So, after a humiliating few weeks for the ESA as it tried – and resoundingly failed – to stop any and all criticism or shirk any responsibility for the whole Loot Crate scandal, it seems the ESA has finally cottoned onto the rather important detail that this… this controversy isn’t going away any time soon.
Which is a good thing, by the way; I happen to think the way the ESRB failed to handle in-game microtransactions, particularly repetitious microtransactions such as Exp Bottles and Loot Crates, was a massive blight on its organisational reputation. And the games industry has come to realise that whilst $4 billion a year for Activision-Blizzard from microtransactions is a lot of money, such volumes of cash are meaningless if the end result is heavy regulation that turns that $4 billion into zero dollars and zero cents. Make no mistake; the games industry will take a -small- hit on these profits, rather than give them up.
The proposed solution is to add a label to games with “in-game transactions”. And that’s fine.
… but let’s be brutally honest about this – what game these days doesn’t have in-game transactions?
Think about it; games with good, solid DLC like Fire Emblem Warriors or Nioh are facing the same kind of categorisation as Star Wars: Battlefront II and Destiny 2, games built around exploitative loot crate mechanisms. We’ve had expansion packs for decades – hell, we were buying these things for PC Games in the 90’s for crying out loud, so it’s not a new thing and most people are aware of the idea that an expansion or substantive DLC pack means additional content. But they are, of course, “in-game transactions” now. Games regularly advertise their DLC packs in-game, which Nioh and Fire Emblem Warriors were both guilty of, and ergo they must be put into the same category.
People are saying this is a sign that this was rushed, or not thought through. I disagree. The ESA, and games industry, knows that a label for “in-game transactions” is utterly meaningless without specifics. It’s like warning labels on a jar of Peanut Butter saying “may contain nuts” – no, really? Couldn’t have figured that out. As such, without the specificity they can champion the good games with strong DLC packs like, say, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and bury the nasty, exploitative stuff underneath it. It’s like Switch games with labels like “requires additional download” or “requires an SD card” – I mean, I get it, but that goes without saying at this point surely? Games get big day-one patches before they are playable? Stop the press! I’ve also just heard from a reliable source that bears really do do their thing in the woods. More on this as it develops…
Of course, it’s that lack of specificity that is the point; if they were to label a game “contains Loot Crate mechanisms”, or even, “contains Microtransactions”, stores would be hesitant to stock them. Consumers would be reluctant, with all this Loot Crate stuff, to buy them. Clear labelling of what in-game transactions are being offered is… well… bad business. It clearly makes certain games undesirable by virtue of having to lug around a big warning label with “has Loot Crates” on the front cover!
This isn’t “rushed” or “ill-planned”; it’s exactly what the ESA and Games Industry want it to be. Deliberately vague and obtuse.
But it does have the short-term effect of saying to regulators across the world “we’re doing something, honest” – even though, in truth, they’ve done nothing more than create a meaningless symbol for the front of the box art that says something that we all know is going on in video games and has been for some time now. It buys the ESA time. It buys the Games Industry time. Precious days and/or weeks to figure out new solutions, or find that next cash-cow to milk.
That said, it needs specifics. And weirdly, those “specifics” could quite easily be marked with three symbols.
The first would be a “DLC” label; “This game sells additional downloadable content at or above $9.99” – basically, this covers your Season Passes and more substantial downloadable content stuff. Since most DLC is offered as a Season Pass these days, it can be considered part of the DLC package. Basically, the purpose here is to say – this game has, or is getting, DLC Content.
The second would be “MTX”; “This game sells in-game microtransactions for consumer convenience” – a charitable way to put it, but this covers weapon skins and perks as well as experience boosters and other various things like ‘Easy Fatalities’. It’s a thing and people can decide for themselves if this is worth a punt or two.
The final one for me would be “RLC”, or “Repurchaseable Loot Crates”; “This game sells loot crates or similar system with no in-game purchase cap” – that last bit is the important detail. Even Microtransactions can have limits, whereas Loot Crates and similar systems do not. They’re designed for people to keep purchasing them, without an in-game purchase cap.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need to even discuss this; but this isn’t an ideal world so eh. It’s good the ESA is at least making some sounds like it gives a toss and a half, despite how meaningless this gesture is and how it would affect everything. Hell, it will affect Pokémon I’d wager and don’t tell me that Pokémon Switch won’t have DLC or a Season Pass. It’s going to be everywhere and it still won’t in actuality seem to have any impact on the games overall market rating – it’s just another bit of text that says nothing much at all.
If the ESA means business on this front, it needs to be specific. Pedantically specific. And yes, that will mean such systems reflect on the overall game rating; or you detail on the box the kind of “in-game transactions” being offered here because not all transactions are created equal.
Without that, the ESA buys itself time. But it won’t be enough. And that time is running out as legislators work out how empty this gesture is and move forward with their own investigations…