The ESRB Are Right: Loot Boxes Aren’t Gambling

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The ESRB has finally chimed in on all this loot box nonsense in our games:

“ESRB 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.”

Why have they made this statement? Well, because loot boxes are coming in virtually all of this holiday’s most anticipated games: Shadow of War, Battlefront 2, and even Assassin’s Creed: Origins (the latter of which won’t allow you to obtain these with real world money). As a result, online personalities like John ‘Totalbiscuit’ Bain have asked the ESRB to classify loot boxes as gambling. Fortunately, they’re not going to do so.

Before I continue, let me be clear: I don’t like loot boxes in my video games. I like the progression systems we’ve had just fine (levels, skill trees, etc.), and loot boxes are really only there to make the publisher a couple extra bucks. Lots of people wave loot boxes off by saying, “Well, who cares. The stuff they provide is cosmetic.” They aren’t, though. Not anymore. But for the sake of argument, let’s agree that all loot boxes are just a means of delivering cosmetic content. If a publisher is allowing you to purchase these things with real world money, that means the game you paid full price for has been artificially inflated. A game with padded runtime, all for the sake of having a loot box system in place, is a waste of your time. They WANT you to spend money in order to skip the grind. That’s why these systems exist in the first place. Now, also for the sake of argument, let’s look at games that have loot boxes, but don’t allow you to buy them with real world money. That’s still a game that treats grind as actual content… but what’s the point in that? Quality over quantity trumps these practices every time.

So yes, please, keep loot boxes out of my game. No, I’m not strong enough to stay away from games like Battlefront 2, whose loot boxes can be purchased AND offer clear advantages over other players in-game. At the end of the day, I want to play the games I know I’ll have fun playing. Still, that doesn’t mean I can’t say, “Hey, this game would be better if they…”

Now with that all in mind, I need to get something off my chest: I actually agree with the ESRB. Loot boxes should not be considered gambling.

No, really. They shouldn’t be considered gambling, and I wish people on the internet, especially people with large audiences behind them, would stop saying so. Let’s look at the definition of gambling (per Dictionary.com):

-The activity or practice of playing at a game of chance for money or other stakes.

-The act or practice of risking the loss of something important by taking a chance or acting recklessly

Gambling has a very specific definition. Yes, unpredictability and the triggering of a dopamine response (and even addiction) are major components of gambling, but to ‘gamble’, you’re putting up money, or something else you’d lose if things didn’t turn in your favor. Loot boxes, on the other hand, do not carry these stakes. As the ESRB have said, you’re always getting something in return, even if it’s not what you had wanted.

Dr Luke Clark, director at the Center for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia, recently told PC Gamer: “The player is basically working for reward by making a series of responses, but the rewards are delivered unpredictably,” “We know that the dopamine system, which is targeted by drugs of abuse, is also very interested in unpredictable rewards. Dopamine cells are most active when there is maximum uncertainty, and the dopamine system responds more to an uncertain reward than the same reward delivered on a predictable basis.”

While loot boxes may engage similar activity in the brain, there’s still a distinction between loot boxes and gambling. They are not one and the same. If anything that triggered a dopamine response, especially triggered by uncertainty, were considered to be the same, then we’d have to start making other ridiculous statements, right? “Loot boxes are drugs!” But that’s silly, because we know they aren’t. And they also aren’t gambling.

OpenCritic has decided to note which games have loot boxes, as its CEO doesn’t care for this system at all: “You can call it gambling, you can call it gaming addiction, you can call it whatever you want. The problem is still the same.” He has a point. “The ESRB would say that violence is bad for society so violent video games get a higher rating. Gore is bad for society so gory video games get a higher rating. And nudity and cursing, those are bad so they get a higher rating. And yet something that really could have a serious impediment to the mental development of children, they’re saying ‘well it’s not technically gambling so we’re not going to make a stand here.” More good points, but ultimately, he lost me.

Loot boxes. Aren’t. Gambling.

