Random Thoughts – Randocity!

The FTC is investigating pay-to-win loot boxes

Posted in advice, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on December 4, 2018

img_3728.jpgThe FTC is investigating video game loot box issue that was so prominent in Star Wars Battlefront II and in many other games. Is it a form of gambling? Let’s explore.

Pay to Win?

The issue with loot boxes is that people feel ripped off by them, particularly after having already spent $60 for a big named video game title. If you spend $60 to buy a game, the implicit nature of that already hefty price tag is that it covers everything needed to play and win the base game without any additional payments. Any additional downloadable content (DLC) that appears later has a separate price tag. We understand this aspect of DLC. You can buy DLC if you want, but it’s not necessary to pay for DLC to win the base game. DLC is a tried-and-true model and it works to extend the gaming experience, but is not necessary to win the base game. Not everyone likes DLC, but as long as the DLC is created as separate world components, it’s fine.

When loot boxes were introduced, you might end up spending another $60 in addition to the already spent $60 to for the random chance to gain rare weapons or armor or level-ups that are not available in any other way and which are required to progress in the game.

The argument by game developers is that these pay add-ons are not strictly necessary. It depends on how you interpret that statement. It may not be strictly necessary to play the game, but it may make the game experience less enjoyable and possibly even problematic. If you plop down for the loot in the loot boxes, then your experience becomes much easier and better. Loot boxes turn games into a pay-to-win model.

Pay-to-win games to me are not fun. There’s no challenge in plopping down $5 here and $5 there just to get past a level or a boss or whatever it is holding you back. The challenge is and should be in the base game, not in buying add-ons needed to win. If the add-ons become the game, then the base $60 you paid is seen as a rip-off.

Smart Phone Games

Pay-to-win games have been available on the smart phone market for years and that’s fine. These games are typically free to download and free to play to a point. You only run into pay-walls when you want to progress beyond certain points or to buy more lives. Again, most phone game apps are designed around a pay-to-win model. However, there’s no challenge in paying to win a game. Paying to win only depends on how much money you are willing to spend. It’s just a money making scheme.

In the free download app model, you’re not paying an initial $60 to download the game. You’re paying nothing. This means there’s no base expectations set. So then each micro-transaction does help cover the developer costs of producing that free game. In the AAA $60 game arena, you’ve already paid for the development costs and you expect a fully functioning game in return for that $60. That’s the expectation of paying $60.

For example, adding loot boxes to Star Wars Battlefront II was simply a money grab by EA and nothing more. Everyone expected this loot to drop as a result of completing levels. No one expected that you’d have to pay to buy level up cards in addition to the already spent $60… cards that you might not see for many, many hours of play if they ever drop at all. Cards that are needed to unlock key pieces of the game.

Rethinking this Model

Fundamentally, game producers need to think long and hard about the pay-to-win model. Personally, I don’t like it and I will never be a fan of pay-to-win. You pay for the game itself, not for the ability to win it.  You should win the game or not on your own skill as a game player. For a $60 price tag, the game should drop all necessary loot or, if absolutely necessary, offer some kind of in-game credit system that you can spend towards the loot crates as you progress. Many games do give in-game credit that are awarded at level’s end that can be used towards ‘buying’ loot. You can also spend real money to buy those same credits in a store. This gives you two ways to ‘buy’ loot in the world. You can play the game and win credit or you can pay for it. The difficulty is when the game only drops the tiniest amount of credit within the game and then expects you to make up the difference with real money. Again, pay-to-win and I am so not a fan of this.

If you’ve already paid $60 to buy the game at the store, then don’t throw down real money loot boxes in front of the gamer and expect people to open their wallets and be happy about it. Real cash microtransaction loot boxes, again, turn the game into a pay-to-win model.

The argument here is that loot box costs offset the already expensive price tag of video game production. I counter argue that if a game now costs $80 or $100 or $120 per copy to develop, then simply raise the price of the game in the store accordingly and leave out the unnecessary loot boxes. No one says that a developer must sell a game at $60. They can price it at whatever they need to recoup their costs. If they can’t recoup their costs of a game at a $60 price tag, then perhaps they shouldn’t be in the video game business. Or, perhaps they should have kept to a lower budget production. However,  they are also free to raise the price of their game of they want to build bigger, flashier and more expensive games.

Other Alternative Systems

Let’s take a page from the toys-to-life games area. If developers want to offer a level-up swag system for the game, then do it through physical trading cards you can buy at Target or Walmart. Then, use a code on the card to load the card into an app linked to the game. This then gives you legitimate reasons to go buy the cards at the store. It also means anyone can go buy these cards to enhance their game experience… and you’re getting actual collectible trading cards for your money.

It also means the retailer can put the cards on sale and offer discounts on them. Digital cards coming from loot boxes purchased in-game are a waste that can only be used once and have no value after the game ends. It’s just money lost in addition to whatever you paid for in the game itself. Physical trading cards hold their value long after a game becomes a fond memory running on a Raspberry Pi emulator years later. It also means you can trade or sell these cards to others who might value them and at least recoup some of the money spent towards the game. Some of the cards might even become extremely valuable. A video game copy will never have that value.

