Know when to fold 'em

Age of the Geek Column: Well, they've gone and done it now.

Regular readers may be familiar with video game loot boxes and the controversy surrounding them, but, for those that need a refresher, here's the scoop. For years now video game publishers have shifted their business models from making video games as a one-time purchase to games as an ongoing service. This started with "downloadable content" (DLC), with developers continuing to create and sell new content for games after their initial release.

DLC has been controversial on its own, but has been generally accepted by the gaming market. But, publishers couldn't stop there. The more recent long-term monetization practice is the "loot box," where games sell progression, be it cosmetic or game changing unlocks, through a randomly generated process that encourages you to drop real dollars on the chance for something good.

It's a predatory practice perfected in free-to-play mobile games that has made its way to the AAA gaming market in various forms. Some games, like Blizzard's "Overwatch" have been relatively benign in their lootbox system. Loot boxes in "Overwatch" only unlock cosmetic items, with alternate costumes for the various characters being the most sought after prizes. While you can pay real money for the loot boxes, regular gameplay generally provides you with enough in-game currency to unlock the costumes you really want if luck doesn't go in your favor.

But then comes Electronic Arts, one of the gaming world's largest publishers, who just couldn't leave well enough alone. The company made national headlines last year when "Star Wars: Battlefront 2" neared launch with a loot box system that pushed the gaming community too far. The game's loot box system didn't just unlock cosmetic choices, but also game changing power-ups and characters. Meanwhile, the game provided such scant amounts of in-game currency, the amount of playtime needed to unlock favorite characters like Darth Vader was well beyond the realm of reason, making real money purchases the only practically viable option.

EA's overstep caused more than just a reaction from gamers. They've caught the attention of the government. Last week Hawaii legislators introduced two bills that would restrict the sale of games that implement a loot box system to people under 21, the legal gambling age in that state, and would require publishers to disclose up front the exact chances of a particular item unlocking in the randomly generated loot boxes.

If these bills pass in Hawaii, and ultimately get adopted nationwide, this would be game changing (no pun intended). The most popular games on the market, from "Overwatch" to "Fortnite" to "Call of Duty" would be restricted to players over the age of 18 to 21. Most retailers already refuse to sell AO (Adults Only) rated games and while the ESRB wouldn't necessarily have to change how they rate games, the result would probably be the same.

The effects would be massive in the mainstream gaming market, but they would be potentially devastating to the mobile market. As egregious as "Star Wars: Battlefront 2" was, it was nothing compared to the standard gacha game you might have on your phone right now.

As somebody that grew up through the 90s moral panic as congressmen looked to score political points by blaming all of society's woes on violent video games, it pains me to admit this, but I'm glad this legislation has been introduced.

There's a very lengthy debate to be had about whether or not loot boxes can technically be considered gambling, but it's undeniable that publishers are utilizing the same tactics that casinos use to manipulate people into giving the slot machine one more pull of the lever. If game publishers want to start acting like casinos, we need to start treating them like casinos.

Of course, the danger now is that legislators, who have never been particularly great at understanding the nuances of new media, will overstep in the other direction. Or their legislative efforts will fail to account for the many workarounds that are doubtlessly already being considered. After all, it's hard to create rules to reign in people whose job it is to find ways around rules.

The tragedy of all this is that none of it needed to happen. EA didn't need to adopt these predatory practices. Plenty of games out there make plenty of money by just being good games that sell a lot of copies.

But, for a company the size of EA, "plenty of money" is never enough. They want "all the money" and, like a game of Russian roulette, they'll always push and push and push for more until they end up shooting themselves in the foot.

Travis Fischer is a news writer for Mid-America Publishing and hopes the next EA game comes with a coupon for a $4 prime rib and a free drink.