I’ll certainly agree that they can lead to the same negative outcome, but the distinction is important because think of everything that would be screwed over if we allowed opinions on the internet to change the very definition of what gambling is…

If you declare loot boxes as gambling, then you have to consider the plastic egg machine that most of you have seen at your local supermarkets. You know the ones; you feed a quarter (or two, or three) into a machine, and it gives you a plastic egg with a tiny toy or trinket inside. You don’t know what’s inside, but that’s kind of what makes it exciting, right? Is THAT gambling? No, of course not. If there’s anything from the local arcades which could be considered gambling, it would be all those games of chance, especially the ‘money broom’, where a brush is always on the verge of pushing a bunch of coins over the edge. You say, “Gee, I bet my quarter will be the one to push ‘em all over!” So you pop your coin in, you get nothing, and you walk away with nothing. THAT’S gambling. You took a chance, you lost some money, and you have nothing to show for it. That happened to us all the time as kids, and were we traumatized? No. We walked away a little disappointed, and it helped build character.

But recreational outrages want you to believe that loot boxes are going to lead your kids to a life of drugs, mental illness, or worse. That’s taking things way, way too far.

What I do agree with is clearly labeling the games which contain the loot box mechanic. I mean, anything extra is usually labeled on the back of a game box. Need hard drive space? It’s listed. Need an internet connection? It’s listed. Require a PSVR headset or something? That’s listed. Mobile games especially will tell you if there are additional purchases involved, too. If loot boxes are involved, people should also know about that. Because yes, it’s a mechanic which people can get addicted to, and if their game is going to have it, they should be notified at the point of purchase in case they want to avoid it.

But let’s not hold our breath, because that won’t happen anytime soon.

When it comes to these practices, the industry is still in the wild west. Government hasn’t stepped in to make any rules or regulations yet… but it’s inevitable. Studios are earning a ton of money with microtransactions, DLC, and loot boxes, that it’s going to draw enough attention for regulation to become a consideration. It’s a shame it has to be that way, but AAA studios haven’t been able to help themselves… and gamers are the ones who suffer for it.

The sad thing, is that loot boxes don’t have to be inherently bad. The only reason why they are is because of corporate greed. If a game was designed with loot boxes in mind, didn’t charge real world money for them, and actually made the game an all-around rewarding experience without hours and hours of pointless grind, it could be fun… COULD be. But they aren’t, and here we are.

To those of you who avoid these games completely, I applaud you. Your resolve is strong. Again, some of us (like myself) still like to play the games we know we’ll have fun with, even if it means sending the wrong message. Life’s too short to not enjoy things… but I think we’re getting into something which can be a whole other article.

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First Time Out: Resident Evil VII

I had absolutely zero interest in playing this game.  A first person Resident Evil?  Pfft.  Get out of here.  To me, it just seemed like Capcom, who don’t really seem to know how to perform these days, were just trying to cash in on the P.T. demo craze.

Well, as I usually do after a game’s launch, I watched someone play the game for about 45 minutes… and to my surprise, it looked quite good.  So, here it is!  My first couple of hours with Resident Evil VII.  Enjoy!

Generation Without Definition

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In preparation for the 2016 in review conversation we’ll be having on the podcast in about a week, I decided to write down a list of all the games I’ve played.  Not just the games from this past year, mind you, but ALL of them.  Didn’t matter if it’s a game from 2002 I was playing for the first time, or if it was an old favorite I was revisiting for the 18th time.  Old games are just as much a part of our ‘gaming makeup’ each year as the new stuff we play, so here’s what I came up with:

Angry Video Game Nerd Adventures

Assassin’s Creed: Rogue

Far Cry 4

Absolute Drift

Batman: Akrham Knight

The Witness

The Division

Doom

Uncharted 4

No Man’s Sky

Final Fantasy XV

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

Battlefield 1

Dark Souls

Dying Light

Life Is Strange

The Witcher 3 (restarted)

Dark Souls 3

Forza Horizon 3

Gear of War 4

Dead Rising 4

Kirby: Planet Robobot

PvZ: Garden Warfare 2

Mafia III

Street Fighter V

Inside

Grim Dawn (official release date)

