Microtransactions: Where Casinos and Gaming Converge

There's a fine line when it comes to "pay to win."

It’s all in the eye of the beholder. With the concern about millennials’ casino apathy (or, at least, casino gambling apathy), slot designers and other interested parties are doing their best to make electronic gaming devices more like video games. Players have, by and large, accepted engaging bonus rounds with the appearance of choice, but haven’t yet embraced games that genuinely mix skill and chance. Many, however, think that video game–like slots are the future of casino gambling.

At the same time, it looks like some video game publishers are trying to introduce more slotlike elements into their games.

The controversy of the moment is breaking around Star Wars Battlefront II.  The action shooter, the latest in a series published by Electronic Arts, came under intense fire itself after early reviews indicated that some of the game’s most anticipated features and characters could be unlocked only by grinding away for 40 hours—or using real money to buy premium currency that could in turn buy loot boxes.

Loot boxes are not new to Battlefront II. They are bundles that can be rewarded for hitting certain benchmarks or bought with in-game currency or actual money. When opened, they provide a randomized sample of in-game items. First appearing about 10 years ago, they have proliferated in free-to-play games—because, as Robert Heinlein said, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

What made the appearance of loot boxes in Battlefront II so distasteful to gamers was that the game already retailed for $60. Other similarly priced titles had also featured loot boxes, but they mostly had cosmetic additions, not items that could substantially impact game play. By the time Battlefront II’s beta testing was finished, word was out: Those who could afford to buy loot boxes would have an advantage in multiplayer mode.

Much of the debate that trickled outside of gaming circles centers on the question of whether loot boxes were gambling. That’s a question with a simple answer—and a complicated one.

By the best technical definition, to be considered gambling, something must have three elements: The player must risk (or “pay”) something of value on an unknown outcome with the hope of a benefit. An even easier way to look at it: What separates a slot machine from a soda machine? The former takes your money and sometimes gives you back more (but more often gives back nothing), while the latter, if it’s working, should always provide exactly the amount of soda you pay for.

Courtesy Star Wars Battlefront II/EA

Despite EA’s protests, loot boxes fit this definition. Players expend something of value (in-game or real currency) on an unknown outcome (the randomization process) in hopes of getting a premium boost or just something shiny. The justification that it’s not gambling because every box has something in it doesn’t wash; if it did, a slot machine that paid back a penny on every 50-cent bet wouldn’t be considered gambling.

That being said, many things that fit the definition of gambling aren’t considered gambling. Speculating in real estate or on the stock market has all the hallmarks of gambling, but it isn’t regulated by the Gaming Commission—as a society, we made the decision that, well, this form of gambling had sufficient social good attached to be let out of the gambling box. Church bingo and school raffles are other forms of gambling that are considered too benign to be “real gambling.” Even insurance can be considered a form of gambling, although you only get the benefit when suffering an additional loss on top of your paid-up premium. It might be that we decide adults betting on cards and slots is serious business, but kids and adults spending a dollar for a shot at a power-up isn’t a big deal.

To me, and to at least some gamers, the bigger issue is the creep of microtransactions, small in-game purchases that can add up to big money for game publishers. No one would begrudge someone spending their hard-earned cash on a snazzier look for their character or avatar, and it’s hard to argue against microtransactions in free-to-play games, because publishers and developer do have to eat. But when paying $60 no longer gets you equal access to full game play, a line has to be drawn. It would be like paying full-price for a movie ticket, then told in the theater to swipe a credit card to see the film’s conclusion.

The worst part about microtransactions is, unlike the is-it-or-isn’t-it loot box/gambling controversy, they are here to stay.

In that regard, video gaming might be borrowing something from hospitality in general and Las Vegas resorts in particular. For the past decade, some visitors have groaned at the growth of resort fees, mandatory surcharges on top of a hotel’s advertised room rate. At first, resorts justified the fees with a listing of “benefits” received (free Wi-Fi, local calls and gym access are a few popular ones), but it’s now accepted as a fact of Las Vegas life. These fees are substantial. The Venetian, for example, adds $39 (plus tax) per night. Resort fees are not exactly micro, but they are an unavoidable transaction.

Resort fees, though, are only the start. Some dining and drinking establishments assess a “Concession and Franchise” fee on their guests. This additional 4.7 percent charge, seen in small type on menus but in all its glory on the bill, pads the bottom line but offers nothing to customers.

Courtesy Star Wars Battlefront II/EA

Paid parking on the Strip is only the latest, and probably not the last, microtransaction that visitors to the tourist corridor now must bear. And while hardcore Vegas lovers and locals alike threatened boycotts over resort fees and paid parking, visitation is at or near an all-time high. Until the numbers drop, those pay gates in garages are not coming down—in fact, more will be going up.

In this regard, Las Vegas hospitality operators might want to borrow more than skill elements from video gaming. Immediately after the first uproar over Battlefront II’s in-game economy, EA responded by reducing the number of credits needed to unlock the most coveted characters by 75 percent. That, however, was not enough. Attempts to mollify its customer base bordered on farce—a reply by the EA Community Team’s official account in a subreddit dedicated to the game had, within four days of its posting, garnered the most downvotes in Reddit history (-676,000 points).

Keenly aware that a large portion of its fan base was responding to the game’s imminent release with downvotes, profanity and canceled preorders, EA responded again. Hours before the game’s scheduled November 17 release, EA and game developer DICE announced that all in-game purchases had been turned off. Battlefront II would not be pay-to-win, and gamers could enjoy the game on its own merits.

For now, at least. In his eleventh hour statement, DICE general manager Oskar Gabrielson promised to “spend more time listening, adjusting, balancing and tuning.” While crystal-purchasing was now offline, the ability to do so would “become available at a later date.”

Again, it’s not such a jump to paid Strip parking. Both MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment rolled out their pay-to-park initiatives with a grace period for locals. Now, however, a Nevada driver’s license and local goodwill gets you precisely nothing at the pay station. Which suggests that, while loot box purchases won’t be impacting game play in Battlefront II today, they will eventually.

This isn’t the casino/video game convergence we’ve asked for, but it might be the one we get.