L’Affaire le Laissez-Faire

A little over a month ago Valve issued warnings to the makers of adult visual novels and others which became publicized resulting in controversy and uncertainty regarding the status of games with sexual content on Steam. A few weeks later Valve reversed this implied decision and announced that they would open the store to anything that they “…decide [is] illegal, or straight up trolling.” A lot of commentary seemed to react to, or at least occupy the same space as, Leaf Corcoran’s (of Itch.io) response that the new hands off approach was “ridiculous” and to keep “malicious, derogatory, discriminatory, bullying, harassing, demeaning content” off of Itch. Gamasutra summarized a number of reasonably high profile comments here.

Given that this news is already a month old, the best I can offer here is a room temperature take, but I’m struck by how the focus has been on free expression when I don’t think this is really what is at stake here. For all the effort to form two poles between the Itch and Steam approaches, the main differences are technological. Before weighing in on any of the commentary, I’d like to begin by examining possible reasons for Valve’s actions.

The economics of keeping games on Steam

Valve’s announced laissez-faire approach to Steam should be viewed in light of the original news that there was a coming crackdown on sexual content in games, which invites us to ask why Valve might want to take a game off of its platform. Valve has a pretty good deal going with the Steam where games pay $100 to be listed (recoupable after $1,000 in revenues), and they take 30% of revenues, meaning their variable costs are matched by increases in revenues and their slotting fee ensures the developer is on the hook for at least some of the on boarding/vetting costs of a game that does not sell.

Since the on boarding costs are sunk, why would Valve ever want to stop selling a game? There are likely two sets of explanations: Costs directly relating to the title itself, and knock on effects from a certain class of product. Direct costs are fairly intuitive to understand. For instance, Grand Theft Auto (GTA) seems to be a perennial favourite when it comes to identifying entertainment products bringing about the decline of civilization and so carrying that title also means assuming the liability of angry people complaining that you are carrying a product that brings about the decline of civilization. In physical stores these encounters are diffused among different locations and staff. For a digital storefront they are taking on the sum of complaints which will be directed to their staff who could be tending to other requests from other games, and are doing so on the internet which tends to alter the character of the interaction. Nobody would seriously consider removing GTA from Steam, but dealing with the associated complaints do represent a real cost for carrying that particular game over a less controversial title.

Indirect costs are a bit easier to understand when considering a class of games. A common complaint about Steam now is the discoverability problem: Getting a game in front of its audience when more and more titles are being released. Some genres take less time to create games for and so it is to be expected that there will be a proliferation of low-cost titles entering the market on a daily basis. The indirect costs can be summarized as follows: Valve may take 30% of sales, but if the problem is severe enough that customers are shown games that do not result in sales over games that would have, everyone loses. These costs can be compounded by discouraging developers to release on steam or even create the game in the first place, though it’s doubtful we’ve reached this point (this will be covered later). Forgone sales are one of the more quantifiable indirect costs, but the main point in considering both costs is to show that some titles will be more costly for Valve to carry than others and that it is likely there is a class of product that can be identified as such.

In light of these added costs we can now consider Visual Novels. Visual Novels are relatively low-cost products with a straightforward production model. So long as the game can sell more than the costs of obtaining art, words, and someone to glue it altogether, it makes lots of sense to put it on Steam, and the tools built to create the first game (say a script that links certain phrases with displayed character emotions or a set of templates to produce characters faster) can be reused, lowering the costs of future games. None of this is to make a quality judgement, as there are clearly people who  enjoy these games, and some of them (Dream Daddy, Hatoful Boyfriend, Doki Doki Literature Club) seem to have appealed to players who do not normally engage with this genre, but this is a recipe for overproduction and the potential crowding out of other titles.

A noticeable number of Visual Novels also follow in the fine tradition of independent and European films trying to sell into the US market. Hollywood has an edge on production value and spectacle, and so rival offerings need to offer something to entice audiences away. While I’m sure there are defensible aesthetic reasons for doing so, it is not a coincidence that these films have a fairly high incidence of the leading lady, sometimes the leading man, and sometimes everyone else taking their clothes off. Sex doesn’t just sell, it’s high margin. As with film there are plenty of Visual Novels that do not fit this description, but there are many that do and by their very nature are the most attention getting. Whether this is because the Visual Novel field is crowded or it is just one of the conventions of the genre, a product in this space is more likely to contain sexual content than a product in another genre.

Returning to our evaluation of costs, it’s pretty clear to see how both the direct and indirect costs can be higher in the case of Visual Novels, specifically adult ones. If discoverability is a problem, the economics of Visual Novels are such that we’d expect them to be a larger contributor. More importantly, the higher incidence of sexual content means that Valve will need to spend more time vetting entries to ensure compliance, and likely committing to additional costs as patches will likely command greater scrutiny than a game like Opus Magnum. Finally, it is likely there will be a higher incidence of reporting/complaints with this kind of game, either due to hostility at the lack of quality or with regards to content. Whether any of this seems fair or not, it is understandable for a company like Valve to turn around and say that these games are more trouble than they are worth and to reevaluate their place on Steam. The focus on games with sexual content suggests that Valve was aiming to curtail simple games whose primary draw was titillation, regardless of their profitability. The subsequent focus on the content of these games (as opposed to their volume) is unavoidable, as it seems to have been the only condition for reevaluation, but the motivation here is not personal dislike on the part of decision makers at Valve but the fact that this content was associated with other costs that Valve no longer wanted to bear. This distinction is important as it explains why The Witcher 3 or GTA V did not face the same scrutiny.