Pokken Tournament

Overwatch

Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Pokemon Go

Super Mario Run

Skyrim Special Edition

Dragon Quest VII

Earth Defense Force 4.1

Super Mario 3D Land

Contra 4

Grand Theft Auto Online

Grand Theft Auto 4

Super Mario 64

Super Scribblenauts

Mega Man 2

Mega Man 3

I obviously didn’t play all of these games from start to finish.  Some I may have only played for a couple of hours.  But even so, that’s one hell of a list, isn’t it?  Great titles, alright ones, and even a few stinkers, but overall, I’d say 2016 was rather enjoyable.  Still, this list presents a bit of a problem, namely the inadequacies of the gaming industry as a whole.  Forty-three games, and you know what I noticed about them?  Thirty-two are either sequels or stem iteratively from existing IP’s.  Mmhmm.  Thirty.  Two.  That’s insane.  Even if we take older games off my list, we’re still talking close to 20.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with sequels or reboots.  Doom makes a compelling argument for being my favorite game of the year.  Hell, Dark Souls III is up there, too.  Oh, and surprisingly, Gears of War 4 has proven to be quite memorable, as well.  I also don’t care how many times Nintendo throws Mario at me, because he always amounts to a good time.  Point is, I don’t personally mind when studios lean on formulas that’s proven to work them.  No, it’s when they cross that line… when they insist on using that mindset as a crutch, that’s when I get worried.

And I’m worried now.

Gamers routinely say this is the best generation of gaming to date.  Sure, they’ve conveniently overlooked the unnecessary iterative consoles and the sea of unfinished games that’s been released… but vidyagames, right?!

But seriously, I can’t deny there’s been some titles genuinely worth swooning over, but that’s not unique to the here and now.  There have always been great video games, and there always will be.

But from a first party perspective, Sony and Microsoft have been playing things far too safe.  They’ve relied once again on the likes of Killzone, Infamous, Gears of War, God of War, Forza, Halo, Ratchet and Clank, Little Big Planet, Uncharted, The Last of Us, and a handful of others.  These are franchises that also defined the LAST generation of gaming, and while I understand the desire for studios to milk a cow’s supple teats until they’re coughing up powder, they’re leaving the PS4 and Xbox One without identities of their own.

The Xbox 360 was defined by Forza, Fable, and Gears of War.  But what does the Xbox One have?  Sunset Overdrive was largely overlooked, and Quantum Break was disappointing.

The Playstation 3 had Infamous, Uncharted and The Last of Us.  But PS4?  Well, it has Bloodborne… but that’s about it.  Nobody cared about Knack, and while Until Dawn is great, it isn’t a title that’s going to sell systems.  Driveclub has its fans, but still hasn’t managed to evade the stink left behind by its troubled launch.  And it’s not even worth mentioning The Order: 1886 (I didn’t think it was terrible, but it’s certainly frowned upon by most of the gaming community).

So, if video games aren’t giving this generation a definitive voice, what is?

Well, the struggle over resolution and frame-rate, for one.  But outside of that, this generation will likely be remembered for the releases of the PS4 Pro and Xbox Scorpio.  I mean, their very existence could very well change the way consoles are developed and sold from here on out.  I don’t have a crystal ball or anything, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we never saw a Playstation 5.  If each console is only somewhat better than the version before it, a new naming convention could take over:  Playstation Nitro, Playstation Beyond, Playstation Zen, etc.  All only somewhat better than the previous iteration, and yet still years behind what PC hardware brings to the table.

And if I were Sony and Microsoft, I’d start thinking about how big a problem that might be.

This isn’t rocket science.  GAMES should define how we feel about any given generation.  Sure, we’ll also develop an attachment to hardware designs, but games are what matter most.  Unfortunately, the gaming industry has lost sight of that, and that could very well bite console developers in the end.  If Microsoft and Sony want to continue down the path of pushing consoles more than first party exclusives, they’ll eventually be perceived as third-party machines.  If that happens, it leaves the door WIDE open for Steam machines to make another push, and with Steam having almost any third party title you can dream of, and for less money, that platform could finally become a contender in the living room.

And speaking of third-party, it’s pretty clear the AAA heavies have gotten lazy, too.  They’re just too afraid to let go of moneymaking franchises.  People often complain about being bored of the same old crap, but how do these companies respond?

“We’ll make our games look better.  Cool?”

