On “Where do you get your ideas from?”

If you would ever like to divest yourself of hero worship for creative types, look at their responses to the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” This cure is a little stale now as somewhere along the way somebody must have realized how insufferable they sounded and there are now thoughtful answers to this question, but I’m sure you can still find some sneering ones without too much trouble. The problem is that this question seems to sit at the intersection of a few forces that steer otherwise well-meaning people away from honest or helpful answers. First, the question implies that you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ and that your opinion is sought after, so there’s a bit of ego at play. Second, if you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ whose opinion is sought after, you likely hear this question a lot, so exasperation is likely to set in even for the most stoic or well-meaning of talents. Finally, as someone who is, in fact, A Creative Person™ whose opinion is currently being sought after, the expectation is that you would at least have the basics of your craft in hand, and what could be more fundamental than ideas, and what do you mean you don’t know where the ideas come from I hate you and hope you die! That is, the person being asked may not know, or may have an answer so idiosyncratic as to be less helpful than “I don’t know.” Even before we acknowledge that this isn’t an especially well formed question, all the incentives are aligned against an honest, straightforward answer. I’d like to share some thoughts on the question, its answer, and how people generally think about creativity.

What are you talking about?

What do we mean when we ask the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? We’re looking for the prime mover, the answer to a bank page, a pitch that will seduce a publisher/distributor/producer, a hook that a listener can’t get out of their heads, the inspiration that gives you all the right words and reduces the job to putting them down one after the other, you know, ideas. The problem is that these are very different things. The ability to confront a blank page is as much a matter of work ethic and an understanding of grammar or the ability to draw fundamental shapes as it is creativity. A pitch is a marketing device if anything and implies some underlying object (even if you haven’t figured that part out yet) of which just an enticing glance is given. The hook, like the amorphous inspiration, assumes that there is no creativity beyond the high concept and that you basically slap a drum track or some prepositions on and get ready for release. These are all different problems at different stages, and doesn’t even cover the people who just want to see the making of documentary.

There’s no ironclad rule that says there are general elegant solutions that encompass all variations of this question. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that someone who is, in fact, A Creative Person™ is equipped or inclined to generalize their instances of creative thought into principles that encapsulate the other cases. At its core, the question deals with a problem at some point in a creative endeavor and has created two categories ‘not creative’ (things I have done) and ‘creative’ (things I haven’t done/feel I can’t do). The creative category becomes overvalued because of its scarcity and the not creative category is undervalued because of its abundance. Anyone who has been consulted as a subject matter expert (even if it’s just making a cup of tea), presented the most trivial of solutions, and then been heralded as a saviour will have encountered this. As outside observers we know that what this aspiring creator is really looking for is something they already have inside themselves, but we lose this perspective when it applies to our own case.

Who are you to say all this?

I am not, in fact,  A Creative Person™. I know this because I found it out in a bar during a conversation with a stranger. She was an artist (primarily sketches), and her process involved something like banging two live chickens together to the rhythm of Slavic folk tunes played by a mad piper while dressed in yeti hair followed by an invocation to the muses in a tongue that only they can understand. I offered that I find the ability to draw very admirable since I used to do it quite a bit when I was in school but I have always been frustrated by the fact I could never make the shapes and forms I wanted to. I added that it was this frustration that tended to drive me to my own creative outlets such as photography since I felt that I had to take the world as given and found satisfaction in using the technology to shape it the way I saw it. “Well that’s not real creativity!” And so the matter was settled. Now it is likely that someone who knows a little of my biography might protest and say “For heaven’s sake you worked in film! On stuff that was actually popular and lots of people have seen!” Yes that, and any other number of examples, but I happen to think all of them boil down to a similar problem solving process to the photography example, and we already know that’s simply not real creativity.

The silliness of the conversation aside, there seems to be a certain presumptuousness in writing an article like this. I have been asked where I get my ideas from, but generally the assumption is that some kind of essay on the topic should only come from someone with some credentials. I have none, but then, I was under the impression the question was about ideas instead of fame. One advantage to being nobody of consequence is that there is the least possible risk of having superhuman abilities attributed to me. Despite myself, I think some talents just have the magical ability to make work easy, or have internalized enough of their process to make it automatic, or otherwise have some black box that produces stupendous results. This thinking brings us back into territory better suited to the ritual with the chickens above. More importantly, if we’re concerned about becoming famous the advice is totally different than if we’re concerned about achieving particular creative outcomes. Some mute inglorious Milton has less to offer us on the subject now than he might have, so now seems as good of time as any to tackle the subject and I can do so without any fear of notoriety getting in the way. And what if my ideas suck? Then you’re even further behind than you thought and should attend to the next passages closely.

Initial ideas and settings

Is there an idea from which all other inspiration can flow? If the creative challenge is getting started, then yes, an exciting idea can have value over and above its merits as a starting point. In my own case, this is because it creates boundaries and restrictions I can kick against to get some momentum (again, creativity as problem solving), but for others it may simply be the catalyst that gets them into a state of playfulness where their imagination can take them where they go. Of course, for this subset of people we have an answer to the question “I get my ideas from the setting.” Unless you happen to fall into the subset of people for whom the only block is an initial idea, it is fairly easy to establish how an initial idea or high concept won’t get you very far. Here is an  initial idea that is behind some of the most well known and best selling stories you can think of: The dead come back. Return when you have your blockbuster and feel free to cut me in on a percentage.

Chances are this idea offered relatively little inspiration, and what inspiration it did provide was probably cliché. And yet this idea has animated everything from Dawn of the Dead, Frankenstein, Osiris, Dracula, the gospels, The Crow, The Walking Dead, A Christmas Carol, Orpheus, Poltergeist, Ghostbusters, and thousands more. It is impossible to say that this idea hasn’t resulted in good creative works (and I’ve limited myself to stories), but this is hardly the breakthrough anyone is looking for. One might object “But these stories aren’t just about the dead coming back” and I would agree, but I don’t think adjusting the example is going to yield some fountain of inspiration. Embedded in the objection is thought that there is another idea that makes these stories ‘work.’ This is likely true and should reinforce how unimportant ‘one perfect idea’ really is. Let’s say we want to steer our story towards a genre, what can we add to our initial idea of the dead coming back (you might want to try some of your own):

  • Family is mourning their recently departed grandfather, unaware of the medical staff running to an emergency elsewhere in the hospital. Young child, coming back from getting a candy bar down the hall passes by the room with the death bed, looks overjoyed at something off camera, offering it his candy and says “Grandpa! Would you like a piece?” (Domestic drama. Apparently this is very similar to something that happens in The Walking Dead: The New Frontier so… take 2)
    • Child on a farm has lost his beloved pet dog and is in the process of tearfully burying it. The child takes a moment for one last look at the dog in the grave before continuing, but his expression turns to surprise when he sees the dog’s tail start wagging, and then joy to see his dog is alive and barking, and jumping up to see him. He reaches down and then… (Domestic drama.)
  • The President/Prime Minister is visiting wounded soldiers in a remote location. A dead soldier comes bursting in from the other room lunging after the leader, impervious to the efforts of the guards. (Action)
  • The reanimated body of a woman hires a detective to investigate her own murder. (Detective. If she lights up the room, Noire)
  • A man is using a public restroom during (unknown to him) the outbreak of a zombie apocalypse. He feels a shudder from the next stall then suddenly moaning, groaning and erratic movement. It seems to pass until his neighbour’s disruptions come back with even more violence. (Comedy)

These don’t just limit themselves to the dead coming back but are variations specifically on zombies (except, perhaps, the detective story depending on whether or not you think zombies should be mindless). I’m not especially attached to any of these ideas except maybe the last one, and it is a little uncomfortable to share raw material like this in a public post, but since I am not, in fact, A Creative Person™, I don’t have the luxury of chopping the heads off ideas that displease me at first sight. Reservations aside, even the worst of these is more exciting to me than the generic ‘the dead come back to life.’ What this should illustrate is that we at least need idea plus another idea, and in all likelihood it’s a big series of ideas that we need, none of which have any special significance.

A stream of ideas

It is not reassuring to go searching for one idea to solve a creative block and find out you actually need a series, but this should be a liberating realization. Any single idea is no longer burdened with the success of the entire work and so the stakes are much lower. If the entire project hinges on the idea ‘the dead come back’ then the overall enthusiasm for the project is going to be low. This may be where the disconnect between authors’ answers of “ideas are everywhere” and the audience’s perception that they’re hard to come by occurs. If you are accustomed to culling ideas that don’t immediately implement themselves, then the daily censorship of ideas is likely going to pass by unnoticed. If we don’t internalize the suppression of ideas against an impossible standard, we will be more likely to notice them when they come.

The problem with the examples above is that while they may tickle a certain interest, they mostly are scenes rather than full works. Simply generating a lot of scenes in hopes that some subset can be strung together is inefficient and is going to be suited only to ‘one scene after another’ stories. While it’s probably not advisable that someone starting from “Where do you get your ideas from?” to tackle something like their own Finnegan’s Wake, it’s not especially helpful to work on things that don’t interest you either. What these are best seen as are exercises to get us out of the habit of dismissing things out of hand and more into a state of playfulness where making things up is an end in itself. Even then, we still need to contend with the fact that little vignettes into these imaginary worlds do not resemble the kind of finished product we were hoping for from the initial question, and so we might want to learn how to manipulate or structure our nascent stream of ideas.

I suspect the idea of ‘not real creativity’ probably starts at the idea of putting structure around ideas, so if you are doubtful about this step, it might be a good idea to look at some after action reports (AAR) on strategy wargame forums, or RP content for certain RPGs. Games are structured, and wargames especially so, but this has not stopped people from writing stories of Douglas McArthur, the American Caesar, or the licentious, violent, Machiavellian saga of the House of Rose. The aim here is to direct your energies towards a particular train of thought rather than just collect random pieces. Again, I view a lot of these things as problem solving, so I already have a very structured way of thinking about it, but we’ll see how this can be adapted to other ways of thinking. Usually I like to ask questions like “Why?” “Then what?” “Who?” or if I’m in a rather nasty mood “So what?” “Who is this jerk?” “Why should I care?” Let’s go back to ‘the dead come back.’

  • Why are the dead coming back?
    • They like it here more than the afterlife
    • Angels and demons went on strike
    • They feel the mortal world needs their help

These invite their own questions. How are the dead coming back to life? Zombies, ghosts, vampires, skeletons, plain old ordinary people? Were the angels and demons always uinionized? Why hasn’t this happened before? Maybe it did and all those stories of resurrection we’ve heard were cases where that happened and it has caused so much trouble on Earth with new religions being formed that they do everything they can to avoid it. I personally am partial to the idea of using ghosts for the 3rd idea because it inverts the old trope of ghosts having ‘unfinished business’ and instead are so dismayed by what they’ve heard going on here they need to sort things out. You may notice some themes coming up or ‘real world things the story might be about’ hiding underneath. These aren’t deliberate, but it’s hard to deny they’re there once you see them. Hang on to those, they’ll come up later.

It’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t an exercise in worldbuilding. Personally, I only think you should come up with enough background or motivation for what you are portraying in so far as you find it useful. You may want to have a bit of a story for that person in the painting, and maybe it’s useful for you to know that your main character is a single mom even if it never comes up in the short story. But as in life character is demonstrated in unusual and unexpected ways. I have a very senior coworker who is genuinely feared by people outside my department and who is a beloved mentor to three other people I know and has been very congenial and invested in my development. At another job there was a gentle, positive, vegan, sweetheart who had been working there for a while but became violently angry when she saw a knife had been put away in such a way someone could get hurt. You may never have to portray how a character behaves when their order gets messed up at a coffee shop, but it will likely get you thinking about how they behave in other situations.

Since I have a more systematic way of approaching these kinds of questions, it makes sense that the examples above tend to follow a thread one after the other. If you are, in fact, A Creative Person™ this may not be the way your mind works. Let’s go back to the scenes above and see how the approach can work in a slightly less linear approach. For the boy and his dog, why are domesticated animals coming back from the dead? Because it is frightening to have loved ones turn on you. If the source of the zombie outbreak isn’t explained, you don’t really need to concoct some reason yourself, but the idea that ‘things that were once friendly to us are now hostile’ can inform quite a bit of the story. Wild animals don’t come back because we’re already afraid of wild animals and they can already cause us harm. Friends, relatives and pets do come back. Living friends and relatives may also turn on us only through the pressure of the situation. All more or less standard tropes of the genre, but a pretty clear decision rule that results in consistency (pets do not rise from the dead at only dramatically appropriate moments for example). The detective doesn’t have a sex listed. Are they a man or a woman? Does the society even conceive of categories beyond the two? Is the detective less respected because she’s a woman? Is this why client chose her? Do the dead normally ask for independent investigation into their own murders or is this a special case? There are obvious questions for a more linear approach like “What happens next?”, “Whodunit?” or what have you, but there really isn’t that much to this story yet beyond a high concept and so you can pull them from anywhere (are necromancers mob bosses? Seems an obvious choice, but if you were dead wouldn’t you like to come back? What if necromancers are doing works of charity?). However you choose to work, a lot of this simply boils down to saying to yourself “tell me more…”

Choosing the right ideas

We might have taken some of the pressure off for individual ideas, and we may have a few different prompts to direct the flow of ideas, but there is no assurance that any of this is easy to do. Like anything, practice will make it easier to get into a playful state that lets you start to roll off ideas one after another. Sometimes it’s also just an acceptance that some of it is going to be bad, getting it out and moving on. Even asking why something is a bad idea might invite an answer that is itself a good idea (“And then the main character wakes up and it was all a dream.” Lame. “And he’s arrested because of the contents of the dream.” Maybe there’s something we can work with there). A collection of ideas is not the finished work that is implied in the correct answer to “Where do you get your ideas from?” and at some point we need to decide what ideas are worth following and fit in.

Creative works are about something. It may not be consciously felt, or it may be a remarkably trivial subject, but there is something that motivated that particular work. I tend to find that the ideas that excite me or interest me can ultimately be traced back to some kind of subject or concern that have caught my attention, even if I discover it long after the fact. For example, I rather like the idea that the dead are coming back because they prefer existence on Earth to whatever lies beyond. Why does this interest me? I suppose because it seems the most extreme possible extension of the concern that the previous generation is continuing to burden the next one through deficits, Brexit, underinvesting in education and infrastructure, etc. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse *bam* “Nah, we prefer it here. Think we’ll stay. Forever.” I’m also attracted to this idea because I love the idea that all previous generations had a choice and for some reason this is the one that decided to go back because of boredom. It taps into another  concern that we’re amusing ourselves to death and are losing the ability and inclination to engage with long term projects that are to our benefit. Plus, there’s something great about seeing someone arrive at heaven, see that there’s only 2 bars of mobile reception and peace out.