The economics of opening up Steam

Just as games have indirect costs, so do policy decisions. A vocal subset of gamers were upset, but this doesn’t carry very much information nowadays. Likely more concerning to Valve were the expressions of uncertainty on the part of game developers. As Amazon, Netflix, and Google will tell you, content is king, and so Valve has a vested interest in being the first place developers think of when it comes to distributing their game. There are strong network effects at play with Steam, and while they can be difficult to unravel, they can do so swiftly. If the speculation in the preceding section was at least somewhat correct, then the uncertainty of the developers who have already been chosen for removal is no big loss, and it’s debatable if this can be read as “First they came for the adult Visual Novels and I said nothing…”, but the publicity resulting from the reevaluations serve as a reminder for something that has always been true: A ban (de facto or de jure) from Valve can destroy your company. A large number of developers are not just big unhedged bets on the PC gaming market, they are bets on Steam itself. If your business model is built around releasing lots of small, low-cost DLC, Valve is one submission pricing decision away from making it unaffordable, and the announcement can come right in the middle of production. If you made small games that can be completed in under two hours, guess what the refund policy did to your revenues. I’m not sure if Valve has ever done anything quite so heavy handed as what was implied by the reevaluations for sexual content, but introducing this level of uncertainty will leave firms wondering if their next title should maybe be a mobile game instead.

The uncertainty created by Valve’s decisions is something of their own making given that they are so tight lipped, but it also made the announcement of the new plans all the more noteworthy. A statement from Valve is also a useful point for a summary since everything above has only been speculation on news about Valve. We know firms were contacted regarding the reevaluation of their games for content and that this became a fairly prominent news story. From Valve we know they were responding to that public discussion, that they are changing course, they now prefer the laissez-faire approach and will collect their 30% while only intervening in the case of illegality and trolling. We’re left asking if this is a good decision and what the consequences will be. Following our reasoning above, this essentially means that the uncertainty felt by developers after the news about reevaluation was more costly than the decision to leave things on the platform. This seems plausible seeing as developer uncertainty can be an existential threat to Steam in a way discoverability is not, as well as the fact that Valve privately contacted the developers for reevaluation but publically posted when responding to the media coverage of that decision. Valve’s post does also spend a lot of time talking about discoverability which inclines me to think that this has always been the focus.

Had the story not been public then eliminating the biggest problem spots (cheap titillating content) was seemingly the lowest cost way of clearing the channels and helping discoverability. The uncertainty created through the subsequent publicity was more costly than the gains from improved discoverability and so the decision was reversed. However, reversing the decision doesn’t solve the original problem and so the second best option is to invest in technology to help mitigate the discoverability problem. The opening of the platform adds another dimension to the problem, but I suspect in part it lessens the burden on the people handing reports and curation as the only real decision rule will be the Valve defined category of “Trolling” which may not reduce the volume of content complaints but can reduce responses to boilerplate “Valve does not curate…” messages.  The case for Valve’s reversal being caused by developer uncertainty is also strengthened by the fact that Valve merely announced the new policy with later implementation, while their usual pattern has been to implement then announce (even if it’s meant letting a negative story fester for longer than we’re accustomed to from other companies).

What does it mean to have an open Steam? The economist Joel Waldfogel has a good and readable summary on the effects of digitization on music, movies, books and television. At the risk of oversimplifying, Waldfogel’s conclusion is that digitization has created a golden age for these media and this is due to projects that otherwise would not have been realized but for the fact that digitization has lowered costs. Conclusions like this normally inspire a dismissive “Well that’s obvious” (if it helps, you’re very smart and I’ll be sure to ask you next time), but analysis like this is valuable because it helps us understand the mechanisms that brought about the outcome. I’ll take a point from Waldfogel and present it as a puzzle: Should the effect of lowered costs of production translate into marginal gains in niche areas, or will it produce unexpected hits that produce substantial gains? Most readers are likely going to know of some indie successes and so say that it will produce hits, but this does not harmonize with the ‘obvious’ conclusion that digitization produces a golden age. To see why consider that under the old model there would be gatekeepers who evaluate a given project and if the returns exceed the cost of production then they would approve it. Lowering costs allows more projects to get made, but these are projects with returns lower than the previous threshold, meaning we should see a proliferation of niche projects, not hits (which would have been produced under the old system). Where do the hits come from? The hits come from the fact that gatekeepers aren’t that good at predicting future outcomes for present day production and so lowered costs are allowing more hits to be realized outside of traditional channels. This is observed in the data through the growing share of self-published/independent/non-traditional projects in revenues or best seller lists. Since the quality or success of a given product is something of a random draw, the gains from allowing more products on Steam have an outsized return even when some of the ex-ante losers turn out to be ex-post losers.

If we think Waldfogel’s analysis has applications to gaming as well, then distribution platforms need to be better at predicting final quality, or the platform should be open as possible to projects that previously would not have passed gatekeepers such as Greenlight or a large publisher. But Steam already seems to have achieved this through the Steam Direct program. Morgan Jaffit’s (Defiant Studios head, makers of Hand of Fate 2) analysis indicating more winners and more losers seems to be exactly in line with the experience of other creative industries as reported in the Waldfogel article (though the an increased share of ex-ante losers in revenues is something of a matter of speculation given the notorious difficulty of estimating sales on Steam). This is why it is important to recognize the mechanisms through which the gains in other media were made, since these gains rest on the unpredictability of outcomes and the failure of traditional gatekeepers to manage it. The most relevant question stemming from the new lassiez-faire approach is whether or not quality guidelines are analogous to gatekeepers in terms of evaluating the value of products. If you feel that they are an impediment to high value products being realized, then Valve’s decision is a good one, will likely be profitable, and we’ll all benefit. If you feel they are largely irrelevant (possibly even orthogonal) to a project’s value, then the best case scenario from this decision would only be the incremental gains that will come from incorporating niche products.