But people aren’t complaining about graphics anymore.  That narrative just isn’t driving the industry as much as it used to… at least from the perspective of consumers.  Gamers want better writing, character depth, enemy AI, etc.  But nooooo… all anyone has done is say, “Better volumetric fog, god rays, and particle effects!  That’ll revolutionize everything!”

Ugh.

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Shadow of Mordor had the right idea with the Nemesis System.  It was basic, yes, but I was convinced it was the first baby-step in this industry’s journey to develop better AI… and yet nobody has tried to emulate, let alone best that system since.  Nope, every other game still features enemies that either stand against a single guard post, or walk in the same L-shaped pattern over and over.

So let me ask:  Is this truly the best that AAA developers could pull off in 2016?  Is this REALLY the best generation of gaming ever?  I don’t think so, and furthermore, I think the industry CAN do better.  Not only CAN it do better, but there’s nothing wrong with EXPECTING better, either.  But with so many people literally buying products before they’re finalized, what incentive does this industry have to change its unfriendly business tactics?

Well, consumers have to realize that more powerful hardware isn’t going to solve a damn thing.  If you want better quality products, you have to stop pre-ordering games.  Stop telling studios you’re willing to buy their crap sight unseen.  Also, if you’re not having much fun playing the games being released on the PS4 or Xbox One, playing them on a PS4 Pro or Xbox One S (or even the Xbox Scorpio) isn’t going to change that.  Your gameplay will be enhanced, but enhancement of non-enjoyment is still just that… non-enjoyment.

If you want newer, better IP’s, and advancement in storytelling and AI, then all you need to do is keep those conversations in the public eye.  Keep those narratives strong so AAA publishers and developers can see that they’re no longer going to get away with repackaging the same two or three gameplay formats time and time again.  Make damn sure they know you want more than just:  FPS – The Game / Blasting From Behind Cover – The Game / Stealthily Wipe-Out Poor Enemy AI – The Game / Detective Mode – The Game.

Not that AAA games should be villainized, though.  Again, I still find them to be quite enjoyable.  I’m just disappointed that the industry refuses to broaden its horizons in the ways that are most needed.

The good news?  As long as you’re willing to wander outside the AAA scene, there’s plenty of great games being released by smaller and/or independent studios.  Ori and the Blind Forest, The Witness, Inside, Limbo, Absolute Drift, Stardew Valley, Shovel Knight, Axiom Verge, Grow Home, Child of Light, Never Alone, Outlast, Trine, Braid, Undertale, Owlboy, Soma… and these are only some of the most notable choices.  And hey, if none of these pique your curiosity, there’s still decades worth of games for you to go back and enjoy.

It’s easy to forget that gaming isn’t a ‘box’, but an art form that we can enjoy… well, pretty much whenever.  Games take a bit longer to digest than music albums, movies, and even a number of books, and as a result, people always feel like they have to play the newest stuff and never look back on the old… and that’s just simply not true.  If you find yourself in a rut, just look at your back catalog or start working on games that you may have missed.  Sure, there are some titles that may not have aged as gracefully as others, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that most hold their own quite well.

 

 

More Exclusive Batman Details and Suicide Squad Put On Ice

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We have recently dropped additional details about the upcoming Batman game – currently under development by WB Montreal – on our podcast, but for those that haven’t listened in, I figured it’d be a good time to put those details into writing.  But first, here’s links to the previous information that was brought to you exclusively by Byte-Size Impressions:

New Batman Game May Be On The Horizon – May, 2016

New Batman Game Still In Development, New Villain Expected – September, 2016

Who IS Batman In The Next Open World Game? – September, 2016

First Podcast Discussion

Second Podcast Discussion

In our last couple of podcasts, Gabriel Galliani – journalist with the Official Playstation Magazine in Italy – decided to drop some new bits of information and even field questions from a comic book savvy audience (a big thank to Slcmof of Youtube and Twitter for that).  Here’s what Gabe had to say:

He’s seen a vertical slice of the game and also has evidence to support that claim.  The visual aesthetic is bleaker than that of previous Batman games.  The city gives off a ‘something happened here’ vibe, and there’s even a bit of fog to help push the darker atmosphere that much further.  There’s still neon lighting in Gotham, but doesn’t seem as prevalent as it did in Arkham Knight (of course, things can always change during the course of development).  Featured landmarks we can expect to see are the Monarch Theater, Goth Corp., and even a rundown version of Wayne Enterprises.