The important thing here is that the ‘what is this about’ element should never appear as a sledgehammer to beat you over the head with. If you absolutely must get it out of your system, give a character a monologue about everything that is wrong in society, then cut it out and put it a blog. This isn’t limited to narrative either. I’m sure you can imagine a modern reimagining of Sisyphus for amusement with two further prompts ‘first year art project’ and ‘sly ribbing of guilty pleasures’ to get the idea. This is a two way street. Once I started thinking about why the idea attracted me my mind wandered to the thickening of borders (I told you, I am not, in fact, A Creative Person™). What if the afterlife was no longer taking immigrants because we’re not sending them our best? The dilemma I face with this one is that now that I know it’s about immigration I need to work at throwing away the cheap ‘messages’ and instead focus on interesting implications (Bad: “God is just like Trump. I don’t think anyone was expecting that.” Cute, will get an applause from people who want to focus on the Old Testament, clever in a way but feels like pandering. Better: “There has been a slow and steady thickening of the border between the mundane and the supernatural which is why we don’t have miracles any more.” I like this because it makes things more complicated and there are more things to explore and do in this setting, while making the God emperor the, well, God Emperor doesn’t get me as much).

This is ultimately what people are talking about when they say that ideas are everywhere. They come from you and your interests. You simply have to take an interest in the world around you. This means reading, looking at art, looking at comics, watching movies, playing games, and actively doing it. Grand Theft Auto V has a lot of fun bits. Why did I find them fun? Why do I find them fun in a way I don’t find Grand Theft Auto III as fun? When people say they’ve become more politically active, does this mean they just talk about the federal level more often or do they know who the mayor is and the composition of the city council? To be perfectly honest, a lot of the time when I write something I am just trying to figure it out. I may never post it or even look at it again, but there was something bugging me, I got it out of my system, and I could move on to something else that I found interesting.

One last thing that drives me, and I think this is a useful guide in general, is that I do genuinely enjoy entertaining people. If I can spin a good yarn, tell a good joke, or otherwise delight someone I get tremendous pleasure from that. As a result whenever I have a game idea I tend to go out and ‘pitch’ it to some strangers. I know I’ve done well if the person I am talking to has a smile on their face that they can’t help and I live to see that reaction. This is almost a non-starter for some people because social interaction isn’t high on the list of skills or priorities, but presumably you’re writing for someone and it’s helpful to have friends along the way for mutual support. Since you’re already taking an interest in things, why not take an interest in the most interesting thing: people. It’s not like you’re trying to sell them something, you are trying to amuse them.

“But what if they steal my ideas?” This is the kind of thinking that has hopefully left us since we realize that an individual idea doesn’t matter very much. Furthermore, what matters to you won’t matter in the same way to the audience. The same way that your own work won’t be a copy of all the material you read before, anyone who hears your pitch and is inspired by it is going to bring their own experience and talent to bear. Maybe it will be better than yours (assuming against the far more likely case that they are working on their own ideas), but then, you would never have made what they did anyway.

If it helps to imagine idea generation as a process think of it this way: We have a series of interests and concerns that are usually the raw material for our creative work. These can be grand themes like concerns about spiritual fulfillment, or immediate needs like needing a glass of water. Usually these concerns show up in disguise as “What if X happened?” or “Wouldn’t it be interesting if X?” The first step is to learn to recognize them and get in the habit of acknowledging that we are throwing away potentially useful material every time we dismiss them as distraction or ‘not good enough.’ Having recognized our ability to generate ideas, we can direct our imagining by probing areas we find most promising. Maybe none of the background noise in your head was that interesting. What’s your favourite genre? What haven’t you seen in it yet? What’s your least favourite genre? How would you improve it? The aim here is to focus our attention to turn it into a creative work. We may not need to formally select ideas that we’re most happy with, but recognizing what’s behind them will allow us to shape the finished product around them, and let the most interesting parts of what we’re doing shine.

It’d be nice if this was all constant and automatic, but it usually isn’t. Sitting down and doing the work (again, acknowledging that when we aren’t feeling in the mood we’ll probably need to go through some bad ideas) is a hard but important way to start things off. Sometimes when the work has already been underway, an interruption in routine is needed. This is where going for a walk or taking a bath or any of the other ‘side projects’ come in. It’s really important to be clear what is being done here (you are not slacking off, and be honest with yourself when doing this), but sometimes if you have committed yourself to an unproductive train of thought, you need to disrupt the routine and let your mind wander. Your concerns will come back to you and you will return to that more playful state as you do something else until a new path presents itself. It may not even be the magic solution you were looking for, just another perspective that leads you down a path that leads you down another path that brushes alongside something that might be a solution. It’d be great if ideas came when we needed them, but often we need to clarify things for ourselves, and the false positives are just chances for us to work things out. This is a way of working that allows us to make the most of what we have at a given time, rather than just for a miracle to occur.

Building the work

The business of making a work out of the raw material of ideas is much more than idea generation itself. If it’s a written work then you need to understand grammar, pacing, characterization, and all the other elements that go into a good novel or a short story. Visual works will need to work with form, colour, composition, and the like to convey the idea. A game needs systems built and ways to convey an idea without reducing the player to a passive observer. Mastery of your craft will allow you to present your idea in the best possible way and create something special.

That’s the big mistake behind “Where do your ideas come from?” Getting a good idea does not bring you any closer to the implementation of an idea, and people only ever get to see the implementation. But style and even the basics are only ever going to be internalized through practice, and you need something to practice on. If you want to see style without a worthwhile idea behind it, feel free to watch as many commercials as you’d like. Excellent craftsmanship, but commercials that attempt to present any serious message tend to be the rightful objects of derision (Pepsi is not the official pop of #TheResistance). We really are hungry for good ideas and worthwhile topics, and so we’re willing to put up with imperfect presentation. Shakespeare at high school is still pretty good theatre.

Getting ideas may not be the hard part, but they do hopefully make the hard part easier to work with. I am always delighted to see something with interesting ideas behind it, as much as I am interested in exploring those ideas myself. The best ones seem to demand expression and provide enough motivation to keep going through. I can’t offer anything on the particulars on implementation, but if you ever happen to find me in a bar and you’ve got a good idea, I’d really love to hear it. I like smiling despite myself.


Loot boxes and addiction

In a few short months gamers — or rather the vocal subset of gamers often mistaken for the whole — have become experts in psychology. Fresh off a righteous crusade against the addictive properties of loot boxes, there was no time to bask in their accomplishments since our fair hobby faced an even greater foe: the dastardly inclusion of gaming addiction (or gaming disorder and hazardous gaming to be precise) in the draft update to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). It is sometimes expedient to forget what we know, and so overnight we began to hear that the science wasn’t in on the relationship between gaming and addiction, that there were far more important problems to deal with, and that the inclusion of such a farcical concept as gaming addiction wasn’t just an insult to the already highly bullied gaming community, but was, in fact, trivializing those with legitimate mental health issues. I have a different view.

This series began with an article describing loot boxes as a microtransaction intended to offset the increasing costs of video game development and produce a steadier stream of revenues than traditional expansions would provide. A companion article addressed the question of gambling and how arguments focusing on it gained traction due to rhetorical convenience rather than their merits for recommending policy. Some time has passed since the original article and so the opportunity I saw for an interesting discussion on addiction in gaming seems to have passed us and instead has been replaced with armchair psychology with regards to the ICD-11. In this article I’d like to address some specifics about the implementation of loot box systems, and attempt to reintegrate the discussion of addiction with regards to gaming.


Loot boxes are a system designed to optimize for revenue. The same can be said for games in general, but specifically the design of a loot box is such that it is intended to maximize the revenue coming from a player directly for a given piece of content. This is not unlike designing a layout for a store (putting gum and tabloids at the checkout instead of furniture and appliances) or offering different subscription bundles over a la carte options, and so the practice is less sinister than it sounds. What it means is that if a feature of a loot box reduces expected revenue, it is likely going to be cut, while if it increases revenue it will be adopted.

The existence of ‘coin muncher’ style arcade games tells us that directly optimizing on revenue isn’t something new to gaming, but it is a practice that we’re becoming reacquainted with given the reduced costs of digital distribution. Often games will optimize for time, though this is more commonly described as making it more fun. As commercial products, games will want to maximize for revenues eventually, and optimizing for time is an indirect way to accomplish this. More time spent in a game generally correlates with enjoyment, and enjoyment means word of mouth which increases sales. Generally both optimizations complement each other and work in concert, since making a player want to spend more time in a game will ultimately translate into another coin being put into the machine when the game over screen appears. These two optimizations are most apparent in a subscription MMO where the game optimizes on time in order to justify the fee, but goes back to technologically constrained games that increased the difficulty (and so playtime) in order to justify the price.

Optimizing for time is part of a larger trend beyond gaming. A key performance indicator for many apps is the amount of time spent in the app, and a lot of time and attention is spent on maximizing this. Snapchat is probably one of the most manipulative examples of this through techniques such as sending push notifications when someone is typing, setting timers and reminders that you have a streak going with someone (with the attendant sense of obligation to keep the streak going), and setting various badges based on your activity. YouTube defaults to autoplay, despite the fact that you or I have never met someone who has ever wanted this feature to be enabled, and Facebook and Twitter have now taken to push notifying us about other people’s activity that does not relate to us.

While I try to quarantine my tastes when writing about these things, I can’t help but say that I’m not particularly happy with this current state of affairs. I came to this conclusion when trying to schedule out days. In it I did my absolute best to give fine detail in terms of when I would do certain things and how much time I should dedicate to it. I reflected that time in apps probably should be accounted for. From this there was a natural extension: How much time did I want to spend in those apps vs. how much time did I actually spend in the apps? I know that I spend a lot more time on certain platforms than I would want to, and that you probably do as well. In my own case, I know this extra time spent in the platform comes at the expense of really fulfilling activities: I don’t read as much as I would like to, and I have skipped scheduled writing sessions to play a game or browse through Twitter and YouTube. I’m aware of this and yet I still catch myself not spending the time as I would like. Could this be a difference between my stated preferences and what I actually want? Could it be that political economy just really isn’t as interesting as cute photos of dachshunds and that my choices reflect my true preferences? Is this anything more than a technological update over the lament that people are spending more time reading tabloids and horoscopes over local news? Perhaps, but it seems to me that a proper discussion on the regulation of techniques that optimize for revenue applies just as well to techniques that optimize for time. From this it follows that we should be talking about gaming addiction in general instead of focusing on gambling addiction.

Tricks of the trade

Added value

A player puts a coin into a slot machine. I refresh my notifications on Twitter. We both wait a completely arbitrary period of time, wondering if we’ve hit the jackpot. There is no technological reason for the wait and yet its presence is vital for both activities. What is happening during that wait?

Recall the exercise from the previous section: estimate the amount of time you believe you would like to spend doing certain activities during the day and then measure the time you actually spend doing them. The difference between your stated time and the actual time spent on apps is where the possibility for regulation lies. For money it’s a matter of asking how much you believe you want to spend on gaming vs. how much  you actually spend. In fact, this seems like a straightforward empirical exercise: take a random sample, get them to fill out a survey, dividing them into treatment (expose them to all the tricks) and control (give them versions of the apps without the tricks) groups, and then look at the difference in behaviour. Unfortunately there are some troublesome sources of error that are not easily removed. First, can we take the stated beliefs of the subjects for granted with regards to how they want to spend the time? Presumably few, if any, of the surveys will assign any value to pornography or consuming pirated entertainment, and yet we should expect these to appear in an honest accounting of how some people would spend the day. There is an interesting book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz that illustrates just how big of a problem this is (you can get an idea by seeing some of his New York Times columns). This is more than an exercise in determining an ideal experiment, since it deals directly with the fact we do a poor job of speaking honestly about our true preferences and so makes it hard to distinguish between manipulative practices and buyer’s remorse. This is more important than enumerating specific practices we might object to, since it deals with our ability to measure the problem.

The wait should be over soon. One by one the hieroglyphics emerge, building anticipation towards a payout. Not a jackpot, but more than the player put in. My notifications display a new like and maybe a retweet. Someone cared about what I had to say! Did you happen to keep reading because I asked that question at the end of the opening paragraph at the start of this section? Anticipation is a diverse and powerful tool. Time is precious and yet so much of our entertainment relies on seemingly inefficient use of it. There are few things as universal as people’s resentment at having their time wasted, and yet when entertainment economizes on time it is derided as a jump scare or melodrama. We choose to waste our time in anticipation because the build up and payoff are pleasurable. What is happening during the wait is the creation of value.

This also factors into our problem with measurement. A new skin for my character in a game is a different product than the same skin with the attendant ritual of anticipation and payoff in opening a randomized box. The complaint that the fanfare that is associated with opening a loot box is addictive isn’t without merit. In so far as we find pleasurable things addictive, we may develop an unhealthy attachment to the elation resulting from opening a loot box. But all this says is that loot boxes create value (an experience) above and beyond their contents. It may be easy to establish that the sights, sounds, and timing of loot boxes are entertaining, but we still need to demonstrate how they are addictive and, furthermore, why these same elements are not addictive in other settings (assuming we are attempting to avoid a designation of gaming addiction).

The potential for becoming overly attached to the elation of opening loot boxes notwithstanding, creating value through appealing sights and sounds seems benign and not substantially different from adding an additional level or another subplot (though, of course, the ritual of opening a loot box doesn’t change and so the return on developing an appealing reveal is much higher than these individual pieces of content). There are, however, conscious efforts to confound the valuation of a given loot box.

Obfuscating value

We are generally not very good with numbers, especially when it comes to prices. It would take longer to determine if goods priced at $3.99, $8.99 and $7.99 cost more than $20 than it would if the goods cost $9.00, $4.00 and $8.00 (they both do). Furthermore, our perception of these numbers is frequently off as people tend to treat the $0.01 difference in the prices above as substantially larger. There is a large and growing list of cognitive biases that could serve as examples of how bad we are at getting the true value of things. Since we are discussing loot boxes, it is not a surprise that one area in which we are particularly bad are situations with probabilistic outcomes.

