The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) has announced they will be adding “In-Game Purchases” labels to video game covers. This is to alleviate issues related to accusations that loot boxes and in-game purchases can be considered gambling. The problem, however, is that this label covers too broad of a spectrum. When it inevitably ends up on virtually every video game cover, its impact is in danger of being diluted to the point of completely ineffectual.
The ESRB stated in a recent press release:
“The new In-Game Purchases label will be applied to games with in-game offers to purchase digital goods or premiums with real world currency, including but not limited to bonus levels, skins, surprise items (such as item packs, loot boxes, mystery awards), music, virtual coins and other forms of in-game currency, subscriptions, season passes and upgrades (e.g., to disable ads).”
While there’s nothing inherently wrong to red flag games containing random reward, gambling-like microtransactions as seen in recent games such as Battlefront II, the ESRB’s policy as defined above means that it won’t be specific to that. The warning will be plastered on games that contain any sort of additional paid content, and how many games in 2018 don’t have some form of season pass or DLC? The warning should be used to draw attention to either nefarious or potentially addicting microtransaction practices. While an everyday gamer probably knows the difference between a season pass and pay to win title, a parent buying a game for their child likely doesn’t.
The ESRB exists to police the video game industry without the assistance of the government, but this latest label policy misses the mark in a big way. It desperately needs refining. Specifically, removing season passes from the equation and differentiating between purchasable one-off cosmetic items and those contained in loot boxes. Paying for a cosmetic upgrade here and there is one thing, but once you’re simply paying for the chance to receive something, the practice is much more questionable and ultimately isn’t much different from gambling. Overwatch has caused quite the controversy with its loot box gamble for skins, with many players spending quite a bit of cash trying to get the specific ones they want.
On the plus side, the ESRB has provided useful resources for parents to further understand the new labeling. Parentaltools.org is an introduction and instructional website for parents to set up parental controls for their children. It links to instructions for a variety of different video game systems to make it simple for parents to stay on top of the changing landscape of microtransactions.
These are positive steps in the right direction, certainly, but more effort is required to articulate what sort of transactions parents should be most mindful of. The “In-Game Purchases” label is just a start in raising awareness about microtransactions, but definitely not enough on its own.
Thankfully, conversation on the issue doesn’t start and end with the ESRB. Many developers have chimed in on this issue since the Star Wars Battlefront II controversy back in November. And, at The Game Developer Conference (GDC) in March, there will even be a panel discussing these topics. The speaker CEO of Rex Media Company Daniel Greenbaker has a long history in the gaming industry working with publishers, such as Activision/Blizzard, ZeniMax, and Electronic Arts to name a few.
Other AAA developers have also been quick to call out what they consider shady industry practices with regards to microtransactions. CD Project Red’s Marcin Iwinski told PC Gamer:
“‘Conversation’ sounds way too nice to describe what was happening last year. I would rather call it community backlash,” says Iwiński . “And this time around, it wasn’t just the hardcore community, there were a lot of really pissed off gamers out there and they decided to speak up. Where we stand is quite simple and you could see it with all of our past releases—most recently The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and GWENT. If you buy a full priced game, you should get a big, polished piece of content, which gives you many, many hours of fun gameplay.”
Strong words on the topic from a beloved studio are exactly what many gamers want to hear right now. The issue is that games like The Witcher and the highly anticipated Cyberpunk 2077 are going to be hit with this new ESRB label due to their DLC structure. It’s shocking that there’s no effort made to distinguish the differences in structure between something like The Witcher and Need for Speed Payback. The Witcher offers DLC that expands the game over 40 hours, while Need for Speed: Payback offers purchasable cards that allow for permanent stat increases to players. This made for a pay-to-win model that is extremely dangerous to players, and their wallets.
President, CEO, and Founder of Gearbox Randy Pitchford has a large twitter thread stating his aversion to the microtransaction model. He believes in post-launch support in the form of DLC, and not having players pay for loot. Unfortunately, games like Borderlands and Battleborn would also be subjected to the label created by the ESRB. It’s a perfect example of how a blanket statement approach is completely ineffective, as it encompasses games that aren’t even the prime offenders.
While I commend the ESRB for taking some form of action to inform consumers, what we really need is for the loot box and microtransaction problems to be dealt with swiftly and properly. Ultimately, contrary to ESRB President Patricia Vance’s insistence, this label feels more like a half measure than an effective one.