With Star Wars Battlefront II, Disney and EA May Have a Gambling Problem

November 16, 2017, 1:22 AM UTC

After months of anticipation, Star Wars Battlefront II made its U.S. debut on Tuesday, immediately making its dent in the video game galaxy. And while last minute changes designed to address gamers’ complaints about the game’s difficulty were made, a controversial decision that lets players pay extra to unlock the game’s best characters more quickly has caused some Star Wars fans to rebel on social media, saying the game’s loot crate digital rewards system is a form of gambling.

The concern is over how Battlefront II rewards players with loot crates filled with randomized items. In addition to earning these crates, players can also buy them via microtransactions that convert real world dollars into in-game currency. But since the items are random, players don’t know what they’re buying, and that could be a problem for both Electronic Arts (EA) which developed the game, and Disney (DIS), which owns Star Wars.

This meme has been circulating online since Tuesday:

In order for a game to be legally considered gambling, three elements must be involved: consideration, prize, and chance. Money that a person pays to participate in a game is the consideration. The game’s rewards are the prize. And chance is any random element that can effect winning. So, if you’ve got a game of chance (like rolling dice) that’s pay-to-play and has a prize—like street craps—it’s gambling because it has all three of the necessary elements.

However, some games, like a church’s bingo night, may also have a consideration, prize, and chance, but they typically fund non-profits and are heavily regulated, so they tend to be regarded as legal. Meanwhile other games like poker have been made admissible under some states’ laws because they are arguably games of skill, not chance. The argument here is that regardless of how the cards are shuffled, a skilled poker player has the ability to effect the outcome of the contest.

Video games like Star Wars Battlefront II are rarely even considered to be gambling because they’re typically thought of as games of skill. Players have the ability to control their own fate through their knowledge and the expertise they’ve amassed while playing the game repeatedly. Also, video games aren’t typically thought of as gambling because there’s usually no consideration, and their prizes have no cash value.

But two elements of the new Star Wars game have muddied this water and led gamers to call the title “gambling.” The first element is the randomized prizes generated by Battlefront II’s “loot crate” reward system. The second is EA’s decision to let gamers use actual money via “microtransactions” to buy “crystals,” which can in turn be redeemed for loot crates full of randomly-assigned rewards. Players can earn crystals through gameplay without spending any money.

It’s worth pointing out that Star Wars Battlefront II is not the first game to use loot crates or microtransactions, and that video gamers are generally vocal critics—especially regarding changes to games and franchises they hold dear.

Battlefront II’s gameplay aside—which is definitely skill-based—EA’s decision to provide random prizes in exchange for money pushes against the legal definition of gambling. The singular act of buying loot crates itself is similar to playing scratch cards, because there consideration (the money they have paid paid for crystals), chance, and a prize. It could be argued that the items in the loot crates have no monetary value, but it’s also reasonable to prescribe value to the rewards—the game itself does so by making players buy its heroes via credits.

“Creating a fair and fun game experience is of critical importance to EA. The crate mechanics of Star Wars Battlefront II are not gambling,” an EA spokesperson said when reached for comment. “A player’s ability to succeed in the game is not dependent on purchasing crates. Players can also earn crates through playing the game and not spending any money at all. Once obtained, players are always guaranteed to receive content that can be used in game.”

Generally speaking, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) agrees with EA. In an October story by popular video game review website Kotaku, the ESRB, the self-regulatory organization that applies ratings to games, said it does not consider loot boxes to be gambling:

While there’s an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player unfortunately receives something they don’t want). We think of it as a similar principle to collectible card games: Sometimes you’ll open a pack and get a brand new holographic card you’ve had your eye on for a while. But other times you’ll end up with a pack of cards you already have.

That argument may have held up last month, but with Battlefront II‘s international release looming on Friday, Belgium’s Gaming Commission has begun investigating whether the Star Wars title, as well as the massively popular game Overwatch, should be classified as gambling, says PC Gamer.

The problem, specifically, is the loot box system, says the Belgian Gaming Commission, because players pay money for certain things, but they do not know what that money will actually buy. That is gambling, says the Belgian governmental body. And it’s a particularly big concern because Star Wars, as a franchise, is targeted to minors—something that Disney would undoubtedly like to avoid.

EA points out that Battlefront II has been rated T for Teen by the ESRB, and any purchases would require a valid credit card. The company also encourages parents to use appropriate tools and filters on their consoles and PCs to guard against unauthorized purchases.

In addition, to assuage gamers, the company reduced the amount of credits needed to get Battlefront II‘s best characters, and it took to Reddit on Wednesday, directly answering players’ questions.

When asked if DICE, Battlefront II‘s developer, would consider radical changes, John Wasilczyk, the game’s executive producer said the company would continue adjusting the loot crate system. “I think this concern has come through loud and clear,” he said.