There is no controversy in saying that consumers are generally bad at probability (it even trips up mathematicians), but I would add that all errors are not equally severe. It will not come as a surprise to find out that most people are risk averse. From a purely mathematical standpoint, if there is only one thing in a loot box that I want (everything else is worthless), that I value at $1 and it has a 70% chance of dropping, then I should be willing to pay up to $0.70 for that loot box. Very few people actually think this way. Since there is only a probabilistic chance of getting the item, people who are risk averse and will pay less than $0.70 for the loot box. Some people are elation seeking and would be willing to spend more than $0.70 for the loot box (in essence they pay up for the fact it’s probabilistic). If you assign some particular importance to the true expected value of the loot box then you’re likely to find these tendencies a problem, but since the majority are risk averse it would mean that there aren’t enough people buying loot boxes.

Reality is more complex. First, the amount being spent and the probabilities themselves may result in different behaviors. Next, people likely do not have some clear conscious measure of the value of a given good, but instead make a decision based an estimate of the potential goods, the fact they’re probabalistic, and unconsciously assign a small premium to the fact there’s a bit of the excitement of unwrapping presents in opening it. What is important in this case is that the consumer is making a decision in terms of what they value with regards to the good and the experience associated with buying it. In this sense, while there are known biases and distortions with probabilities and psychological pricing ($x.99 prices) they are not a special case in and of themselves.


While each of these aspects of loot boxes are contentious, they do not seem to be especially concerning cases relative to other non-gaming experiences. Store layouts, price labels, coloured packaging, advertising, and good salesmanship all exploit aspects of our psychology that we have learned to live with and navigate. However, probability and anticipation are not an exhaustive list of techniques used in loot boxes. The problem with attempting to create a comprehensive list of loot box techniques is that it will not account for innovations that are being employed but remain undiscovered, meaning there will be fresh new outrages to relitigate the issue in perpetuity. Furthermore, the objections to loot boxes at least attempt to be founded on principle. As such, we would expect a robust objection to be to more than just a simple dispute over implementation. The reason I started with the appeal of the opening experience and confounding the valuation through probability is that these two techniques seem to account for the majority of cases.

For instance, some games now create an incentive to watch another player open a loot box. Given that a number of games now have integration with streaming services it is entirely possible that games may alter the probabilities of certain item drops, making rarer and more desirable items drop more frequently when a large number of potential buyers are watching in order to create the impression that the items drop more frequently. This seems to be another variation on confounding the valuation. While this scheme seems particularly nefarious, a similar effect could be simply achieved through altering the probabilities of free and introductory drops. Purchases using a special currency are another way in which layers of confusion are added between the actual value of the item to a player in dollars and their perception of that value.

Examples of added value are a bit more intuitive. The sights and sounds of opening a loot box are experiences above and beyond the contents itself and so are purely adding something. The first article was essentially about how loot boxes are a means of getting additional content into a game and so the added value should require no further elaboration. Likewise, knowing certain objects are only obtainable through real money transactions may confer some social benefit above and beyond the value of the item itself (i.e. conspicuous consumption).

Another way of considering these two categories is to see them as manipulating what you get (what is it worth to you?) and what you pay for (how much can they get you to pay for it?). Some techniques fit more comfortably in one or the other category than others, but this abstraction is helpful as it moves us beyond arguing about a particular implementation, and instead producing a more coherent set of guidelines that won’t be as fragile to technological advances. For example, the response to loot boxes bears a resemblance to disputes about DLC, which itself had different camps with regards to what was good and bad DLC. I don’t know if there were any calls to regulate, but this question seems mostly settled and, while players may resent DLC, the dispute is relegated to matters of taste (“I liked Burial at Sea” vs. “Bioshock Infinite should be legally required to provide a second single player campaign if an intern even so much as said ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this in Rapture?’ during production”). DLC has not meant the end of fun and it is difficult to establish that we any worse off because of it, meaning that any regulation we might have imposed would have at least taken the resources away from more productive uses and, in all likelihood, have stifled innovation in gaming (likely through higher volatility in terms of gaming jobs).


The characterization of loot boxes as a means of optimizing for revenues and a categorization of the techniques employed are intended to give us some insight into the question of whether or not loot boxes are addictive. There is overlap between some of the optimizations employed in loot boxes (for revenue) and the games themselves (for time/fun), and so we need to address whatever difference allows us to claim one is addictive while the other is not, or admit that the case has been overstated.

The techniques that obfuscate value receive a lot of attention, and yet these appear to be the least likely to be addictive. Addiction is compulsively seeking a rewarding stimulus no matter the consequences. If this obfuscation is as bad as claimed, then it stands to reason that there isn’t much of a stimulus since the items are worthless. These techniques are almost certainly effective at getting customers to pay more for a given piece of content, but they are not a stimulus themselves. What about the anticipation created by the uncertainty of an outcome? This is a stimulus (and one that has an easy parallel in gambling), but, while it is enabled by probability, it is better characterized by added value. The thrill of getting a rare item is value added to the item above and beyond its utility in the game.

If loot boxes are addictive, they are addictive due to the stimulus or reward aspects such as sights, sounds, and emotional payoffs. These elements are not absent from the discussion, but they do tend to have a smaller share. What is more interesting to me is that these are characteristics that have a greater similarity to features that are found inside games themselves. Games want to take you on a ride, either through spinning a good yarn, or presenting you with exciting action sequences, or any number of features that keep us at the computer or console. The missed opportunity of the debate surrounding loot boxes is to ask whether or not games themselves are addictive and what kinds of demands they make on our time.

If we are willing to accept anecdotes about people who spent staggering amounts on loot boxes, then it seems unusually callous to ignore anecdotes about time spent in games. I have personally encountered two cases of long standing relationships heavily strained by too much time in World of Warcraft, one of them ultimately breaking permanently. I have personally experienced being passed over for WoW time (separate from the cases mentioned before), and even though I should understand the context, I really do feel worthless and having empathy for the psychology of being in a raid does not tranquilize this feeling. There is a cost borne by the people who are neglected in these cases, and it is always in the name of just one more quest. Of course, we know that there isn’t just one more quest, but an endless treadmill of more things to do. This is not limited to MMOs, they just happened to be the most innovative due to their subscription model.

Does it count as an addiction? My personal inclination is to defer to the experts in terms of clinical definitions, but the conversation can at least be reduced to the demands games make on our time. I know I’d have done better in school, and I know what projects I’ve been putting aside due to the time spent in games. I have enough control to recognize this and step away, but I have also developed a preference for games that don’t constantly nag me to play. I’m not particularly fond of many of the online survival games because they seem to be structured around daily play for extended periods of time. I do, however, enjoy single player versions of these games such as Terraria and Subnautica which can be picked up and left off at any time. One feature I realized I liked about Sunless Sea was that a play session would usually involve completing a circuit to all the ports I was interested and back to London.

I am obviously reluctant to employ the analogy of gambling, but let us employ it as a worst case, be it loot boxes or gaming itself. The most common experience of gambling is someone having a good time in a controlled, responsible way. The same can be said of gaming itself (my selecting into Sunless Sea and out of, say, Rust) or loot boxes. The majority of people I know who have played F2P games have never spent a dime, and those who did were perfectly happy with what they purchased. However, we also know that there is a segment of the population who will go into a casino and even if the odds are posted or the warning signs are written on the machines themselves, they will go in and risk increasing sums in the pursuit of a rush they get from gambling.

Dealing with it

Earlier on we imagined a list of the amount of time we’d like to spend on activities throughout our day and a parallel list of the actual time spent on activities. The difference between these two lists was the place in which we could put regulation. Of course, regulation is not the only option. Should we regulate video games and not address similar demands for our time on other platforms? What kind of regulation can we implement that will allow good faith implementations of loot boxes and similar systems without allowing bad actors to circumvent the regulation? Regulators and the App Store now require probabilities to be posted (and I generally like this practice), but even beyond the necessary distortions involved in a particular drop, these aren’t likely to address addiction.

There is a certain point where we need to support what we like, maturely discuss what we don’t, and take care of the people around us. It would be nice to imagine that there’s a technological magic bullet to identify all the harmful cases and will solve them but there isn’t. Fast food franchisees will not say “Are you sure you should get the extra large? That’s the third this week…” Car dealerships will not ask “Are you sure you can afford this?” We would be insulted if they did. We step back from the ledge of a stupid decision through either reflection or the prodding of loved ones. It’s convenient to think that being in a game is some kind of special case in which we lose all reason, but we are nowhere close to establishing this is the case.

The reason why a mature discussion is especially important here because player feedback is helpful in shaping products that are both financially viable and present good value. The problem is that the dialogue has been so clogged with invective that direct feedback from players is a very noisy signal. Loot boxes optimize on revenue and seeing as the dialogue is too noisy to be useful, they simply reflect the actions instead of the statements from players, and those actions say that players like and buy a lot of loot boxes. Rage may be appealing because one can cast oneself in the light of an ethical partisan standing up to the insurmountable evil of game publishers whether or not anything actually changes. An honest dialogue entails the risk that you might hear “no” or find out that your case simply isn’t as good as you thought it was.

So far as I can tell, for all the talk of addiction, the catalysts for the current debate (Battlefront 2 and Shadow of War) weren’t especially bad implementations in this regard. Judging by the most frequently repeated complaints, the dispute was that they were too expensive, not that they were somehow more addictive than prior offerings. I suspect the people responsible for implementing the loot box system knew full well that the loot boxes cost more than what an optimal value would be, but set the pricing higher in the beta in hopes that anchoring would make the true price seem better by comparison. What I don’t think anyone expected was that it would be a flashpoint and produce a reaction such that any price would be too high. Assuming some version of this were true, I am quite sympathetic to the chain of reasoning behind it. We seem to be utterly incapable of having a serious discussion about the actual value of a game and there is an entire segment of gamers who simply will not buy a game at any price unless it’s discounted by some arbitrary amount. One need only look to the reaction to EA’s decision to discount Battlefront 2 loot boxes: Smug posts like ‘EA just removed 75% my sense of pride and accomplishment’ to see the absolute futility in attempting to form any policy around an internet mob. Either EA did the right thing by decreasing the price or they did not, and there is no information conveyed by dancing on the corpse of the publisher’s previous position to determine whether it was the right move.

What this means is that the voices being heard online are sending a clear message: They want to be lied to. The words mean nothing because the prior that says the publisher is always wrong is so strong that it is simply not worth trying to shift it. Instead, prices are shifted in advance of sales to reflect the desired revenues, turning a nominal 50% off into a real 25% off or less. This seems to be working because the practice is growing. Because any dialogue has been reduced to cheap talk, developers will have to rely on what they can observe about players, meaning that techniques that result in more revenues will dominate and players have effectively selected out of the conversation. Of course nobody will want to face the kind of backlash EA got and so quite a bit of design will focus on how to boil the frog (an especially apt cliché when judging by forum avatars). If loot boxes become more deceptive it will be because players reduced their voice to a constant whine and success will be determined by how effectively sales grow while trying to minimize or at least tune out the noise.

A more productive line of thinking would be to honestly ask exactly what kind of influence gaming has over our lives and whether there are some practices we want to discourage, either through avoidance or clearly articulating why this practice should stop. I gave Sunless Sea as an example of a game that does not put me on a treadmill and tries to extract another hour of play out of me. Ticket to Ride is arguably more successful as an app than a board game, but its origins as a board game informs a design that has a definitive end and does not nudge you to opening up a new session. These are successful games, but they also face substantially different realities in terms of costs. And if I’ve given the impression that I think fun necessarily connects to addiction, I can only say that a lot of people seem to be playing and replaying these not-fun games.

It is easy to default to dichotomies when writing a series of articles inspired by internet rhetoric, but this really is a matter of degrees. Loot boxes can be addictive and games can be addictive. Furthermore, there are strong incentives for businesses to adopt practices that appeal to short term thinking that is inconsistent with what we might want for ourselves in a more reflective moment. But we are usually unhappy with solutions that have us looking down at a tub devoid of water and infant and so it is helpful to apply this reflection to cases where the benefit is not as clear. Even if you do not feel obligated to take the economic realities of developers and publishers into account (and this is completely fine provided one relinquishes the claim that this is about the good of gaming/the hobby/the industry which necessarily includes the supply side), one voice that isn’t taken into account that of a common player who is too busy enjoying a game to be bothered getting into a fight on the internet and seems perfectly content paying for loot boxes (either as one offs, season passes, or by the gross). Data science is not mind control, and it is astonishing to see the implicit argument that major publishers have effectively brainwashed gamers into repeatedly buying a product they don’t want and don’t value.

It is most likely that there are addictive qualities in games that we haven’t really properly addressed since the discussions motivated by World of Warcraft, and there are clearly developers who implement loot box style systems in overly manipulative ways (and I am not referring to major PC publishers). Some of these cases are solved by interventions by platforms like the App Store. The impulse to regulate also seems driven by undervaluing the role we take in caring for our friends and family, even if some of those friendships are online and in the game that has become a problem for someone. While suggestions like this will generate no shortage of sophisticated eye rolling, is it really all that worse than assuming shouting at developers will make the problem go away or that legislation is somehow better at identifying people susceptible to addiction?

If heavily regulating loot boxes seems like a good idea, consider the implementation of a Cinderella Law which is basically a curfew for online gaming. Nobody under a certain age can play between 12-6AM. How would you feel about this? Beyond a certain indifference if you’re above the age where this will affect you, I’m willing to guess most readers will say that this goes too far. Without any age limitation I suspect there’d be an even greater objection along the lines of “Who are you to tell me what proper use of the internet is and at what times?” But this law has been implemented in other countries. The difference between this and the loot box case largely seems to be one of taste, and the player who doesn’t have a problem with loot boxes that has heavy handed regulation imposed is without the feature and likely without the game.

Ultimately this takes me back to why I started this series of articles in the first place. We need to talk. If the response to any pricing decision is to shout it down, then players are effectively removing themselves from the conversation, and providing incentives to be deceived. While there are clearly more benefits, games can take an undue amount of time and we should be willing to talk about it, both in terms of how we’d like our experiences to be tailored to respect our time as well as talk to each other when it seems like other important parts of our lives are being neglected. If there has to be a pro-regulatory reason to keep a civil tongue, then it’s because the case for regulation will be much more credible when there is a clear alternative and the bad actors can be identified as operating outside of best practices. The alternative is to let the algorithms speak for you.

Note on affiliate links: I have an affiliate status with GOG.com for which I am given a portion of sales for traffic I drive to the site. The inclusion of a given title is for illustrative purposes first, but when it is available on GOG I will provide such a link. Naturally I encourage you to do your own price comparison or buy on your preferred platform. I include, on occasion, affiliate links from other broadcasters to support people who helped me in a given post or the cast in general. In this case, Amazon and Humble Links support the streamer JessyQuil.