Another way of examining this question is whether or not there is such a thing as a pornographic masterpiece. That is, is there a work of pornography (realized or unrealized) of genuine artistic merit that we have suppressed through these guidelines that would achieve a level of appeal beyond its traditional audience? Most definitions of pornography deny any aesthetic value, but if this is the only argument then we are simply begging the question. The same might be asked of hate speech (is there a work of bigotry of such sublime beauty that failing to publish it would impoverish our culture?), though this would certainly be illegal in some jurisdictions and so still banned. While there have been independent successes outside of Steam (Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress for instance), none of them seem to be products that would have failed to pass the Steam Direct system. These exceptional cases are always dangerous ground to tread on, and so it is possible that the unavailability of traditional commercial channels really has prevented a pornographic masterpiece from being realized in gaming, but it doesn’t seem like a product has emerged that has achieved universal acclaim within its own niche, let alone as a contender for mainstream success.

The reason we care about whether or not the gains from removing content barriers are incremental (i.e. niches) or the realization of mainstream hits is that it is what we should measure against the cost of lowering these barriers. For this we return to the discoverability problem and see just how far apart Itch and Steam really are.

The costs of discoverability problem

If we believe Waldfogel’s analysis applies to Steam then Steam Direct has produced gains above and beyond the incremental benefits stemming from lower costs for games. However, we started with the speculating that the impetus for reevaluating adult visual novels and similar games was the discoverability problem brought about by implementing the more open system. Waldfogel briefly addresses this in the “more research is needed” section at the end, though the idea of information cascades (the Bikhchandani, Hirshleifer, and Welch 1998 reference) does seem to be in line with the “big open” strategy employed by recent successful releases. Waldfogel’s summary does suggest that the cost of search (which we’ve termed the discoverability problem) may not increase, but I am operating on the assumption that this is not the case for games given that developers (who are better informed than I am) describe it and Valve has dedicated resources into mitigating it (and they see almost the entire market).

All of this may seem a bit abstract, so here’s an illustration of what this means. Suppose everyone had an app like Tinder which contained true information about potential romantic matches, but was optional to use and had some search preferences. Let’s say the search preferences start with the default setting of people who are very similar demographically to you and if the love of your life is present in this group, you will find them within two or three swipes. The next setting will put you in a pool of likely matches which, if it contains the love of your life, will find them in 7 to 12 swipes. Finally you can include literally everyone but you will not find the love of your life until 400 to 328,922 swipes. The growing number of swipes represents the increasing search cost as we grow the pool in search of that special m’lady or m’sir. Our choice of search setting is going to depend a lot on our expectations of how likely it is we’ll find our match in each of the groups. The cost difference between the default and second option is more than double, but is broad enough to be pretty appealing to risk averse people who want to maximize their chances. The literally everyone option is so costly that even if we turn the chance into a certainty, we may prefer to reserve it as a last ditch option (or abandon the app entirely).

Switching to Steam Direct seems a bit like switching to the second option in the example above. It does increase the cost of search, but the reward is worth it, especially if we’re looking to expand beyond what’s familiar. But we are unlikely to want the pool to increase indefinitely since the search costs don’t merit the increased chances of finding the love of our lives (game or person). If the benefits of removing content restrictions are analogous to the ones obtained through the reduced costs of games, then we should be willing to entertain higher search costs, but if the benefits are limited to the incremental gains of niche products then we may not willing to accept any additional inconvenience.

A key difference for Steam is that at the moment we are collectively setting one search preference for everyone, and so we’re deciding if we want to go from the expanded category to the literally everything one. It’s true that some people are not able to find the love of their life from the current choice (maybe this explains the desire for pornography), but the inconvenience to this group is considered the lesser evil compared to the universal inconvenience faced by the entire platform and its attendant frustration and likely abandonment by some users. To return to games specifically we can characterize search costs on Steam as the time it takes a customer to find a game they like, the forgone opportunity of Steam to make a sale by serving up the wrong recommendation, and the equivalent lost sale to the developer.

Valve’s new approach involves investing in technology to help lower search costs, including allowing them to restrict the pool of potential games they are exposed to. I don’t think anyone really knows how successful they will be at it. If Valve succeeds, then we will all benefit through faster matches to games we enjoy the most. If the system doesn’t work as well as they plan, then I suspect we’ll see a few more applications of the “trolling” criterion to keep users from encountering offensive content they wouldn’t buy in the first place. When looking at the Steam Direct guidelines, it becomes apparent that Valve hasn’t really given up a lot since half of the rules are already legal matters, and the remaining can credibly fall under a the trolling criterion. In fact, Valve offered some clarity on the condition and used a banned school shooting game as an example of what would not be permitted.

This brings us to Itch. Itch’s submission guidelines are extremely permissive, a fact that tends to be lost when you see people who have never used the site complaining about censorship in response to its founder’s Tweet. Itch also does not have the resources that Valve does in terms of being able to automate the curation of a given user’s pages and so they are less likely to propose a technological solution to the problem. Itch faces the same issues of discoverability and desire to maximize revenues as Valve but needs to employ solutions that reflect its capabilities. It is difficult to find a more direct solution than saying ‘don’t put this kind of stuff on our site and if you do we’ll ban you.’ If anything this is likely more a timely reminder of Itch’s existing policy rather than any kind of policy shift (so far as I can tell, the rules have not changed substantially since Corcoran issued his tweet or, indeed, years before he did). In fact, based on the clarification Valve offered to the definition of trolling, there seems to be very little difference between Itch and Valve in terms of what they consider (or will consider) unacceptable on their platform.

