But as the annual report figures show, EA's executives instead are increasingly building the company around these modes, betting on their ability to escape regulation and litigation. They may be padding the bottom line in the near-term, but by doing so they're making any eventual reckoning that much more catastrophic.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.

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