Loot boxes and gambling

A previous article discussed loot boxes as microtransactions and the purpose they serve in gaming. While this view may offer something in terms of answering why we have loot boxes, this does not offer much perspective as to whether or not we should have them in the first place. Regrettably the conversation does not seem to have moved beyond a comparison to gambling that seems disingenuous and does not follow the more interesting threads such a discussion presents to us. In this post I’d like to address the topic of gambling and its regulation in gaming. This is a deviation from the originally stated plan at the end of the previous post. This current post is to address gambling mostly to be able to move on to a broader discussion of how games optimize for certain things and the effects it may have on us in follow up articles. If you aren’t particularly interested in the gambling question, I’d recommend skipping this one.

A test for gambling

One essential feature that emerges from both popular and legal definitions of gambling is betting. There is a spectrum of skill in terms of gambling, ranging from slot machines (pure probability) to a chess match in the park (pure skill), but the risk of money or an item of value on some contingency is constant through them all. There are likely some gradations for gambling as well. For instance, charity 50/50 events (purchase of tickets for which a winner receives half of all revenues), POGs, and Magic with ante all caused some consternation among my Salvation Army attending family (the fear that Magic might turn me to Satan worship also meant I could not have black cards in my deck too, but that had nothing to do with gambling anything but my soul) but were ultimately deemed to be fairly innocuous and comparable exemptions for most of these cases exist in law. For this reason it seems most productive to use betting as the measure against which we will evaluate potential gambling activities, with a secondary consideration as to severity to prevent us from saying anything too ridiculous.

From this it seems that the ESA’s (and later PEGI’s) release is sensible and consistent: loot boxes are not gambling since a player is assured to get an object of value, even if it’s not one that they wanted. This is more or less the CCG (Collectable Card Game) way of looking at loot boxes in recognizing that the intent of the buyer may be to get a specific item, but that the commitment of the booster pack is to offer a random draw from a distribution and that the nature of the purchase is not re-evaluated based on the value to the consumer.

A common objection to this view is to point out the resale value of physical cards as opposed to digital goods which do not have a resale value (or whose resale value comes in the form of a prohibited activity such as selling an account). While this is a seductive thread to follow, there are two problems with it. First, the resale of a given physical product depends on there being a reasonably liquid market for it, which is why POGs don’t provide any return on the original investment, and why your landlord will not accept a Black Lotus card for rent. At best we can say the expected value of the contents of the pack discount the listed price (so if a booster pack costs $5 and the expected value of its contents are $1, then the price you make your decision on is $4 assuming you intend to sell your cards after you’re done with them and they retain their value) and we don’t seem to be arguing that it is the price of loot boxes that make them gambling. Second, this value on physical goods seems to be smuggling individual tastes into a policy recommendation that applies to all. An individual purchase decision will be driven by a player’s private valuation of the product and whether or not it is equal to or greater than the asking price. I may individually assign no value to digital goods, but then, all this really tells me is that I won’t buy loot boxes, DLC, video games, operating systems, apps, music, or movies (unless you really think people are buying these for the boxes and discs). Given that there are complaints of content being locked behind a paywall or the game being pay to win, it seems more reasonable to assume that the average gamer does find some value the contents of a loot box.

When the ESA says that loot boxes are not gambling because the player receives something of value, they are pointing out the difference between a wager (heads you get the money, tails I keep your money) and an exchange for goods or services (I will give you X if you pay me Y). Some goods and services do involve uncertain values: art, mortgages/real estate, insurance etc. and these are distinct from gambling. While there may be a case for the regulation (self or otherwise) of loot box systems, it is inappropriate to attempt to make it by equating loot boxes with gambling and then use the existing regulatory framework to solve the problem.


Against the measure of betting it is reasonably straightforward to see that loot boxes are different from gambling, and so it raises the question as to why this particular line of attack has gained such currency. It is not necessary to equate loot boxes with gambling to be opposed to them, just as it does not follow that rejecting this comparison implies support for loot boxes. The principal appeal of this strategy seems to be that it uses existing mechanisms to address the perceived problem, especially since ESRB ratings already contain guidelines regarding gambling. However, this feature is less appealing on investigation. First, while most discussion seems to surround assigning an M (17+) rating to games containing loot boxes, the existing guidelines assign the most restrictive rating, AO (18+), to games that involve gambling with real currency. The AO rating is comparable to the NC-17 rating for motion pictures in that this rating has the consequence of limiting where the product can be published and how it can be advertised. This restriction does not come from the ESRB but rather from the reactions of various outlets to the rating. Specifically an AO rated game cannot be streamed on Twitch, will not be permitted on a Nintendo, Playstation, or Xbox console, and will not be carried at certain retailers. These guidelines can be changed, but this means that part of the initial appeal for the policy of loot box regulation through ratings is an illusion and so the policy should justify itself over alternatives that would require changes of a similar magnitude.

A deeper concern I have with this recommendation is the disconnect between the claimed severity of the problem (children being taught to gamble) and the efficacy of the solution. The broad perception of these ratings systems seem to be that they are either a tool to keep socially conservative politicians happy while presenting the fewest impediments to buying our games, or at worst are a minor inconvenience when trying to get games underage. While anecdote can only get us so far, one does not need to look far to find examples of gamers who have been able to purchase games that should be restricted to them, and digital distribution only makes enforcement harder. Contrast this to the age restrictions at casinos (and the penalty that non-compliance carries) and it is clear that if we accept the premise that loot boxes are gambling then using the existing ratings system is not a serious remedy.

Why focus on gambling?

My suspicion is that this policy proposal is not actually intended to address gambling at all but instead is designed to slow the adoption of loot box systems through making them less profitable. As with motion pictures, a large number of big budget and high profile games design with the goal with obtaining a T (or equivalent) rating (13+) so as not to restrict the potential audience. Assigning a more restrictive rating means fewer purchases of the game (assuming proper enforcement) and, of course, fewer potential customers for loot boxes. The result is that if the expected value from the loot box system with the restricted pool is less than the revenues from the purchase of the game from players who would be affected by the restriction, the loot box system won’t be implemented. Incidentally, it also means that fewer gamers overall will experience the game and that those who do play the game will bear more of the costs of development, reducing the consumer surplus.

While my own feeling is that this system will be ineffective at restricting the exposure of loot boxes to underage gamers, even if we assume proper enforcement the result is a blunt instrument that prevents gamers unconcerned or unaffected by loot boxes from getting titles they would otherwise enjoy while shifting the burden onto gamers whose only protection from the damaging effects of these systems is their birthday. As a whole I find this an unserious and disingenuous  approach to the claimed problems with loot boxes. In fact I get the impression that a significant number of people calling for this kind of system are utterly indifferent as to the effects of loot boxes provided that they are not implemented in the games they play. The relabeling of games with loot box systems as mature does not make sense as a strategy for dealing with gambling addiction because it’s not intended to be a strategy to address gambling addiction but rather a rhetorically convenient means of curbing an unpopular pricing strategy.

Streamers in particular are ripe for condemnation as a few have assumed the mantle of ‘thinkfluencer’ on the supposed outrages of loot box systems while simultaneously being affiliated with Loot Crate (Columbia record club for cheap plastic crap) and Humble Monthly (loot box for games). Indeed, affiliation with either of these programs is viewed as having ‘made it’ in at least some circles of streaming and yet these programs are founded on the very same trade off of low price in exchange for uncertain (and often unknown) outcomes. I don’t see anything wrong with these programs per se, though I personally don’t see the value in either of them (my own advice on Humble Monthly is to only buy if the guaranteed game is worth it to you), but then, I’m not trying to burnish my image through condemning loot boxes either. It has been made abundantly clear to me that I am in the minority regarding loot boxes, I only ask for consistency when delivering the jeremiad.


It is one thing to complain about a policy recommendation, but do I have any alternatives to offer? Not on the issue of gambling. It’s worth remembering that the most common interaction with gambling is someone at a casino or lottery doing it essentially for recreation and without any harm. It may surprise you to find out that I’m largely uncomfortable with the idea that the government is involved in gambling (essentially I’m of the “The lottery is a tax on people who can’t do math” persuasion and don’t think the government should be involved in an activity that clearly does have a damaging effect on some citizens. Though I recognize the revenues it raises, and would stop short of banning it and so recognize that something state run is a second best solution). I reconcile these beliefs through acknowledging that there are a lot of things that I think would be better for everyone if people did them. I think people should read more, support the library, vote in municipal elections, talk to their neighbours, and not drink so much. I recognize that these are my own preferences, and that more than my opinion is required to legislate them (libraries provide benefits above and beyond their direct use and so tax dollars support them. People can generally drink what they want, but we forbid them from getting behind the wheel of a car, because it ceases to be only their problem).

However, I also think my lack of a policy prescription stems from the fact that I think there is a lack of clarity as to the question we are asking because people really only seemed to care about addiction once it was their own money on the line. Addiction is the main reason we regulate gambling, and it is one of the reasons we have an age restriction. And yet we know that addiction in gaming is not limited to monetization strategies like loot boxes. The discussion is confused and superficial because we have been unwilling to follow the implications of our newfound concern for addiction. If we are going to discuss regulation, then we need to broaden our perspective from loot boxes exclusively even if only to articulate why they are a special case (if, indeed, they are) and found our policy recommendations on more than rhetorical convenience.

I will leave it to follow up articles to discuss some of the techniques behind loot boxes and attempt to come to grips with the question of addiction.

Note on affiliate links: I have an affiliate status with GOG.com for which I am given a portion of sales for traffic I drive to the site. The inclusion of a given title is for illustrative purposes first, but when it is available on GOG I will provide such a link. Naturally I encourage you to do your own price comparison or buy on your preferred platform. I include, on occasion, affiliate links from other broadcasters to support people who helped me in a given post or the cast in general. For this article the Humble Monthly link supports my friend and mod JessyQuil.

Charity Streams

Part two of the loot box article is still forthcoming, but life happens and so I have a reason to write a different post in the meantime. Starting today (December 11th), I will be doing a series of casts every weekday for the next two weeks, each with a new (surprise and generally crowd pleasing) game. Some of you may remember the format from my 1k follower celebration. Why the surprise and all the effort? A friend of the cast (TheEyesOfSyn92) had some misfortune befall her as mentioned in these tweets. In brief, while doing laundry someone took what they wanted of her clothes and threw the rest into the garbage. Syn herself has not directly made any appeals to repair this loss beyond reporting it to the police, but I have decided to do these special casts in order to do a small fundraiser to help lessen the impact of the theft.

In some ways I think this is a fitting response as I originally met Syn through helping JessyQuil on a charity cast after which she started regularly stopping by the cast and has been quite dogged in getting more people to watch my stuff. However, I am also aware that I rarely do streams like this directly (more on this below), and we are in a holiday season that makes many demands on your wallet for charitable causes as well as gifts and sales. With that in mind I thought I would explain why I am doing this series of streams specifically and a few thoughts on how I navigate the giving space in general. I hope this appeal will at least inspire you to make a token donation towards this specific goal, but if nothing else it should suffice as a few thoughts on charity streams and giving once the two weeks are up.

There are a lot of charities out there right now, to a point that it sometimes feels like they’re the new scam. The cause can seem dubious, more than expected goes to administration fees, and there’s a certain level of fatigue given how often people on the street or on a cast seem to be out their rattling the cup to get you to sub, donate, sign up for a mailing list, or buy some ornament. This effect is compounded by the fact that there is an unspoken tip on Twitch that charity is generally a good way to raise one’s profile, and so perceived insincerity is added to even more asks in an already crowded space. The biggest problem here is that none of these are really good reasons not to give, but they do serve as excuses to avoid it. Should the caster’s motivations really factor in to whether or not I feel good about money being given to a worthy cause? If I have doubts as to how much of my pledge goes to the cause, can I offer some alternative that will put the money to better use? If not, is no money really a better outcome than some positive value?

These concerns are partly why I have been more inclined to support others in their charity casts than undertake them on my own, although I did start casting off the back of an Extra Life marathon I did to support a children’s hospital I had to go to when I was little. In this case it had a clear benefit to my community, I had a personal connection to it, and I was relying on my personal network of friends as I had no broadcast to speak of at that time. What I didn’t communicate about that cast was that I had a secret goal in mind. If I did not earn what I was making per hour as a research assistant x 24, I would make up the rest out of pocket. Since I cared about the charity it seemed to me that 24 hours of working and giving the money should be the baseline I compare 24 hours of playing video games against, and that if the latter had a shortfall I had not spent the time well. This ensured my incentives were aligned with taking the fundraiser seriously, and I am happy to report that people were remarkably generous in their giving, leading to an outcome in which the time was valued well beyond what I could have earned through my labour. To put it another way, my cast normally has a donation button and now is equipped with a subscription button and the option to cheer with bits. There are already 3 asks on my channel, and so if I am going to ask you to do something with your money, the least I can do is respect it and put some time and thought into doing it right.

Let’s assume for a moment that giving is affordable and the right thing to do. Why this particular cause? I should be clear, Syn has not asked this and I am a little nervous that this may be crossing a boundary into something unwanted. Nobody particularly wants to be seen as a ‘charity case’ and I’m not inclined to label her as such. Instead I see this as more akin to insurance. I have been mugged twice, and the first time involved a very substantial amount of money I happened to be carrying in cash that day. I was fine,  but word got around and people were good enough to check in. While I did not bring up the matter of the money (with the exception of the intended recipient), more than a few cheques or small amounts started working their way toward me. Not enough to make me whole, but enough to lighten the blow. I would like to think that this is not unique to me. In some ways a social network can act like insurance: instead of an individual bearing the full brunt of misfortune, the network absorbs a small inconvenience, and the burden on the individual is less. The fact that Syn may be a stranger to you (and for what it’s worth, I’ve never met her in person) is less relevant than my hope to encourage a culture in which we care for one another, and let the sum of relatively minor expenses/inconveniences cushion the blow. The benefit to the recipient is not just monetary, but also stems from the knowledge that people care and are invested in their wellbeing (even if it is a small amount). Like insurance, nobody can predict when something will happen, and many people go through life without needing it, but it remains a prudent choice given the potential outcomes. I can no longer say I have not drawn from the support of my social network, but I can say how much it meant to me to experience that kind of care. I would like to appeal to the belief that had the fates decided differently, someone would undertake a similar initiative for you.