If it turns out there are substantive differences between Itch and the future Steam, it will be an interesting experiment in terms of whether or not these content guidelines actually do prevent the realization of good games. At the moment Steam is not my go-to source for interesting and unknown games but Itch is. The free speech warriors reacting to Corcoran’s tweet seem not to have been interested in the relative freedom of Itch’s platform to Steam Direct and Greenlight, and Itch has done fine without them. Gaming as we know it has also not collapsed under Valve’s relatively more restrictive policies, and Itch’s ban buttons are not likely to steer the industry into some kind of Hays Code. In truth, most if not all of the percieved difference is likely explained by Corcoran’s directness and Valve’s vagueness.

It’s fun to wrap oneself up in the illusion of a principled stand on free speech or against intolerance, but there really isn’t a lot for either side beyond rhetorical posturing. People who want to see the Valve decision an unmitigated win for free speech need to reconcile that with Valve’s follow up comments which seem to be banning exactly the kind of titles we’d expect a reasonable set of content guidelines to ban. Likewise, Itch’s permissive submission policies do not seem to have reduced the storefront into the dumpster fire predicted for Steam, nor has it seemed to produce the controversial hit that has demonstrated the outsized welfare gains from removing content restrictions. This is why I think the difference is merely technological and if anything Steam is shifting closer to Itch. The small scale experiment of Itch also suggests that the gains from loosening content guidelines are incremental for their respective niches rather than an opportunity for previously censored hits to finally be realized.

Seeing the realization of Valve’s promises will make all the difference, but my own expectation is that this decision will result in much needed curation tools being made available to users and developers, pornographic content will be made available (though the most egregious examples will likely still be banned) but will need to be opted in, and there may be some improvements made to the recommendation engine. Because the new policy will likely mean the entry of niche products, a ‘first do no harm’ approach would mean that most of the changes should be imperceptible to users, since these are products they have no interest in buying in the first place. So long as Valve is able to ensure these niche entries aren’t a nuisance to the rest of us, it’s hard to see this move as a bad one, but it hinges on both the new entries not being as bad as the worst that people assume (the hate speech case) and Valve being able to segment the user base in a way that doesn’t cause games we would have otherwise enjoyed becoming invisible to us. Of course, if Valve finds this problem is much more difficult than they anticipated, they have left the details open enough to make the changes modest and we may find the store isn’t all that different from the way it is now.

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, Humble Links support the streamer JessyQuil.

Games and Movies

Competency disclaimer: I have no background in game development, but I do have a background in film production. I write articles like this with some trepidation, as the world does not need another player of games telling makers of games how to do their job. However, in so far as the perspective of a former film practitioner is useful, I would love to see any conversation this may provoke in the comments.

While I have no authority to appeal to on this subject, it seems evident that games have been heavily influenced by cinema, particularly James Cameron/George Lucas style blockbusters (and many indies carry direct references to art/independent films that have influenced them). This is an intuitive step because movies convey meaning through a combination of images and sounds, and blockbusters in particular create a level of excitement and spectacle that are the standard for modern entertainment products. Furthermore, tapping into the conventions of cinema gives game developers access to a fairly sophisticated grammar that has taken us from understanding a message in 30 seconds to a mere 5 seconds or less in advertising. While borrowing from film seems like an obvious step, it may not be the most appropriate. What follows is an account of some ways I think cinematic techniques may be inappropriate for games, and some examples of alternatives that have been effective in games I’ve enjoyed.

How does a movie work?

Film theory is a big subject, and the knowledge applied on the film set may never find itself in a book, but there are some basics that find consensus among the practitioners who have written down their thoughts. One useful, idea that emerged was the theory of montage.

Just as Fascists saw the utility of the new technology of radio for propaganda purposes, the Soviet Union saw the propaganda benefits of film and dedicated considerable study to it. The theory of montage is best illustrated by an experiment done by a filmmaker named Pudovkin. Pudovkin filmed an actor with a neutral expression looking off camera and then edited this against three separate shots: a girl playing, a casket, and some bread. When viewers saw each clip they would credit the actor with a portrayal of a father’s love for his daughter, or terrible grief at his mother’s death, or unimaginable hunger. The performance gained meaning through the shot that followed it. The filmmaker Eisenstein developed the theory of montage further, but for our purposes it is sufficient to say that montage is the juxtaposition of two separate shots to create a separate meaning (if you took an undergraduate philosophy class, you might see a parallel to a common formulation of Hegelian Dialectic: Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis).

Montage is a useful framework for thinking about how meaning is created in film, but if we’d prefer to divest ourselves of any intellectual commitment with regards to meaning, we can at least use it to illustrate how editing is important and unique to film. I do not say essential as there are famous exceptions such as Rope and Russian Ark that attempt to be ‘one shot’ films, but, of the films that influence games, a large portion of the experience and meaning come from the juxtaposition of specific shots to provoke a particular response. Editing seems to be the one truly unique feature of cinema that sets it apart from theatre or radio. Consider how constant edits to the ticking clocks of the bottles (being opened or ready to fall) create tension in this clip from Notorious:

We can narrow our focus to the components of montage and consider the shots themselves. Even in a film like Rope, the choice of what to show the audience makes all the difference. This includes technical considerations such as the length of lens, depth of field, and exposure, but more importantly it involves the decision of what to include or exclude in the context of what the audience has seen already. This is cinematographer Bill Fraker discussing a famous shot from Rosemary’s Baby:

Divorced from the context of the film (or even away from the big screen), this shot is not likely to have the same effect as it did on the original audience, but it should serve to illustrate the point. Any camera is perfectly capable of conveying information, but when wielded by someone who understands the audience’s perspective the result is a special experience and one that is unique to motion pictures.