To add to the roster of characters that have already been leaked, Gabe was also able to add:

-Katana

-Talon

-The Dee Dee Twins

-Mr. Freeze

He also confirmed a rumor – which originally circulated on Neogaf – about the Black Mask being female this time around.  The villain’s identity should make sense and not seem ‘out of left field’, her costume will be extremely sexy yet maintain a dose of class, and seems to enjoy treating her victims with both syringe and hammer.

Jason Schreier of Kotaku has spilled a few beans about the game recently as well, up-to-and including an appearance by the Penguin.  What’s interesting about this is that Gabe, who has an extensive list of the characters that should appear in-game, knows nothing about that character appearing in this game.  That doesn’t mean The Penguin won’t be in it, just that this information hasn’t also come his way.

Another interesting bit of news from Mr. Schreier is that the long rumored Suicide Squad game is being canned, as WB Montreal have been shifting things internally for various reasons.  While this may have put a temporary hold on the Batman project while the dust settles, they’ll probably get back to it with an even bigger push until the game is ready to be revealed and eventually released.

For future updates on this game – as we’re able to reveal more once bits of information are verified by multiple sources within WB Montreal – make sure to keep an eye pressed against the site’s news feed, Twitter account, and an ear glued to the podcast, because you never know when or where the info will drop!

CD Projekt Red May Be Preparing To Protect Against Hostile Takeover


Earlier this year, video game media made everyone aware that this industry isn’t just about selling games. No, there’s backroom deals, corruption, and of course major moves that may be construed as hostile. This information had come as a result of Vivendi’s continual attempt to take over Ubisoft, and that tug-of-war still wages today. 

A lot of people assumed Vivendi taking over Ubisoft would be a good thing. Gamers began to fantasize about a world where in-game protagonists would no longer have to climb towers in order to reveal more pieces of map, but the reality of the situation is that if the company taking things over isn’t competent, the game developer could eventually cease to exist. Vivendi has a track record of soaking up game industry assets, mismanaging their funds, and then allowing those assets to go belly up. That’s not a good thing for anyone. Even if you loathe a company like Ubisoft, we need more competition in this industry, not less.

And one such contender has been rising over the years: CD Projekt RED. They gained a bit of notoriety with The Witcher and especially its sequel, but The Witcher 3 has propelled them to the next level. They’ve proven they can make games just as large and intricately detailed as anybody in the business – including Rockstar – and that they can do so with a fraction of the budget and staff members on hand. This has not only made the company financially successful, but their consumer friendly practices have also generated a lot of good will… and the industry as a whole has taken notice, with multiple offers having been made to acquire the company. They’ve all been turned down, of course, but CDPR are no longer a private company. They’re public, meaning there’s ways for companies to wedge themselves in if they play their cards right.

Well, it seems that CDPR have called for an emergency meeting. The gist is that they’re exploring the possibility of buying back around 60 million dollars’ worth of their own shares. I’m not an expert, so maybe this is just a case of the studio wanting to go back to their independent status. However, the urgency of this meeting and what it entails more than likely means they’re preparing to protect themselves against threat of a hostile takeover.  

I’ll keep you posted as more information becomes available.

EDIT:

Other reports are now flooding online. Since the early details we broke on Byte-Size Impressions, Neogaf member ‘boskee’ has posted some additional details about the meeting, being held November 29th:

One – Vote on whether or not to allow the company to buy back part of its own shares for 250 million PLN ($64 million)

Two – Vote on whether to merge CD Projekt Brand (fully owned subsidiary that holds trademarks to the Witcher and Cyberpunk games) into the holding company

Three – Vote on the change of the company’s statute.

“Now, the 1st and the 3rd point seem to be the most interesting, particularly the last one. The proposed change will put restrictions on the voting ability of shareholders who exceed 20% of the ownership in the company. It will only be lifted if said shareholder makes a call to buy all the remaining shares for a set price and exceeds 50% of the total vote.

According to the company’s board, this is designed to protect the interest of all shareholders in case of a major investor who would try to acquire remaining shares without offering a ‘decent price’.”

Again, more details will be reported as they become available.