There is no case to be made that this is the most important donation you can make. Everyone needs to evaluate what they can give and where they would like to allocate it. I heard on a podcast once that “If you weren’t in a financial position to go in and buy a coffee whenever you’d like, then don’t buy me one either.” I have no interest in spreading hardship, and so if any value would constitute hardship, then there are other ways you can help (spreading the word is a great start). I am only interested in spreading inconvenience as thin as possible. For those of you who are in a state to contribute $15/$10/$5/$2/$1 or anything in between it would be wonderful if you did. Did you get a game that you loved and would have paid $25 on for $5 on a sale? Maybe pass a little of that surplus on and make someone feel better. Did you find some money in the past? If you’ve got a better job now, maybe pass on some fraction of it. If you see the loss of clothes as trivial compared to other things you could use the money for that is completely fine, I only ask that you contribute a trivial amount. The sum of trivialities over a population could almost erase what happened to someone who was wronged at random. In exchange, I am doing my best to put on a good show for two weeks with a new game every day. If you like my cast, my writing, for some reason find my tweets interesting, and especially if you haven’t donated in the past, I’d ask you to consider even making a token donation towards the cause.

If you would like to help out, the most direct way would be to give to Syn directly at her donation link. This may be inconvenient when you are in the stream and so I will honour any donations made through my channel and cover the PayPal fees (though I discourage this as a practice as general since there are no mechanisms for accountability beyond Syn reporting I have not honoured my claim). If it truly is beyond your means, I would encourage you to share this post or the casts with people who might like to contribute or participate in the two weeks of broadcasts.

Finally, there is a segment I know I will not be able to reach. They may be concerned about dishonesty or simply not see the value in an act that does not have some kind of world shaping significance. I can understand this perspective, and while I would argue that micro matters like how we treat and support each other matter more than we give credit for, I must acknowledge we live in an affluent society (it is, indeed, the premise under which I am appealing for donations in the first place) and that what we consider hardship is much lighter than what others face. If your reason for not participating in this particular cause is because of the perception of greater need, then I invite you to follow one of the links below. There is nothing to prove to me, but if you were unmoved by the appeal above solely due to greater needs elsewhere I would call on you to prove it for yourself and do a little bit to alleviate the suffering you feel is greater:

Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders)

Give Directly

I hope to get a chance to see you all and thank you personally in one of the broadcasts.

Loot boxes and other microtransactions

Loot boxes and their predecessors have been a hot topic lately with the release of Shadow of War and Star Wars: Battlefront II. Loot boxes have been in video games since at least Team Fortress 2 and were likely inspired by collectable card games like Magic: The Gathering, so why all the fuss now? Shadow of War and Battlefront II are two highly anticipated games that are perceived to be particularly egregious or abusive implementations of this system which has resulted in a more general backlash against the practice. In some ways I think this is a useful discussion to have, as it makes us reflect on how games keep our attention and whether there are unintended consequences. However, I also think this discussion is driven by the fact that game developers are getting better at capturing some of the surplus that players enjoyed, and so misses the most interesting points to be made. In this, the first of two planned posts, I would like to talk about what loot boxes are, and what role (if any) they have in gaming.

What are loot boxes?

While not a loot box itself, the best introduction to the idea would be to consider a collectable card game (CCG) like Magic: The Gathering. Magic‘s innovation was to take the existing concept of trading cards (like baseball cards), and put them into the framework of a game. Decks could be augmented with cards that were randomly distributed in booster packs, retaining the collectable nature of trading cards, while also conferring benefits in the game itself. This feature is desirable for a publisher, since the sale of booster packs ensures a steady revenue stream from existing players. The value of this insight is easy to underestimate, and so it is worth reflecting on the fact that the instability of cash flows have brought down major game publishers (such as SPI and Avalon Hill) in the past, making Magic one of these strokes of genius that solves a legitimate business problem while spawning a wildly new popular genre.

Did consumers benefit? Yes. Magic didn’t exist before and so at worst consumers are indifferent to the offering. What about the booster pack element? Since Magic didn’t exist before, we don’t have the counterfactual of ‘Magic without boosters’, but the existence of Fantasy Flight Games’ Living Card Games (similar offerings that provide all the cards of a given release in one pack, removing the random element of deck building) and digital versions of Magic without booster packs have not diminished the popularity of the original card game. The randomness was a feature brought in from trading cards, and at the very least did not present an impediment to widespread adoption of the game.

17 years after the release of Magic, Valve released the MANN-Conomy update for Team Fortress 2 (TF2), implementing a loot crate system analogous to the purchase of booster packs. Crates are randomly granted while playing the game, and a key may be purchased in order to unlock the crate and receive the loot. The loot is randomly generated at the time of opening. When the MANN-Conomy update was released TF2 was just shy of 3 years old and still popular, no doubt due to the fairly regular free updates being pushed to the title. The problem with this business model is that the only revenues the game generates come from new copies of the game sold. Valve’s decision to continue updating the game gave existing players a reason to keep playing or pick the game back up, providing a reason for new players to still buy the game, but eventually there is a point where the additional units sold cease to justify the cost of adding additional content.

Adding loot crates allowed for additional revenues to be generated from existing users who opted to pay to open the crates. In this sense the introduction of loot crates was almost certainly a success as in less than a year TF2 became free-to-play with the Über update. There is a certain logic behind this decision as a multiplayer-only game like TF2 benefits from a robust player base, and so going free-to-play is self-reinforcing in that players enjoy the game with a larger player base and, consequently, the highest potential for revenue is achieved with more people generating random crates that some will later go on to buy. The success of this model need not be inferred from Valve’s decision to go free-to-play but through the simple observation that TF2 is 10 years old as of this month, continues to finance its updates, and has enough players to keep it roughly in the top 5 of Steam’s concurrent players (in fact, it is the only game in the top 10 not released this decade).

From this background we get an idea of what loot boxes are and why they may appeal to developers. In its simplest form a loot box is a microtransaction that confers some benefit inside the game. The exact nature of the benefit is randomly determined, and, depending on the game, can range from purely cosmetic to some mechanical advantage. The value of a loot box to the player is the probability weighted value of its contents. The value to a business is not just the revenue,  but specifically a stream of revenue over time that had previously only been available to games with subscription models (i.e. MMOs).

Pricing games

At its core, loot boxes represent a pricing decision on the part of developers in terms of what content they release. An older and simpler version of this decision could be considered as how much of the game to release as a demo to incentivize a purchase. A more modern example might be to decide what features to leave to an expansion pack/DLC, or what content should be left to owners of a ‘deluxe edition’ of the game. Almost every one of these decisions is controversial among some gamers, but they really seem to be slightly more granular instances of a necessary conversation at the beginning of a project: How much game can we afford to build? How much can we charge for it?

I have an unpopular view on this topic that I’ll present up front: The people who make and sell games should be allowed to charge what they want for them. As a consumer of games I’d them to cost as little as possible, and I have been very vocal in instances where I feel the demands on the consumer have outweighed the benefits provided. Despite this, I do not think the developer’s own priorities should be ignored in this conversation. For instance, I am not crazy about the fact that the ARK developers released paid DLC while they were still in Early Access, but they were within their rights to do so. I also remember refreshing the Steam page when I saw the price increase before launch because I couldn’t believe it. Long time viewers can recall my incessant complaining whenever Paradox releases Crusader Kings II DLC in multiple parts (though, to their credit, the Stellaris releases have been exemplary). The point here is that, while I know my preferences as a consumer, I would not wish to compel these developers to price their games a certain way.

Games are not life saving medication. They are one of the least essential things in my, or anyone else’s, life. Every single one of us has looked at a game and passed over it because the asking price hasn’t matched the value we’ve assigned to it. In fact, we do this so often the act is unremarkable and we often don’t even register that we’ve assigned some value at all (and, as the likely pile of unplayed games in your library indicates, we are sophisticated enough to place a value on the option of playing a certain game at an arbitrary point in the future). The disappointment or injustice we feel when there is a price we don’t want to match is simply the recognition that there is some benefit we would get from playing a given game, but not enough to justify the expense (even if that is for essential reasons like choosing between Wolfenstein II or eating until next payday).

In a static sense, a change (increase) in the pricing strategy is a negative for the consumer: less content is available at the same price. Dynamically we can view it as a necessary evil to ensure that games continue to be developed and supported to the level we’ve become accustomed to.

Shaping games

Unlike direct price changes, loot boxes can shape the experience of a game. While we are accustomed to thinking about loot boxes and similar mechanics in a negative light, they can be a tool to affect the pace of a game and provide more value for a player. Consider a game like Rock Band. Most people seemed to dislike this feature, but the career mode required you to unlock some of your favourite songs, rather than just letting you jump straight into the hits. Jumping to the hits seems to be the default response to a game like Rock Band, but consider how you would feel about the product if you could actually do this. You’d play a handful of songs, ignore the ones you hadn’t heard about, and then wonder if you’d really gotten your money’s worth (especially if you started buying more hits off the store). I can’t say the songs in Rock Band changed my life, but I had a good time with the lesser known songs, and made an effort to perfect them. The design of the game made sure I didn’t spoil my dinner by loading up on dessert.

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine the malicious intentions that would be ascribed to the developers of Hotline Miami if the game included microtransactions that would allow you to unlock a level without beating the preceding one (exact same game, just with the added microtransaction). “Yeah, what’s up with Assault man?” “They only included that level to sell more keys…” I think if Hotline Miami started with all the levels unlocked, most players would have finished the game, but have one or two levels they never completed. Some kind of paid unlock (either straight up unlocking a level or a power up) adds gradients between ‘let players choose and know they’ll short circuit the game’ and ‘you must master every punishing obstacle we put in your way no matter how long it takes.’ You can get a shortcut, but you have to pay up, and for some they will value their time less than their money. You can see this mechanism as a financial deterrent to ruining the full experience, but also enabling people who may not have a surplus of time to experience the whole game. The latter is an oft-cited rationalization for these kinds of microtransactions in games like Hearthstone where it is theoretically possible to grind for all the cards and solo adventures but impractical.

Ironically, loot boxes also better align a consumer’s interests with the developer. If the purpose of these microtransactions is to establish a long tail of revenues, then it means that the financial success of the product is directly tied to the sustained enjoyment of the game and the value of the additional content bought while inside the game. In English, the game has to be good and you have to actually want the stuff they’re selling you. While quality has always been a factor in the financial success of a game, there is a known problem of game endings being rushed or generally unsatisfying due to the fact it’s the content players are least likely to experience. With a 2 hour window of playtime for returns on Steam, there is also an incentive to front load a game to keep people engaged for at least that long. This article began with the story of TF2 and the idea of financing fresh content through loot boxes which is a case study of Valve’s interests and players aligning through this mechanism.

These are the positive cases for how loot box style systems can help the design of a game. If we generalize even further we can say that elements of this mechanic have existed in RPGs ever since people started randomizing loot (Diablo is essentially paying up front for an infinite supply of monster shaped loot boxes).  As with any mechanic in a game, it can be done well or it can be done poorly. Games that implement these mechanics can break the flow of an experience by constantly asking for another payout. Nobody wants to play a Hobbit game where Gandalf shows up and says “We’re going to go on an adventure! But first, all I need is your credit card number…” Creating an imbalance due to the presence of paid content is also a potential problem, crystallized in the dreaded “Pay to win!” epithet.

I have dedicated more time to the potential benefits of this system simply because I think the negative case is so well represented that it is essentially taken for granted. When considering loot boxes and microtransactions in general I find it more edifying to consider them as a tool first (i.e. not to assign a value judgement to them) and consider their fit as a solution to a problem with the attendant costs and benefits.

Paying for games

In the simplest and bluntest terms, people do not want to pay more for games. More precisely, people do not want to feel like they are paying more for games. In truth, games have never been less expensive from a consumer’s perspective. Here is a chart adapted from an Ars Technica article:


The nominal price is the price you would see reported in a catalogue from that year, but inflation can make a direct comparison difficult as the purchasing power of a dollar in 1977 is not the same as a dollar in 2017. This chart presents the prices for games in real terms, that is, adjusted for inflation. The blue line reports the upper bound of prices while the red line reports the lower bound of prices (as reported by Ars Technica). There are some complaints with this graph. I grouped cartridges in with discs which partially explains a decrease in prices around the year 2000, and Ars Technica simply reported the high and low values in 2013 as $59.99, while previous years would include a game like EyePet along side Call of Duty: Black Ops. Reporting ranges of prices have only become more difficult over time, as there are legitimate questions as to whether or not it is fair to include a game like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice beside this year’s iteration of Battlefield Creed: Modern Warfare. Furthermore, as the EyePet example illustrates, we’re only taking into account someone’s reported prices, not any sale prices or the composition of how many games at a given price people bought (so, if 1/10 of gamers bought games like EyePet and the remaining 9/10 bought games like Call of Duty: Black Ops, the upper bound makes more sense to use). Finally, the product itself has changed over time. We simply expect more from a AAA game today, than we would expect from a game like Super Mario Bros. 3 (estimated nominal price in 1990: $50). We could try to compare a game like Shovel Knight, which is heavily inspired by NES games, and surmise that the cost has gone down substantially, but this would fail to acknowledge that Shovel Knight has the benefit of decades of game development and fewer hardware restrictions that NES developers would face.

These objections aside, the price for a given game is, at worst, essentially flat since 1977, and most likely has declined in real terms before we account for quality improvements (better graphics, sensible mechanics, new genres, voice acting, online multiplayer). In fact in the Ars Technica data set, blockbuster games seem to hit $59.99 (US) in 2006 and stay there. While there is a consensus that the cost of making games is going up, I was less successful at finding representative data for the cost of making games, but I have two rough and somewhat intuitive measures. The ESA in Canada publishes an annual essential facts report which appears to include average cost every 2 years across several platforms and genres (I reached out to the US equivalent but the e-mail address provided for information and historical reports did not work). The earliest available date for Canada is 2011 and lists the average cost of console development as $10,083,000, while the average cost for the same platform in the 2017 report is $12,536,957, an increase of about 24%. Now there are lower and higher average costs presented over the years, and Canadian game development may not be representative of broader industry trends (for instance, the highest cost in the 2011 report was apparently $30m while this list has three games with $50m production budgets for the same year). If we want to consider the upper bound, the only game since then which has cost less (in nominal terms) was The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.  It’s sensible for there to be a lot of variance between projects which are going to be at different stages over time, but the overall trend certainly seems to be increasing. We could also consider an important input cost into games: wages. The same reports list average salary as $62,000 in 2011 and $77,300 in 2017 an increase of about 25% from the 2011 level (these are not adjusted for inflation). Now again, these are mostly Canadian numbers, they are not directly measuring the costs for the same products as our measure of prices, and they are only doing so for half of the periods observed. Still, these numbers suggest that our intuitions about the costs of making games are correct, games are becoming more expensive to make and you’re either hiring more people to make them (though this is harder to support with what we see here) or that you are paying up for the know-how that brings your game to market (likely true given what we see in salaries), and that this has been the case for at least half the time the price stopped increasing.