Shots and edits in games

Having considered the essential tools of shots and edits in film, we can consider how these might apply to games. At worst, they don’t fit at all, and at best they work in a very narrow sense for a type of game that has gone out of fashion. Cinematics are present in games, and shots and edits are used quite effectively to bring about certain emotional responses or to convey information, it is very difficult to say that this is the game so much as it is the game part being put on hold to provide context for the next interactive part. Shots and edits are out of place in games, and this makes it difficult to claim that cinema is a good reference point for games.

This is an example of a movie that almost certainly would have been better as a game:

Aside from Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project, which both presented the first person perspective as found footage to justify edits, there aren’t a lot of well known first person movies, and it’s easy to see why. This perspective gives up the most powerful tools for creating meaning in the filmmaker’s toolbox and really only gains a gimmick in return. Yet anyone who has played Amnesia knows that one of the biggest annoyances present in The Lady in the Lake is one of the most discussed experiences of the game. While moviegoers’ patience wore thin watching Philip Marlowe open yet another door, Amnesia’s players lost their mind fumbling with the game’s doors while monsters chased them.

Games do not directly lend themselves to edits beyond loading screens, which are motivated for technical reasons rather than narrative. This is not a failing of games, as it would be very unusual to be playing a game and suddenly have the perspective change. One case where this worked well was the prologue for Battlefield 1, where dying would move you to another soldier on the battlefield, but even this excellent choice could not be sustained for the rest of the game. Most, if not all, of the interesting choices with regards to shots are also absent from games since the player is in control of the camera. It is not possible to have a Rosemary’s Baby moment in most games because the player controls the framing.

There are exceptions, and it would be much more difficult to make this case in the past as Resident Evil, among others, used fixed camera angles that allowed for pre-rendered backgrounds (Resident Evil also readily reveals its inspiration from Stanley Kubrick and Lucio Fulci). The introduction of Chris Walker in Outlast also relies on a forced perspective and, while it is technically a non-interactive moment of the game, is fairly seamless in its use. Of course, Resident Evil has long since moved from pre-rendered backgrounds, and it may be better to say that if cinema is to be a reference point it is most effective in the horror genre, rather than for games in general.

This is not to argue that cinema is useless for gaming, or that it should not be used as a reference point at all, but rather point out the limitations of this reference. With fewer technological constraints it becomes easier to recreate our favourite movie moments in an interactive format. Yet, as in the case of Resident Evil, the more effective use of cinematic techniques were driven by technological constraints. The Mass Effect series has generated more alien worlds and species than all the Star Wars films, but it is still not clear how this moment from The Empire Strikes back could be realized in a game by anything but a cutscene:

Alternatives to movies

A movie without shots and edits seems a lot closer to a theatrical production or a radio play. As it happens, radio drama contains more parallels to how stories and experiences occur in games than movies. Like film, technology is essential to radio drama, not just for its broadcast, but for its creation (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in addition to being hilarious, was the first radio drama to use stereo and it made a huge difference for that particular story). Critically, radio is confronted with the fact that it only has sound to convey its ideas. The absence of a visual component means there is always a space for the audience to create part of the story in their head. The difference may be best illustrated with old story in advertising of a radio and TV advertiser arguing over the merits of their respective media. The radio advertiser wins the argument by proposing a commercial of a 700-foot mountain of whipped cream rolling into a Lake Michigan that has been drained and filled with hot chocolate, after which the Royal Canadian Air Force then flies overhead with a 10 ton maraschino cherry which is dropped on top of the mountain to the applause of 25,000 onlookers.

When I reflect on the stories and moments in gaming that have engaged me the most and seem to be unique to gaming they tend to be cases with enough suggestion to get my imagination going, but not enough to think for me. Sunless Sea is well known for its writing, but I am particularly fond of the decision to give enough time to reflect on and digest what happened between ports (even if this lull was a complaint among some players). While it isn’t out yet, In Other Waters restricts your perspective to an AI assisting the xenobiologist, and has a companion book to provide another glimpse of the world. The demo was visually attractive in its own right, but it also gave me enough to imagine what my in game companion was describing. Cultist Simulator goes even further than the previous two by keeping time running and trimming down the text. While the game is entirely card and token based, there has not only been enough to keep me talking about what’s going on in the world during a stream, but also to make fairly clear mappings to my own life. Finally, Paradox Grand Strategy games like Crusader Kings II are, in essence, maps, stats, and text boxes, and yet the most rewarding way to play is to role-play your ruler and go along for the ride as the events and text provide more momentum for your imagination.

While one might argue that pausing to read text is a poor man’s cinematic, the fact remains that in all of these games the player is given the interesting choices to make, and there is enough information given to keep the imagination going during the real time components. These games play to gaming’s strengths by remaining interactive, while still being able to tell a story (unlike Space Invaders or Offworld Trading Company which are pure interactivity).

What can movies teach?

Movies can be very helpful in specific technical areas. Obviously if a game contains cinematics, the team would be wise to learn the techniques. Movies by good cinematographers will teach valuable lessons in colour and lighting, though these cinematographers are often inspired by great painters (especially the Dutch masters). There is also no accounting for the sources of inspiration, and so at an individual level movies may provide the creative spark that eventually becomes a very good game.

However, cinema’s use as a reference is likely due more to its dominant position rather than its suitability for gaming. Montage allows an audience’s imagination to be engaged as in the case of radio above, but this technique is not available to gaming due to its interactivity. It is more appropriate to seek out other examples of how authors have engaged our imaginations in real time if we are looking for applications to gaming. Seeking inspiration from examples like radio drama allow us to make games that rise above ‘movies but with the essential features removed.’

