It feels like hardly a week goes by without some new controversy erupting in the triple-A gaming space. Over the past year we’ve seen all manner of outrageous stories emerge, from the gross mishandling of Anthem to NBA 2K20’s simulated gambling, to the shameless microtransaction-bonanza that is Ghost Recon: Breakpoint. It would be one thing if these were the only problems to arise over the past few months, but they aren’t. These sorts of developments have become a constant in AAA gaming and that’s a problem. It’s been a problem for a long time now; it’s a problem that will not just go away by itself and it’s a problem that could prove fatal if the industry doesn’t suck it up and start properly regulating itself.
In theory, the industry has been regulating itself since 1994 via the ESRB. The organization was originally established as a self-regulatory agency for the video games industry tasked with rating games according to their content. The idea was that these ratings would inform customers about what a given game contained and enable them to make an informed decision about buying for themselves or their children. It also kept the government from getting involved. This actually worked rather well for a long time, but now the situation has changed. Games are constantly patched and expanded these days, so ESRB-assigned ratings can be easily invalidated once a title’s launch window has passed.
Theoretically, a publisher can add-in anything they want after release and it won’t reflect in a game’s rating since the ESRB can only rate based on what a publisher shows them. They’re still not entirely innocent of course, the organization proved that when they failed to follow their own rules with NBA 2K20. All that aside though, there are deeper issues at play in the modern gaming industry that the ESRB is not at all equipped to handle; issues like microtransactions and loot boxes.
It’s been almost two years since the Star Wars: Battlefront II fiasco and yet loot boxes are still a hot-button issue. Rather than pulling away from them in the face of gamer outrage and government probing, publishers have only gotten bolder with their implementation of faux-gambling mechanics. Publishers like Rockstar and 2K aren’t even shying away from casino imagery anymore, even as government interest in the loot box practice continues to grow.
Microtransactions are more heavily implemented than ever before too, with publishers jamming them into games regardless of quality and companies like 2K showing no restraint in their scope. There is no check on these practices right now and publishers like it that way. They really shouldn’t though, because they’re setting themselves up for massively unpleasant consequences.
In the case of loot boxes and other pseudo-gambling mechanics, government intervention is looking more and more likely. If that happens, it won’t be good for anybody. Publishers having to go to the government to get a game approved and/or rated would likely slow down the process of bringing a game to market and possibly even drive up development costs due to the potential implementation of new fees. Gaming would be free of loot boxes, but it’ll have been saddled with another bureaucracy in the process. As for microtransactions, those will be defeated by lack of consumer confidence.
Microtransactions aren’t going anywhere; they’ve proven to be far too profitable to do away with. One can only aggressively push them for so long, however, before irreparable damage is done. Most of the profits generated from microtransactions come from a relatively small number of people: the so-called “whales.” They can be reliably counted on to engage with these kinds of purchases, so of course they’re the ones publishers target. In their rush for “whale” cash, however, they’re disregarding the majority of their audience; that’s dangerous. The likes of Activision, EA and Ubisoft have already driven away large numbers of customers with their antics and that trend will only continue to grow so long as these companies continue to push their undesirable practices. How many customers can one drive away before their games start losing money?
Business for AAA publishers is good right now, but it won’t last forever if they don’t buckle down and start behaving responsibly. Continuing on this current, self-destructive path can only end with either government intervention, loss of consumer confidence or both. Both outcomes are bad for business and the combination of the two could potentially spell the end for these companies. Taking advantage of consumers might be an easy thing to do, but it always catches up to the perpetrators eventually.