Price increases are not the only way to deal with rising costs. Games are relatively inexpensive to reproduce and selling more can help cover the added expense. There are certainly more people buying games, and this is likely due in part to the investments into making them more visually appealing and easy to play. But it’s not at all clear to me that the net increase in players is enough to keep pace with the rising costs of production, especially as long term gamers have lower cost options tailored towards a more ‘hardcore’ audience. This returns us to our original topic: stagnant prices for the base game are being augmented through the partitioning of the full product into the base game and supplemental components ranging from expansion-style DLC to microtransactions like loot boxes.

This kind of behaviour is not limited to gaming. I’m sure everyone has experienced the phenomena of buying something at a store and noticing the size is shrinking over time. You may have a favourite chocolate bar and, had you kept the wrappers (please say you don’t) you might notice it shrinking by a few grams every once in a while even though the price usually stays the same. Soft drinks are similar in that bottles will shrink in size, and in both cases the price per gram or millilitre will have gone up by a small amount. Nobody likes higher prices, but most readers will likely find these examples rather unremarkable. The truth is that while we value transparency, as consumers we tend to punish companies that transparently increase prices and so have given them every reason to play this little game where things are repackaged and the old size is reintroduced after enough time has passed. It is not surprising to me that we now see similar practices in gaming seeing as it does not seem to take much to make a very vocal group of gamers feel slighted and start posting manifestos in all capital letters in reviews.

I don’t think it’s wrong for gamers to advocate for their interests as consumers, but I think this conversation is most productive when the demands of consumers acknowledge the costs. Here’s a demand without accounting for costs: “I want the graphics to be like Battlefront II, it should have a single player campaign with the scope of Witcher 3, multiplayer should be populous and regularly updated and balanced, and if there is DLC it should transform the game to a level of XCOM: Enemy Within or War of the Chosen. Also, it should be free to play.” There are two ways this request fails to acknowledge costs. First, the scope for a project like this is immense, and requests like a sprawling single player campaign potentially contradicts the request for an active multiplayer community. But conceivably some brilliant design army could concoct a satisfying product that appeals to enough people to balance the demands and delivers a truly awe inspiring product. What is likely meant by ‘should be free to play’ is some form of monetization that involves cosmetics instead of denying the player access to meaningful portions of the advertised experience. This is an easier case to dismiss because it seems so unreasonable on the face of it, and yet this is often the kind of demand we make when we talk about a game’s monetization strategy. The second way it fails to account for cost is how the developer is likely to monetize the game. If we take the request as mandatory, then the only option left to a project like this is to use every trick in the book to extract as much money as possible from the player base through paywalls, loot boxes, experience boosters, telepathic data wizards, and hired goons. The cost here comes in the form of how the game will be shaped to extract the payment we do not want to give up in the first place.

A segmented market

The thing that struck me the most about the complaints about Battlefront II were that the consensus seemed to be that the game was very good and that the complaint was that the loot box system was the line in the sand because it would open the floodgates. It’s hard to see this complaint as any more than “I really want this game but I don’t want to pay for it.” What I think this marks is a clearer split in terms of the types of games that people buy and play.

It occurred to me that I selected out of big new AAA releases some time ago. This is not because I don’t like them, but rather than I have so many opportunities to play other things that it is not a good use of my money to buy a $79.99 (CDN) game when I will receive comparable enjoyment from an older game in my library or a lower cost independent game. I am quite fond of indie games of all shapes and sizes and their price is usually less than half of what the premium (AAA) offerings are. The quality of indies is increasing all the time, and so I think it is worthwhile for players to ask “knowing that I’ll probably wind up buying a few loot boxes, do I think this game is worth it?” and I think a number of people can honestly answer no and still be perfectly happy with the games they play.

Premium games almost seem to be taking an amusement park approach (or Costco or Amazon Prime). You pay an entry fee to come in and have a particular experience, but extras (cotton candy, popcorn, certain rides) come at a price. Some amusement parks, or Costco or Amazon Prime essentially make you pay to shop there, but the service and prices make this fee worthwhile. Sure, you can not have a snack or buy a souvenir t-shirt or any of these other things that seem to give people enjoyment, but you may be missing out on part of the experience and may resent the additional expense on top of the admission ticket. Whether it’s a game, an amusement park, or a store membership my advice would be the same: If you’re not getting the value, don’t pay for it!

It seems to me that games like Battlefront II and other ones that are supported through loot boxes are really intended to be the kind of game that the player mainlines for the majority of their play experience. I personally like a lot of variety and so have only a few games that I really go in deep with. Battlefront II does not seem to be one of those games, and so while I have tremendous respect for the achievement of bringing the Star Wars universe to life in such a vivid and exciting form, I have to say “this game just isn’t worth it for me.” I will, instead, support a game like Cultist Simulator because it looks interesting, it’s by a game designer whose work I have liked in the past, and the price point is very appealing. In fact, I’ve already Kickstarted it and so I have said “I value this” and have given the clearest possible signal that I would like to see more projects like this in the future. By selecting out of the top end of gaming, I also indicate that I am willing to accept limits on what the cutting edge looks like.

If gamers as a whole are willing to pay up for cutting edge experiences, then it is likely that teams and budgets will continue to expand in order to keep up with the arms race. If players are unwilling to pay directly, then part of that arms race will involve innovations in getting players to pay for these increased costs indirectly. If gamers are unwilling to pay at all (i.e. they select out as I have), then we will see budgets and the style of games made shift into something that is more sustainable. I think it’s unlikely that we will see big publishers like EA reverse course in terms of their premium products, but I also think that publishers like EA and Ubisoft are fully aware that there is a segment of their potential audience that wants smaller more impactful games with the associated reduction in price tags. Consider the EA Originals series, or games like Valiant Hearts (Ubisoft) which are high quality single player (mostly) experiences that are not intended to be something you put thousands of hours into. I happen to like this state of affairs, since it means that people who are looking for a game like Battlefront II can get it, and the profits go towards developing the kind of game that I see value in. What I can’t really stomach is the idea of looking at a premium game (which tends to imply a heavy degree of crunch or at the very least substantial effort on the part of the developers), wanting it, but turning around and saying to the creators “But I only think it’s worth 75% of what you put into it.”

The tent for gaming has gotten bigger, and this has meant that the ceiling for cost/quality has gone up along with the tools becoming more accessible and better for designers at the low and mid ranges. I cannot see how a greater variety of games being made available to us is a bad thing, even if it does mean that I am no longer consuming the bleeding edge of this market. It is hard for me to see people being priced beyond what they want to pay as being particularly outrageous given that games are so inessential and there is so much great stuff out there for very reasonable prices. If the complaint truly is about the way monetization strategies affect gameplay, then the decision seems even simpler. If the game has been reduced to ‘pay to win’ then the matchmaking will either be effective at balancing the match or it will fail. If the nagging to unlock content breaks your immersion in the narrative, this is a failure in the design of the game. If it fails, then it seems that this is no different from any other game with a defect, and it has never been easier to become informed about the quality of a game after release. In either case, we should make time and money available for the things we value, not the things we don’t.

What about gambling?

This post has focused more on the microtransaction aspect of loot boxes, since the majority of arguments surrounding addiction and gambling seem to be supporting the more fundamental position of “I don’t want to pay that much for this experience.” I think it’s important to understand why we’ve gotten to this point and why the people making games use these kinds of systems, but at some point we need to discuss whether or not we have any business implementing them and what the consequences are. I happen to think this is a much bigger issue than what most people want to talk about, and so, having discussed loot boxes as microtransactions, the next post will discuss the psychological aspects of loot boxes, whether it constitutes gambling, and whether such a system has any place in the design of games.

Note on affiliate links: I have an affiliate status with GOG.com for which I am given a portion of sales for traffic I drive to the site. The inclusion of a given title is for illustrative purposes first, but when it is available on GOG I will provide such a link. Naturally I encourage you to do your own price comparison or buy on your preferred platform. I include, on occasion, affiliate links from other broadcasters to support people who helped me in a given post or the cast in general. I have also received press copies of Stellaris and Crusader Kings II DLC.

Battle Royalties

You’re hanging out with your friends and take out your mobile phone to show them something. Before you can get to the site, one of your friends notices the carrier and proceeds to berate you for going with that other company that came after their own carrier. How could you support such a dishonest practice for a lower monthly fee or your preferred choice of handset? Their company was first! If we were actually talking about phones, this scenario would be incredible. Switch mobile phones with video games and this story is unremarkable.

The news is old at this point, but Bluehole Inc., the developer of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), issued a statement later in September accusing Epic (who released a free to play Battle Royale mode for their game Fortnite) of copying PUBG and even implying that specific PUBG innovations may be ‘leaked’ (or could be in future). Game fans being what they are, battle lines were drawn roughly corresponding to people’s preferred title. There appears to be a general feeling that Bluehole was overreaching, and yet I notice a certain persistence in some fans to insist that Epic has done something wrong, and I think something has been missed in the overall discussion. As such, I thought it would be instructive both to examine the case itself, and why Bluehole seems to be relying on a fairly undesirable trait in the gaming community to try and push their claim.

The perceived case against Epic

One curiosity that has emerged from this controversy is that the consensus seems to have formed around what people think Bluehole has said, rather than what their press release and CEO has said. The perceived case seems to be that Bluehole believes Fortnite is infringing on some kind of property that they own and that they should be compensated by Epic for ripping off their game. This is not what is found in Bluehole’s statements but rather my estimation of what a casual observer thinks that this dispute is about. I think this may be why I’ve found the conversation around this dispute so unedifying. Both sides, untethered to reality,  launch into their respective dystopias where PUBG fans envision indie developers being perpetually screwed by big companies and Fortnite fans forsee a litigious nightmare in which all genres are reduced to iterations of some ur-game (Bertie the Brain if you go by Wikipedia) and any developer that dares create a game is instantly buried under a mountain of royalty claims. Why spend time discussing untrue claims? They seem to be fairly prevalent, and communicate a misunderstanding as to the role of copyright. I need to entertain the possibility that at least some people reading this may also hold these views on either side, and so this will hopefully clarify a few things and move the discussion into more productive territory.

If we assume the battle lines are not drawn around fandom for a particular game or developer, then the dispute can be seen between one that wants to ensure the rights of developers are protected, while the other wants to ensure competition in the market for video games. The rush to dystopia outlined above is likely a function of the fact that both of these are entirely reasonable values, and it seems that when we discuss it we spend more time making the opposing side unreasonable rather than recognizing that these values are not incompatible. We desire competitive markets for a number of reasons. All things being equal, they seem to be fair: Anyone with a good idea can enter, and people can decide for themselves, rather than having some external force dictate who is allowed to make things. They ensure the lowest price while simultaneously stimulating innovation for fear that a competitor may offer a better product for less. Acknowledging that at least some subset of readers will not be so enamored with capitalism (and a smaller business-minded subset will be even less enamored with competition), I will at least offer that competitive markets have been deemed worthwhile enough to set up institutions to ensure they continue to operate that way, and that a broader evaluation of economic systems is beyond the scope of an article about a tiff between two video games.

Can we have perfect competition in video games? No. And not because it only exists in textbooks, but specifically because games are virtually costless to reproduce. Once the game is made the expected outcome would be for the price to effectively fall to 0 as distributors of this game enter the market to capture some of the surplus. In addition to ensuring the creator receives the rewards for this product, there are a number of other rights we want to protect as well, as I’ve discussed in two other posts. This protection is copyright. Copyright is not intended to protect the profits of a business. At best, it simply ensures that whatever revenues emerge from the work accrue to the rights holder. Another way to look at this is the old saying that copyright protects expressions, not ideas. Copyright ensures that I cannot put a character like Wilson from Don’t Starve in my own game, or that I can’t make a survival game based on Clementine from The Walking Dead without getting permission from the rights holders. However, the protection is narrow enough, that I can have a cartoonish gentleman scientist named Wilfred in my game, and Telltale cannot prevent me from producing my own adventure game in a world overrun with zombies with an adorable child as a moral center.

Hopefully these examples are enough to provide some intuitions as to why this version of the Epic-Bluehole dispute is a non-starter since genres are not covered by copyright. This does not mean that we have to like existing copyright law, as its protections are quite narrow, novelty doesn’t appear to be a requirement, and it has done a very poor job of protecting developers such as Vlambeer when their games were cloned. However I’m not sure the dispute is over the current state of copyright law, otherwise we’d be hearing a lot more about it. Before moving on to what was said by Bluehole in their press releases, I’d like to talk a bit about previous cases in gaming to see how we have navigated this territory in the past.

Past cases

While I was dismissive of the ‘copycat’ case, this is a matter that has been before the courts. There is an unfortunate tendency in discussions about gaming and intellectual property to say a given topic has been untested in court. While this is often true for a specific complaint, there are often instructive cases we can look to. Ars Technica has identified two potential legal cases that relate to this issue, and I found their analysis of the Fortnite and PUBG to be in line with the impression I had gotten from watching Twitch streams (though I think the differences between the two games are more substantive and so think they overstate the similarities between the games). I am not especially convinced by their invocation of the Sega vs. EA settlement as Sega claimed to have a patent in this case (although it has certainly piqued my curiosity as to that patent) while most disputes of this nature do not involve patents. The injunction granted in the case of case of Atari v. North American Phillips Consumer Electronics (link from the Ars Technica article) is more interesting. A memorable quote from that case observes “it is enough that substantial parts were lifted; no plagiarist can excuse the wrong by showing how much of his work he did not pirate.” In this case Atari was granted the injunction against a Pac-Man clone due to it capturing the “total concept and feel” of Pac-Man.

This outcome seems favourable to Bluehole’s argument, but it is important to remember that this case (and similar cases) are very much about the audio and visual components of the game and whether or not they are subject to copyright. Games are much more sophisticated today, and in the case of Fortnite and PUBG the one point of agreement seems to be the difference between the visual styles. When considering the ruling in favour of Atari, it’s helpful to actually look at the games.

Assuming that these look and feel rulings could be extended to gameplay, we should consider Capcom USA Inc. v. Data East Corp and Data East USA Inc. v. Epyx Inc. (there’s 6 years between these cases so I’m assuming this accounts for the difference in names). The Capcom v. Data East case concerned a claim of infringement between Street Fighter II and Fighter’s HistoryDespite the clear (and likely intentional) similarity of Fighter’s History to Street Fighter II, the supposedly infringing elements followed necessarily from the genre of karate fighting game and so were not protected.