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, and Humble Links support the streamer JessyQuil. I have also received press keys for Offworld Trading Company and Crusader Kings II DLC.

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.

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.

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The Secret Reason Your Favourite Streamer Hates You: Backseating


This article is the first in an intended series on ‘viewers behaving badly.’ I say intended because I am familiar with the frustration that comes from an author proposing a series only to leave it unfinished and so take David Kreps’ approach in his Microeconomics Foundations I: Choice and Competitive Markets: advertise the proposed series (a trilogy), fail to produce another (so far), but leave an escape route disclaimer of saying the series may never be finished (it’s also a very good and inexpensive micro textbook, though the math would probably turn off most readers here. Perhaps try a campus library if you live near a university). The reason I propose it as a series is because I would prefer these posts to aspire to more than simply ranting about behaviours I specifically get annoyed by, and instead address common threads that can be found among streams and address the reasons why certain rules exist. My ambitions for the series aside, any claims to objectivity will be undermined by the ability of long time viewers will no doubt be able to identify the catalyst for a particular article. In short: I hope to do more than just complain about my audience, but I don’t think it’s at all useful to detach myself from things I personally find irritating on stream.

Origins of the Term

While I’m not familiar with any history of the term, backseating seems to have its origins in the phrase backseat driver, a pejorative for unsolicited advice while driving. Unsolicited advice seems like the most basic foundation for the phrase as one needs no more than an understanding of the words, while the phrase backseat driving seems to create a little narrative to be filled in by the audience. Imagine teaching english to someone and having to define backseat driving, let alone backseating. The negative connotation is directly present in the term unsolicited advice, but potentially is amplified through the drama of the phrase backseat driving. Both cases are annoying, but backseat driving adds to it the active contribution of a distraction from an activity that should command the recipient’s (i.e. the driver’s) full attention.

Taken literally the term backseating makes no sense. There are few, if any, back seats to a stream and while one may rely on prior experience when explaining backseat driving, the term backseating requires familiarity with the term backseat driving to make any sense. I also think this term has grown to encompass more than its origins, and so I would like to mention some sister concepts that I think have been rolled into what we refer to in backseating. The term armchair quarterback is probably the most familiar, referring to a football spectator who mistakes their fandom for expertise and pontificates on what teams ‘should’ have done. A related term, armchair general, I thought had emerged from wargaming, but apparently goes back further (and at least according to Wikipedia goes back to Clausewitz, though doesn’t have a citation). Armchair revolutionary (indeed the whole set of ‘armchair ‘) and keyboard warrior express similar sentiments for amateurs who are fast to criticize without any skin in the game, though personally I hope that we might reinvigorate the granddaddy of all of these phrases and go back to calling them dilettantes.

Despite its older origins, I see backseating as a new coinage with its own specific meaning for what is a decidedly modern phenomena. It combines the unsolicited advice and distraction of backseat driving, the presentation of knowledge without substance of a dilettante, and the criticism divorced from the context of actual involvement present in armchair general.

Backseating on Streams

Each streamer will have their own policies for dealing with backseating, though a casual glance at a random draw of streams is likely to show that the activity is pervasive enough to be mentioned in the rules and that it is viewed as negative enough to be forbidden. I know of one streamer who has gone from a strict no backseating policy to being a little more open ended, a handful who have gone from being somewhat placid about backseating to being annoyed to outright banning it, and the majority I know forbid it outright. I do not have an explicit set of rules for the stream, though, for my part, consider backseating to be self-evidently unwelcome, the same way I would consider racism or harassment of other chatters to not require explicit rules (in my experience both as a mod and a streamer, a list of rules only invites attempts to litigate everything down to the simplest purge).

Despite my exceptional distaste for backseating, I don’t actually consider its motivation to be entirely negative in all cases. Furthermore, there is something interesting in the fact that backseating requires special mention in a list of rules, rather than having its own unspoken but self-evident social penalties like public flatulence. In the next few sections we’ll consider not just the positive and negative motivations for backseating and their effects on a stream, but also why this kind of activity has become pervasive enough to require special rules to be set up in streams.

Negative Motives for Backseating

We will begin with the obvious motives stemming from the original phrase backseat driver. The backseater wishes to assert control over the stream due to their discomfort with what is presently being done on the cast, their lack of faith in the caster, or their wish to be in control. There is little mystery as to why backseating is largely perceived as a negative in these cases because they involve taking control from a streamer, and an unfavourable assessment of the streamer’s ability to conduct their cast. While likely not a conscious motive, the backseater wants the attention of the audience and creative control over the stream without actually taking the effort to build it themselves. This attention seeking behaviour might also be motivated by the impression that they have a secret that nobody else knows (since the rest of the chat is presumably not backseating), and an overwhelming desire to prove that they know what these ignoramuses can’t seem to fathom.

What makes this particularly frustrating is that while driving can at least be justified through a fear of safety when the driver behaves contrary to the backseater’s wishes, no such fear of safety exists in the context of a stream. Furthermore, streaming almost always takes place on a service with a plethora of options, and so not only has the backseater opted into the particular stream they are interrupting, but they have any number of options available if they are dissatisfied with the stream they are viewing. Here, not only is backseating not just disrespectful to the streamer, but disrespectful to the audience through insisting that the content they are enjoying should conform to the backseater’s wishes, rather than the backseater seeking out entertainment more in line with their expectations.

The primary (or at least the apparent) motives for backseating then appear to be the negative ones: A desire to be in control or the centre of attention, a disrespect for others’ abilities or priorities, and a sense of entitlement that demands their whims be catered to.

Positive Motives for Backseating

Backseating does not always come with a nagging whine from the back of the chat to “play better.” It may also come in the form of seemingly helpful advice. Streamers are more or less expected to communicate throughout the cast and so  will likely discuss their frustrations or confusion at certain parts. This can be misconstrued as a request for help, much the same way that a greeting of “How ya doin’?” can be taken as a request for information. Even if a streamer does not verbalize their thought process, the mere fact that the game is not in a state of constant progress (or the player is on a losing streak or what have you) may be perceived as an invitation for ‘advice’.

My own feelings on backseating are manifestly apparent by now, and so it will not come as a surprise to know that I doubt the sincerity of most of these cases, though even I cannot deny that there are some legitimate misunderstandings. However, I have also been present for casts where a viewer claiming to have never have played a given game was displaying a tremendous insight into many solutions to puzzles they ‘just noticed’ after a few minutes of the streamer going through the level. Even in the case of a genuine effort to advance the game, I can’t help but think that the dominant driver in these cases is to display knowledge about the game, rather than a benevolent wish that streamers get through their content as efficiently as possible.

Another potential positive motive for backseating is an viewer’s desire to participate in the stream. Streaming is an interactive medium, and a large part of its strength stems from its interactivity. That said, these are the very kind of good intentions a famous road is paved with, and the destination is the same. Rather than sharing in the stream, backseating wrestles control away from the broadcaster. Interactivity is a desirable feature because it is a shared experience, and backseating violates this principle through attempting to take control.

The Impact of Backseating on a Stream

Having considered some of the motives behind backseating, we will turn our attention to the much more important matter of how it affects the streamer and the stream. The first and main consequence of backseating is distraction. The streamer is no longer focused on the game or the entertainment but instead must now deal with this interruption to the natural flow of thought. While it probably does not require elaboration, an analogy may be in order. Everyone has a way of getting ‘in the zone’ whether it’s absorbing oneself into a good book, delivering a speech, getting absorbed in music, trying to solve a tough problem, or getting into an exercise routine. It’s a unique feeling, not really appreciated in the moment (the lack of distraction or absence of self-awareness is key to me), but certainly recognized after its passed. Backseating is an imposition of the outside world on a blissful mental state that is difficult to achieve. The streamer’s mind is no longer juggling the game, the channel, and their presentation in harmony, but has had one of these elements disrupted, breaking the focus. More experienced streamers may find it easier to regain this state, or find it more difficult to be shaken by outside disruptions, but it remains an unwelcome intervention from the outside world into a state I feel is conducive to the best and most enjoyable casting.

In a related way backseating is disruptive because of its disrespect. There is likely to be a degree of variance between streamers’ egos, and so the disruption is likely to be negatively correlated with the streamer’s sense of self. Again, personal experience is likely useful here. I’m those who have had the misfortune of meeting me in person will say I have no shortage of ego, though I am secure enough in this fact so as not to be too bent out of shape if a stranger on the internet doesn’t think I’m good at a video game (notice, after all, they’re watching me, while they have only succeeded in distinguishing themselves through disrupting my content). That said, it is hard to shake a twinge of annoyance at the assumption you not only did not know the solution, but were so hopeless you required intervention. This feeling of disrespect is amplified through the fact no consideration is made to the fact that the streamer’s concentration is divided between the chat and the game itself, as well as the fact that the most skilled choices are not the most entertaining. My Crusader Kings II casts are a good example of this: I have hundreds of hours in the game (a majority of it, in fact, on cast), and while I think there’s always something new to learn, I feel quite confident in my command of the game’s mechanics. This is also a game that derives a lot of its magic from the emergent stories, and so my understanding of the game’s mechanics is coupled with a willingness to make sub-optimal but dramatically appropriate decisions (legitimizing a bastard when you have an heir is only asking for trouble. However, the resulting story of how you sired a bastard son through your son’s wife, legitimized the bastard, only to have him grow up and assassinate the legitimate heir to inherit the kingdom is worth the potential fallout). Ultimately, the best casts are where the streamer is sharing something of themselves with the audience, and so any backseating, whether its instruction in the game, or demands for a certain style of casting, digs at this personal aspect and attempts to hijack the effort. A viewer can take or leave the content, but should not try to subvert it for their own ends. Nobody has the magic formula for streaming success, and not every stream needs to be the same. Sometimes casters need to find their voice, and they are not going to be assisted through malcontents spoiling the fun for everyone.

Fundamentally backseating also strikes at the heart of what makes gaming enjoyable. While this is something of an old example, consider the controversy surrounding the estimated playtime of The Order: 1886. While there was some dispute as to the duration of a representative playthrough of the campaign, a consensus seemed to form that the game was short in duration, and that this was a bad thing. Concerns about quality adjusted playtime notwithstanding, there is a fairly simple observation to make here: people seem to prefer more of a game than less of a game. Obviously this is with everything else being equal, and there is certainly a point where a game can be too long, but it’s a lot easier to feel cheated with too little of a game, than disappointed with too much of it. Part of the length of the game is a function of how difficult it is. Most classic adventure games are quite short (I’ve run through Day of the Tentacle twice and did not need to split it over casts), but don’t feel short because of the process of figuring out the puzzles. NES games are another great example of this as the limited space on the cartridge means that the duration of the game had to come from something other than increasing the number of levels (which is why some of these games seem arbitrarily difficult). With very few exceptions there are supposed to be points in games that present a challenge and require some thought to get through. Denying the streamer the opportunity to solve the puzzle means the experience on display is not what the developer intended, it diminishes the streamer’s enjoyment of the game, and it also diminishes the stream’s enjoyment of the game twice over given that there is less content to experience, and the stream is no longer able to experience the streamer’s thought process through a difficult part of the game.