These are not especially strong precedents for Bluehole as even if we were to move past the fact that all of these cases were about elements where there clearly is not a similarity between the Fortnite and PUBG, they would need to show how the areas of similarity did not follow from the battle royale genre. It’s already clear that one cannot copyright a genre, and so we’re left trying to establish that the allegedly lazy rip-off that is Fortnite somehow managed to copy something that was not essential to the genre (that is, they just copied the genre, but in somehow doing so they copied something extra that was not essential to the battle royale genre).

The actual case against Epic

Bluehole’s statements seem carefully worded to maximize on implications and put a lot of focus on Epic as the developers of the Unreal Engine. The original press release talks about their community’s “growing concerns” regarding the similarities in Fortnite (I don’t really think anyone heard about these concerns before the press release, but then, this statement could mean anything). Bluehole also says that Fortnite “… may be replicating the experience for which PUBG is known” which is more specific than “growing concerns” but isn’t especially concrete, and so hard to claim is protected. The specific issues that we can actually deal with are that Bluehole feels it is improper for Epic to make a competing game due to their relationship through their licence of the Unreal Engine, and that PUBG was mentioned in promotional material for Fortnite (presumably in reference to this video).

You may have noticed that promotional videos and advertisements often leave comparisons to “another leading brand.” When I saw Bluehole’s complaint, I had to wonder if this ad copy was a result of a legal restriction placed on mentioning a competitor, or if was because advertisers do not want to give any additional airtime to a competitor. The FTC have issued a statement on comparative advertising that answers this. Comparative advertising is permitted so long as it is substantive and truthful. This doesn’t provide us explicit guidance as it does not seem to be written with the scenario of ‘Help a competitor is saying nice things about my product and I want them to stop’ in mind, but it’s hard to imagine this complaint forming the basis of any litigation. Presumably Epic will be happy to comply with Bluehole’s wishes that they not mention PUBG in future, but I leave it to your own judgement as to how upset Bluehole actually is about all of this. The claim that Epic’s mention implies that Bluehole is ‘on board’ with the Fortnite battle royale mode omits H1Z1‘s mention in the same sentence and assumes that they are in a position to authorize such modes in the first place. Furthermore, Bluehole’s complaint that their players are misled to believe that they can play PUBG in Fortnite now does little to credit their players and is inconsistent with their other claim that they do not feel they ‘own’ the genre. In truth, I think very few players of either game know or care about the relationship between the two companies, and the statement seems tailored to the sort of person who does read up on industry gossip and is likely to take a stand one way or the other. To believe Bluehole’s claim requires that there are players who presently play PUBG, are aware that the developers licence the game engine from Epic, and then parse the sentence “At Epic we’re huge fans of the battle royale genre and games like PUBG and H1Z1…” in such a way as to mean ‘the developer of PUBG has allowed us to implement their game inside of Fortnite.’

In addition to the promotion issue, the relationship with Epic came up in the (not very clear) clarifying interview. C.H. Kim (CEO of Bluehole) believes that Epic should have talked to Bluehole  before embarking on their own battle royale mode. He also expresses concerns that a feature internally developed for PUBG could be “… leaked, or other things could happen.” This seems to be implying that Epic will steal source code from  Bluehole and release it as part of the Unreal engine, or otherwise make it public. If Epic does this then it seems that there are very clear mechanisms for Bluehole to seek redress, especially since they have been accused and convicted of the theft of valuable trade secrets from the game Lineage 3 and so have more working knowledge than most developers about this process. To the best of my knowledge Epic does not vet projects made using their engine and their audits are limited to financial ones in the case where they believe they are not being paid royalties. The most relevant sections of the Unreal Engine’s EULA seem to be 9 (Feedback and Contributions) and 11 (Ownership). These sections say that you keep your own code, but they are free to use any feedback and contributions you make (contributions being defined as “any code, whether in Source Code format or object code format, or any other information or content, that you make available to Epic by any means…” with certain restrictions). Bluehole is entirely in control of the code it submits to Epic, and the existence of Fortnite does not change this fact or the EULA. Simply put, if Bluehole thinks Epic is stealing their code, they should come out and say it, otherwise they are operating under exactly the same terms they were at the start of the project.

It is worth mentioning that Bluehole is not the only company under discussion that has been the target of litigation. Canadian developer Silicon Knights sued Epic for failure to provide a working game engine and sabotaging Unreal Engine 3 licensees. Other claims included a failure to meet a deadline to deliver a working version of Unreal Engine 3 for Xbox 360 developer kits, insufficient documentation, withholding improvements to the game engine, and using licensing fees to fund development of their own titles rather than the Unreal Engine. This case is interesting because it moves beyond implication, which is what Bluehole has provided, and claims that Epic has specifically been attempting to abuse its position when competing against licencees. Epic’s response to the suit was to counter-sue, effectively accusing Silicon Knights of stealing their engine. Silicon Knights had made something of a big deal over the fact that Epic’s mismanagement of their license required them to develop their own engine in house. As it happens, the engine Silicon Knights developed contained thousands of lines of Epic’s code, including comments (with typos), modified variable names, and the copyright notices removed. The judge declined to award Silicon Knights the damages they wanted (which included all the profits from Gears of War), and ultimately awarded over $9 million to Epic. Silicon Knights was ordered to recall and destroy all copies of Too Human and X-Men: Destiny (among other games that were under development and do not appear to have been released at the time of the judgement). The counterclaim muddies the waters quite a bit as the theft of the Unreal Engine is a bigger headline than whether or not Epic is allowed to compete with licencees, but so far as I was able to read, none of Silicon Knights’ claims regarding the crippling of the engine were regarded as legitimate (in many cases these seemed to stem from seemingly deliberate misreadings of certain deadlines), and no other developers joined their suit regarding the abuse of licensees.

When elaborating on Bluehole’s complaint I was surprised at how little substance there was to their position. The specifics of the complaint don’t change with the release of Fortnite’s battle royale mode. The statements are vauge and heavy on implication, which seems the only possible option when there is so little to go on.  But perhaps there is a moral case that has been sidelined in the discussion of the possible legal avenues Bluehole might consider. We will examine what could be considered a moral case before moving on to what I consider Bluehole’s true intention is with these statements.

The moral case against Epic

It is not a particularly good look to licence an engine to a game and then release your own version after it becomes successful. While I think Bluehole’s case against Epic is essentially non-existent, this post isn’t intended to be blindly pro-Epic. Nobody who has worked on a game really wants to see a competing product come out, though there is some consolation in the fact that this type of competition usually only comes after a title has been successful. But this competition will seem especially harsh when the company you are licencing your engine from enters that space and provides a free offering.

I think the optics of this decision are worse than the reality of it. Epic has always released its own games alongside its engine. Unreal Engine 4 is probably the most accessible version of the engine to date and there has been a concentrated effort to make a broader range of games with it. In addition, Epic has gotten out of AAA game development and is focusing on smaller projects that don’t require them to bet the farm with each new installment. With more people using Epic’s technology to make games and with Epic expanding its portfolio of games, it seems inevitable that there will be some overlap between Epic’s games and the ones that licence their technology. Of course, the Fortnite battle royale mode is not a product of random chance but a specific decision to implement a game mode because of another title’s success. The reason why I have such difficulty getting worked up about this is that I haven’t been outraged by any previous times Epic has released any of their own games. Epic have released plenty of First Person Shooters, including a free to play one, along with mobile games, MOBAs, and platformers, and people have continued to licence their engine for these types of game.

Is it the fact that the battle royale mode is in a different genre from what they normally do? Perhaps, but then, Fortnite is also different from what they have traditionally produced, and right now all battle royale games are different from their developer’s usual genre. Even if it were inside a more established genre, the question seems to be boiled down to: Can Epic pursue other lines of business given that it is the developer of an engine? It seems to me that we are best served when these kinds of rules and restrictions are in place to address some imbalance from the ordinary state of the world. For instance, we motivated copyright as being a means through which we can ensure creators have the means and incentive to continue to create in the face of an easily duplicated product. It is not clear to me what imbalance is created by Epic’s licencing of their engine. Developers licencing their engines is not a new practice, though the accessibility of these engines has improved tremendously. I don’t think there would be any particular uproar of Daybreak (developer of H1Z1: King of the Kill) opted to licence the ForgeLight engine to other developers despite the fact they would likely be competing with them. If we reverse the scenario and take a company likely better known for its engine now (Epic), the formula does not seem to change. That is, there does not seem to be any prima facie reason to restrict the lines of a business a game engine developer can enter into.

There also seems to be a tendency to think that Epic has made this decision from the top down, while I think the reality is that the decision to incorporate a battle royale mode into Fortnite came from the development team and probably only passed a layer of “we’ll be competing with a high profile licencee” at the top once they decided to implement the mode. This seems a lot more consistent with how battle royale modes have been developed historically. The original battle royale mode existed as a mod in multiple games, before being implemented into H1Z1, with PUBG being the first game to start off as a stand alone title. The popularity of this genre has led to the mod/alternative mode to be a dominant growth engine for most of these games, and Epic’s approach in adding the battle royale mode to an existing game is unremarkable compared to past implementations in this sense. Furthermore, I think gamers are largely underweighting the effort that Epic, or any other developer, needs to put in to implement a mode like this. The maps between the two games are substantively different, but in order for the constricting battlefield mechanic to work there should be no dominant strategy of going to a particular location (i.e. the whole map has to be balanced or it all falls apart). The construction of shelter is a genuinely interesting innovation to the genre, and the addition of traps is an element missing from existing battle royale modes that is present in the original inspiring material (the Battle Royale film). Discounting this effort is the same kind of thinking that leads to Reddit comments like “adding multiplayer is easy.” In some ways, it’s good that we’re not thinking about all the trouble a developer went through because we really just want to play the game. However, the fact that I think something looks easy should not give me licence to proclaim on what took effort on a developer’s part and translate that opinion into assertions as to what games they should be permitted to develop. I suspect the Fortnite team is being forthright when they say they love battle royale games, and that they thought that their interest aligned well with a clear demand for this kind of game. This is exactly the kind of thing we tend to praise in indies (make what they love, or what inspires them). I do think they came about this honestly both in terms of offering their own take on the genre and assessing it as being a good fit with their existing game.

When considering a moral case against Epic, I do think it’s worth considering the past behaviour of both companies. Bluehole appears to take a zero sum view of the battle royale genre. While I think it’s fair to say that they won’t be able to collect the same kind of surplus they did before the entry of Fortnite into this space, I also think they don’t allow for the fact that people playing the competing free to play game may lead to future purchases of their premium game (I speak from my own experience here where I did not consider buying PUBG but will likely try Fortnite at some point to see what all the fuss is about. I’ve gone from a 0 probability of purchasing PUBG to some slim probability I may find I like the genre and want to play more). I invite you to contrast Bluehole’s response to the dynamic between Chris Roberts and David Braben, designers of the seemingly competing games Star Citizen and Elite Dangerous. Epic does not seem to think in zero sum terms. It does compete with developers who use its licence, but it also funds its competition through the Unreal Dev Grants program. Unlike licensees, Epic has a vested interest in releasing the improvements it makes to the engine when developing its own games, and provides technical support for them. This is why it is not surprising that the announcement of the battle royale mode was followed by a series of related improvements to the engine. None of this has to be viewed as altruistic, but simply a function of the incentives that Epic faces as the licencor of a game engine. Epic’s business model seems to allow that encouraging the development of competing titles on its engine drives improvements and allows them to showcase successful or innovative uses of it. EA’s Frostbite and ZeniMax’s id Tech 6 engines do not follow this model, being used only for games developed by their respective publishers. As someone who plays more small and independent releases, I benefit more from developers that have access to high quality engines without being attached to a big publisher, but this also means that developers necessarily face a more competitive environment, regardless of whether the developer of the engine chooses to participate. In this light, Epic’s decision to implement a battle royale mode seems not only consistent with their past activity, and with the use of the Unreal Engine more generally, but with how past battle royale modes have been implemented in the past.

Bluehole’s strategy

While I have tried not to have a particularly strong prior when writing this post, I am generally more sympathetic to Epic’s case here. One reason for this is that I believe Bluehole is well aware that they don’t have much of a case against Epic and that their real intention with these press releases is to tap into an unfortunate and negative feature of gaming culture: a propensity to form self-righteous mobs.

It is hard to generate a lot of sympathy for a South Korean developer who has released multiple titles, including one of the biggest hits of 2017, and characterize it as a scrappy indie and so the interview with the Bluehole CEO contains a number of references to Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Green. The PlayerUnknown brand is what allows Bluehole to attempt to move from a fight between two successful businesses and instead reframe the discussion as “Hey, you could be the next PlayerUnknown. Epic is trying to screw you!”

The interview points out that Bluehole hired PlayerUnknown to develop the game and that the other major battle royale game, H1Z1: King of the Kill, hired him as a contractor to develop their own mode (which eventually became a stand alone game). This is an admirable decision, and I think it’s encouraging to have multiple instances of gamers who developed successful mods translate this success into careers (other examples would be League of LegendsDota 2and Ultimate General: Gettysburg). I also think this is an entirely sensible decision from a business perspective, since PlayerUnknown has the most human capital built up in this particular genre and was available for hire. While a sense of respect for PlayerUnknown may have been the motivation, it cannot be disentangled from the fact that Bluehole moved to establish itself as the first standalone offering of an emerging and popular genre. A large portion of their success can be attributed to being first to market with a viable standalone product, and hiring the person most familiar with this genre saves tremendously on time. Bluehole identified a gap in the marketplace and has been richly rewarded for it, but to reduce PlayerUnknown’s involvement down to an act of charity or respect is to understate just how essential he was to the success of the game.

What is smuggled into the conversation with this idea is that Bluehole “licensed” the battle royale idea from PlayerUnknown. The genre is not PlayerUnknown’s to license for the reasons that we have outlined above, and if Bluehole really did pay a license for the game mode that’s on them, not the other developers who are under no obligation to do so. Again, the implication here is that ‘unlicensed’ implementations of the battle royale genre are somehow denying PlayerUnknown (and by extension the millions of would-be PlayerUnknowns) an income. By focusing on the gamer turned developer, I believe Bluehole is attempting to poison the well for Fortnite and extend their nearly uncontested status in this genre through intimidating would-be entrants. If players were sufficiently outraged as to boycott or harass Epic (which was entirely plausible as  “Fortnite copied PUBG” is still an unprovoked comment you’ll see in Fortnite casts) then not only would Fortnite be eliminated as a competitor, but Bluehole would demonstrate that it essentially has a private troll army to frustrate entry into the genre unless they are paid a license. Not only do gamers lose out from the lack of competition, but content creators who simply want to play their game of choice are the ones who bear the brunt of such a mob.

While this is speculative, it is the simplest explanation to me why Bluehole’s statements on a subject that should otherwise be so clear are so heavy on implication. Epic has not stolen code, but Bluehole is apparently very concerned that they might. Bluehole hasn’t officially stated that they feel Epic should pay them a license, they only point out that Daybreak and Bluehole paid PlayerUnknown. An appeal to gamers’ tendency to form mobs is contemptible on its own, but doing so when the cost will be primarily be borne by people playing the competing game is unconscionable. Fortunately, it seems that a consensus has formed that Bluehole is trying to stifle competition, and that it is in gamers interest to allow a proliferation of battle royale games. I am happy to see this strategy fail.

Note on affiliate links: I have an affiliate status with GOG.com for which I am given a portion of sales for traffic I drive to the site. The inclusion of a given title is for illustrative purposes first, but when it is available on GOG I will provide such a link. Naturally I encourage you to do your own price comparison or buy on your preferred platform. I include, on occasion, affiliate links from other broadcasters to support people who helped me in a given post or the cast in general.

Copyright Revisited

I wrote a blog about copyright. I am happy with its content (perhaps not the style) but given the latest streaming controversy I thought it would be good to revisit the topic and make some ideas more explicit. Because so much of this topic deals with the recognition of an author’s work, I would like to acknowledge the work of Suzanne Scotchmer and her book Innovation and Incentives, which contains a useful primer on intellectual property law for non-specialists. It is a good economics text on intellectual property, and is available here (which is attached to an affiliate link for a good friend of my cast JessyQuil).

The essence of the case is this: A very popular streamer uttered a racial slur in anger towards a player while playing PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. In response, Sean Vanaman of Campo Santo (developers of Firewatch) announced he would be using the DMCA to take down the streamer’s Firewatch playthrough and bar him from streaming any future Campo Santo games. The issue of the slur seems clear cut to me, but the copyright issue seems to be far less clear and of more interest to streamers and the public alike. The problem is further complicated due to the fact that Campo Santo appears to have a very permissive streaming policy on their website.

As is common in most copyright disputes, the doctrine of fair use is invoked with regards to streamed content. Furthermore, we are interested in whether or not the broad statement on Campo Santo’s website can be ignored or retroactively revoked due to behaviour in the present. The previous article talked about copyright as a means for authors to protect their work from infringement, as well as abuse through associations they do not want to have made. Here I would like to discuss the issue from the perspective of fair use and see if the consequences of Vanaman’s actions align with our intuitions when we first hear the story.

What is fair use?

Fair use has been in US law since 1976, but has been recognized as far back as the 1840s. It is intended to retain some public benefit from copyright which is by definition a restriction on the public’s access to a creative work. The Stanford page dedicated to fair use offers two broad categories: Commentary and criticism, and parody. More granular examples would include news reporting, scholarship, search engines, library photocopying, as well as parody, commentary, and criticism. Essentially there are some exceptional cases where copyright should not apply because they are in the public interest.

Congress has not told judges the objective of fair use, only four factors to consider in deciding whether or not a work is infringing:

  • The purpose and character of the use
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount and substantiality of the materials copied
  • The effect of copying on the plaintiff’s potential market

To my knowledge, there has not been a court case to decide if streaming falls under fair use or not. While this individual case is unlikely to go before a judge and ultimately establish a precedent, we can examine for ourselves how closely our streams fall under these categories.

How does fair use apply to streaming?

I would like to reorder the list of criteria into what I think is the least complicated to the most complicated.

  • Amount and substantiality

While they are limited to a subset of all possible choices, let’s plays are as close as we can get to the entirety of a game being distributed online in a non-interactive form. This particular factor seems to be the most clear cut in the fact that ‘less is more.’ The less of the work you use, the more likely it is that you fall under fair use. The nature of streaming is that most, if not all, of a game is used in the creation of the content, and so I think that all of our work is ahead of us if we are attempting to base our fair use claim on this criteria.

  • The effect of copying on the plaintiff’s potential market

From the previous blog, we’ve talked about how not all coverage is good coverage. I am not a suitable candidate for an authority on this topic, but I can leave this magnificent twitter thread by @twittysuch as an example of what marketers think about streaming and its effects on the market. Her rather prescient thread anticipated the exact case that was the catalyst for this article. However, Vanaman did allow that the 5.7 million views potentially helped the game. It is possible that the specific video Vanaman issues the strike against may not run afoul of this criteria due to Campo Santo’s stance on streaming and his allowance that the video may have helped. Generally, streamers cannot rely on this being the case in their own circumstances.

The Stanford page cites Rogers v. Koons (960 F.2d 301 (2d Circ. 1992)) as an example of how works that are not directly in competition can still deprive a copyright owner of income. This case involved wood sculptures carved using a photograph as a basis without asking the photographer’s permission. The sculptures, which earned the artist several hundred thousand dollars, were claimed to be fair use due to the photographer not being a sculptor. The sculptures were found to be infringing as what mattered was the potential market for the sculptures regardless of whether or not the photographer had considered making them himself. This is an instructive case because so much energy is spent on talking about whether or not the experience of watching a streamed game is a substitute for the game itself or a complement. We often make distinctions between games like Firewatch (which tend to be very story driven and ‘movielike’ and so more prone to competing with the game itself) and something competitive like Counter-Strike (where the eSport component is a complement to the experience of playing the game itself and is usually enabled in client). It seems that we are having the wrong argument as this argument has failed to address the potential market that the law cares about. Developers seem well within their rights to claim that even though they develop and distribute games, streaming represents a potential market and so the work is infringing.

  • The nature of the copyrighted work

This is one of the most difficult to apply to streaming since the nature of the work refers to features such as whether or not the original work was fictional or non-fictional. Clearly video games that can be streamed are products that have been published (and ones that have not been released are not disputed when efforts are taken to remove the offending video). Fictional work is generally more difficult to copy from than non-fictional (from a fair use standpoint), but this seems to be a meaningless distinction in the case of games. What about a transfer between media: video game to live video? This is partially covered by our discussion of Rogers v. Koons above, but let’s consider another case that comes from Scotchmer.

During the run of Seinfeld the Carol Publishing Group published a trivia book called the Seinfeld Aptitude Test (SAT). The book contained references to the characters and quotes from the show without obtaining a license from the rights holders and the Carol Publishing Group was sued. Carol Publishing’s argument was that only minimal parts of the episodes were used and that more substantial use would be covered by fair use anyway. The court rejected both arguments, finding the trivia book to be substantially similar to the original work (the TV show). The fair use argument was rejected on the ground that it was not “transformative” which is the final category we will consider.

  • The purpose and character of the use

This criteria seems to lie at the heart and soul of most fair use cases and certainly is the most discussed when it comes to streaming. Does streaming have the tranformative aspect that we look for in the obvious cases of fair use? To demonstrate what I mean, consider the case of parody. Nobody can seriously claim that Spaceballs is infringing on Star Wars, or that Galaxy Quest is infringing on Star Trek. In fact, particularly good satire may go so far as to destroy the original work that it was based off of. This is a proud institution with a clear public benefit, and so I personally consider satire to be my favourite example (maybe even the gold standard) of fair use. It annoys the hell out of people and makes them want to stomp it out, and it’s very important that we not allow that to happen. Academic work is also a good example of a transformation, though for many of us it is a transformation from an entertaining product to a soulless, dry, scholarly artifact.

Our usual attempts to map these clear cut cases on to streaming is to point out the commentary of the streamer as enhancing or transforming the work. To use the phrasing from the Stanford page, a streamer’s commentary may provide “… new information, new aesthetics, new insights, [or] understandings.” As a streamer it is flattering to think so, and I do my absolute best to provide added value in my casts, both to differentiate my own stream but also to respect the game that I am streaming. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that commentary is simply enough.

There was a TV series that ran from the late 80s to the late 90s called Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K for short). The series consisted of hilarious commentary running over old B movies of highly dubious quality. While some accounts I have read attest to the films used being in the public domain, I recall some episodes were difficult — if not impossible — to get a hold of due to rights issues. Even though seemingly nobody would watch these films on their own merits, and the value of the work seemed to derive entirely from the cast’s commentary, a reasonable case was made that the rights holders of the original works should be paid. I find it hard to disagree with this line of reasoning, simply because I do not believe perceived quality should be a determining factor in the application of intellectual property law. Either I have produced a creative work and am entitled to its protection or not. I can entertain the possibility that the cast of MST3K was so hilarious as to transform these works to a point that would dictate fair use (as I think anyone who has seen the series would be inclined to believe), but it is also hard to argue that I am not letting my appreciation for the show affect my thoughts regarding its interaction with intellectual property law. I think it is commendable that MST3K sought the rights where it needed them, and by and large the format seemed to work. I am also encouraged by the fact that this kind of comedic alchemy was able to create value for otherwise worthless films simply because it creates an environment in which film financiers are more willing to take a risk on projects due to the ability to generate revenues from them (though there may be a perverse incentive to make especially bad ones that get showcased on commentary shows).

I give this example  mainly because few, if any, casters can ever aspire to the quality of MST3K, and so if they can’t claim fair use, I’m not entirely sure our commentary has any more hope. I can’t think of a single caster who can claim their commentary reaches the level of scholarship that applies for the academic transformation, and it would be absurd to argue that streaming provides a new aesthetic to a point that our work is described as transformative. Simply put, we’re not Joel and the bots, and we really aren’t adding that much to the game. We try our best, and we add value. In fact, a lot of developers seem to appreciate the work that we do. But even when I reflect on the best streamers I’ve watched, I really can’t say that they have transformed the game to a level where the streamer can claim to have created an original work that stands out as fair use. And more importantly, as the controversy shows, any claims that what we do is for the public good are highly suspect.

Should Campo Santo use the DMCA strike?

While my analysis above may be overly pessimistic for streamers, it is clear that there is a very difficult case to be made if streamers want to claim fair use. As such, we may want to move beyond whether or not Campo Santo can use a DMCA claim against the Firewatch video to whether or not they should.

I am genuinely torn by this. I think any developer should have the option to sever ties from public figures who can associate their work with views they find intolerable. Again, this is their property and they have every right to defend it. Of course, we are also worried that this can be used to silence criticism of a game. It seems to me that criticism is clearly covered under fair use, and that we have had means of informing consumers as to the quality of the game before streaming became a factor in purchasing decisions anyway. In truth, I’m doubtful that it would ever come to this, but even if it were, criticism is a place I’d be willing to plant my flag and say there is a strong case for fair use, which is why I have avoided discussing it here.

Despite how repulsed I am by the streamer who is at the center of the controversy (both past and present actions), I do find it hard to justify Campo Santo’s position here. In one sense, I find fault with their overly broad invitation for streaming. Compare the policy linked above, to Amplitude’s streaming policy. Amplitude’s policy goes down to the expected ESRB rating of the content on the stream. In this sense, it is hard to be especially sympathetic to Campo Santo’s displeasure at people’s streamed use of their product simply because this is a studio of veteran developers and it is not uncommon for studios to put restrictions or guidelines as to the conduct of the caster when streaming their games.

The biggest problem I personally have, and I suspect causes the most unease regarding this decision is the retroactive nature of the copyright action. The streamer’s content with regards to Firewatch was fine, and it was their behaviour a year later when streaming a different game that caused the problem. Again, the association is what’s important here, so even then it’s a grey area, and I suspect the battle lines are likely to be drawn largely around how much people like Campo Santo or the streamer. One might argue the onus is on Campo Santo to have done a better job of vetting who they gave their keys to, since this streamer’s current behaviour is not entirely out of character. Of course, a mistake in the past does not prevent its correction in the future, though if we want to hear their actual reasoning we need only look to Vanaman’s tweets.

Assuming we want to place some blame on lax vetting policies at Campo Santo’s feet, either in the form of the overly broad permission on their website or the willingness to ‘look the other way’ with regards to this particular streamer’s conduct, it’s important to remember this is a two way street. This streamer is a millionare from what they do. We have gone well beyond the realm of being a hobbyist, and with professionalism (even if only in name) comes paperwork. Their failure to get the proper permissions in writing is their own problem. Every other industry that relies on intellectual property has managed this, and virtually every public resource on this topic recommends that you get your permission simply and in writing.

The paperwork is what gives me hope. At the moment we exist in a wild west for intellectual property and most of our discussions have much more to do with our feelings and hopes rather than any sober evaluation of the facts. I am partially sympathetic to this simply because for most of us it’s a hobby and this is all it will ever be. But if we want to start taking this role seriously, and be taken seriously, then we need to start acting like it. This means checking for permissions before streaming things rather than relying on convention and goodwill. This means having to hear “no” when a developer does not agree with your vision for their project, or does not see the value in what you do. One day the free ride is going to end, and some will be better positioned than others to work in the new environment. There are certainly some content creators who are doing very well for themselves with some very liberal use of other people’s IP simply because the owners of that IP have not deigned to enforce their rights. So long as streamers continue to operate this way they will always do so at the pleasure of the developers.

Taking content seriously

Ultimately, while I can’t feel comfortable with Campo Santo’s position, this largely reflects how poorly streamers have positioned themselves. If your entire business model rests on one group not enforcing their intellectual property rights, then you are opening yourself up for a major risk that could come at any time. The next claim of this nature can come from anywhere. Consider that there was a fracas over a very popular trailer for The Last Night when one of the developers was revealed to have been involved (or at least supportive of) the gamergate movement. Suppose this developer, upon releasing their game, decided that any streamers perceived as ‘Social Justice Warriors’ would be subject to a DMCA strike due to disagreement with their views. The principles that enable us to approve or condemn Campo Santo should equally apply here, though I suspect there would be more (justifiable in my view) outrage in this imagined case.

So long as we continue to have these debates along ideological lines (that is “The streamer is right” vs. “Vanaman is right” based on our priors) I don’t see a resolution. As indicated in the previous blog that talked about this, I also don’t see Twitch using its resources to protect streamers’ interests when it comes to intellectual property either (their Terms of Service leave it entirely in the streamers hands to mange these permissions). If you are fine streaming at the pleasure of the developer, then you can simply continue as before and hope that they are not particularly ideological or, at least, are on your side. But for those who seriously want to consider making a living from streaming, we are long past the point where people can afford to ignore asking for permissions. Developers have put years and often substantial amounts of their own money to realize these projects. It is not just respectful of their efforts to seek out their formal permission to create content based off of their work, it is respectful of your own status as a professional content creator.