This is possibly the most important and damaging consequence of backseating. Streamers have access to the exact same information as anyone else and if they wanted to be told how to advance in the game they would either consult a guide or directly ask chat. A viewer that attempts to backseat not only diminishes the caster’s enjoyment of the game, but ruins the fun for everyone else who is watching. Given that some population of a cast will have arrived because they are interested in the game, it is safe to assume there are multiple people in a given stream who will know the information being communicated by the backseater. The backseater’s solipsism is not an excuse for ruining everyone else’s fun.

The Spread of Backseating

Why is backseating a problem now? Or, if it’s always been a problem, why does it seem so much more prevalent? First, both the appearance and the fact of increase backseating can be attributed to technological progress: Where we originally had to be physically present to backseat drive, communications technology have expanded our capabilities to be irritating to virtually anywhere. Likewise, because streaming can be so personal (the audience is invisible, and the streamer appears to be speaking directly to you), the backseater’s disregard for others is reinforced by the environment. Finally, through various fan wikis and forums, it is possible to gain any information about a given game at a moment’s notice. While the fact that someone can do this is unremarkable, the illusion of possessing knowledge seems to be preserved through the fact that nobody can see how someone got this information.

Beyond these surface explanations, I think there’s something a bit deeper behind backseating. Overall there seems to be a diminished opinion of experts across more or less any discipline. If you don’t like the results from your doctor you can go to another one, or even consult a website to self-diagnose. Don’t know an answer to a problem? StackExchange has got you covered. Need some trivia on history? Just go to Wikipedia. None of these options are inherently bad and, in fact, are likely edited or curated by experts. What the accessibility of these sites has done though is allowed people to replace the knowledge of how to solve a problem with how to look for someone else’s solution. In many cases this is replacing actual knowledge with the mere appearance of it. An analogy may be fame. Before photography, you had to be someone very important for others to know what you looked like (your face was on a coin, or images of you were widely distributed in various buildings like churches). Now photography is cheap, and easy, and it is enough to simply be famous for being famous. Given the seemingly limitless capacity for celebrities to offer opinions on matters of importance, we don’t seem to have lost this deference we give to the people whose images we see all over the place, but the barriers for entry seem to have been significantly diminished. Likewise, it is not especially difficult to express an opinion online, and the fact that one can do so seems to have created the illusion that one voice on the internet is as good as any other’s. In addressing the phenomena of fake news Obama offered that “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.”

We implicitly acknowledge the value of experts through our consumption of the information they provide, but we want to receive the credit for disseminating the information. Just like it’s simple to download seemingly anything: a song, a game, a book, a movie, we are able to take just about any information and pass it off as our own discoveries. If I read a walkthrough for a game start to finish and play the game, I am going to feel like I am the one who beat the game, but I was simply the instrument through which the walkthrough operated. It is not the same accomplishment as playing from start to finish without assistance. Finally,  while good streamers make it look easy, streaming is actually fairly difficult to do (at least well). Of course, one needn’t go through the trouble of finding an audience and building a community, when any given streamer has already done this work for you. All you need to do now is demonstrate how much more you know about the game than the streamer through backseating and you can show how much better you’d be at the exercise if only you had enough time off from kicking ass at video games.

Of course, this type of expertise is an illusion, but it’s a powerful one. I can recall coworkers who genuinely felt that knowing they could find a solution to a problem was equivalent to solving a problem, and I think plenty of people online expect that their opinion should receive the same weight as a well reasoned argument simply because both parties are speaking the same language and are on the same forum. Our reward mechanisms are roughly consistent with these views: homework and reports are often graded on outcomes, not thought processes. Most online discourse is graded on how well an opinion aligns with the audience’s prior (sort Undertale’s negative reviews by most helpful for an example). The appearance of expertise is much simpler than obtaining that knowledge for oneself, and so much more effort is now expended in finding the biggest platform to display this false knowledge than obtaining the genuine article.

This problem is as old as Plato’s Ion (the bard who claims expertise on generalship due to his understanding of Homer), and yet now we seem to be taking Ion seriously. It’s never fun to admit we don’t know something, and yet it’s an important ability to have. It’s impossible to talk about this and not acknowledge the fact that not only is it possible to be elected President on the basis of being able to play a successful businessman on television, but the appeal towards a lack of experience is actually considered a positive feature to campaign for any number of populist candidates following in the wake of this outcome. Where politicians aren’t directly articulating policy that is ‘just like the average joe’s’ they are directly turning it over to the public in the form of referenda. These are representatives who, if they don’t possess expertise themselves, should at least be consulting with experts to make decisions turning that responsibility over to people who do not have access to this expertise. Even the news is reporting an opinion poll on everything, as if their job wasn’t to inform people about the facts.

In an environment where so many important issues have now been surrendered to seemingly anyone, is it any surprise that seemingly anyone feels entitled to instruct something as trivial as a stream as to how to do things ‘properly’? Backseating a stream allows the quick rush of displaying the possession of ‘secret knowledge’ in front of an audience who is clearly invested in the game you are talking about. But the ‘fame’ is as illusory as the knowledge. Nobody really thinks it’s impressive that someone in chat knew what everyone else knows is public knowledge. In truth, chat should, and likely does resent the backseater for taking away from their experience. The streamer resents the attempt to wrest control of something they’ve put considerable effort into.

Games aren’t fun as play by chat, streamers aren’t fleshy controllers to implement your instructions, and if the audience were interested in your gameplay, they’d be in your stream. This is why I feel the net result of backseating is so negative as to not even require articulation in the rules. But if I must articulate a position I’ve already primed my bot: “Support the devs, buy the game for yourself, and LEAVE THE STREAMER ALONE!”