Having cards produced into 5 or 8 card blind packets means the consumer gets to discover what cards they got and they can trade them with their friends if they get duplicates. It’s a real world way of adding value to the game and a shareable component, but at the same time offers a real world tangible component. Having these cards should also not be necessary to win the game, but they can be used to gain access to weapons, armor and character stats that might otherwise take a lot of grinding to obtain. All physical cards sold in blind packs should be discoverable in the game itself. But, they may contain exclusives that aren’t necessary, but add fun value to the game.

I’m a much bigger fan of using add-ons like real world trading cards than using in-game digital loot boxes… as long as these items are not needed to win the game. Pay-to-win needs to stop in general and these pay-to-win systems definitely have no place in a game sold at $60.

Are Loot Boxes a form of Gambling?

Here’s where some people feel that there’s a problem with loot boxes within video games. If you pay real USD to purchase a loot box, then you’re paying for the ‘chance to win’ something rare. In fact, when you pay for a loot box at all, it can be seen as a form of gambling strictly because of the ‘chance to win’ aspect. If the loot boxes drop on their own for free, there’s still a chance to ‘win’ something rare, but you’ve paid nothing for it and this would not fall under gambling. Gambling is when you pay money for a chance to win.

The paying of real USD to ‘win’ in-game loot is THE bone of contention and is the part in all of this that is seen as a form of gambling. Paying money to win anything is technically a form of gambling. It could also be considered a form of a lottery, much like a scratch card. Because lotteries are considered illegal unless operated by official state organizations, placing an illegal lottery into a video game could result in legal problems for video game producers. As a result, many people view for-pay in-game loot boxes as a form of gambling and in need of regulation under US gambling laws. Because gambling, at least in the US, is only allowed by persons 21 years of age or older, placing pay-to-win ideas into a video game designed to target minors and underage persons could be a problem for the video game industry. It also means the game should, at the bare minimum, put an M rating on any game that includes this mechanism.

These games could also be considered a form of early conditioning designed to teach children about gambling early and get them addicted to its risk-reward system. Because many video game companies also hold stakes in gambling operations, such as producing gambling machines for Las Vegas or actually own stakes in casinos, loot boxes could become very problematic for video game companies.

On the other hand, gambling usually entails winning money, not prizes. In Vegas, you pay to win money. At Dave and Busters, you pay to win prizes. So far, playing games to win tickets at an arcade has not fallen under gambling laws. However, you’re winning tickets, not prizes. The only random chance involved is how many tickets you win. In an arcade, simply playing the game is guaranteed to give you at least one ticket, usually more. The tickets are then redeemed for prizes of your choice. It’s not exactly a random chance kind of thing like a loot box. In addition, arcades use the payment given towards playing a game of skill which then gives you tickets. Giving tickets after playing a skill game that you can redeem is not exactly like paying for a loot box in a game with random chance to win its contents. Loot boxes are much more like a slot machine or lottery scratch card than they are like Dave and Busters skill-game ticket model.

I’m hoping that the FTC will find that any payment of real money towards ‘winning’ in-game loot is ruled as a form of gambling. This would mean that instead of paying for blind random chance boxes, that video game producers would have to set up a store and sell you exact items needed in the game. No ‘random chance to win’ involved. Either that or they must continue to drop the loot boxes in-game at no cost. Better, don’t drop loot boxes at all. Just create a store and sell us the the things we need… that, or use the suggested trading card system sold separately outside of the game.

If the FTC rules that the loot box is considered an illegal form of lottery, this mechanism could no longer be added to video games. I’d be fine with that outcome too.

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Stranded by the Airline

Posted in advice, smart, tickets, travel by commorancy on November 5, 2018

Photo of departure board courtesy of BlaneTraveling by air is one of the most common means of travel and it usually goes without a hitch. But, what happens when an airline leaves you stranded due to technical problems? Whose responsibility is it? Let’s explore.

Stranded at the Airport

I’ve seen articles similar to this one discussing a 77 hour delay from Orlando to the UK. The difficulty I have with these situations is that many travelers seem to expect the airline to cover for or provide food, lodging and other accommodations while stranded.

A family stated of the British Airlines delay:

The passengers were treated inhumanely, all we wanted was some food and drink, somewhere to sleep and to be kept informed – and they failed on all counts no matter what they claim.

Other than being kept informed, is the rest the airline’s responsibility?

When you book your tickets for passage aboard a flight, you expect that flight to take place within the defined ticket times. If the flight can’t make those times, you should be notified by the airline of realistic timings when or if the next flight can make. It should also be the airline’s responsibility to find another plane as quickly as possible to make good on the flight. If a plane cannot be found quickly (i.e., within a few hours), then the airline should book you onto another carrier to get you to your destination. One way or another, they should make good on a flight within 24 hours. That’s a reasonable amount of time. I know we all want resolution in an hour or two, but sometimes that’s not possible.

If a flight cannot be located until the following day, then the airline should inform you of that information ASAP so you can find a hotel and make accommodations for a stay over. Who pays for that hotel should be you, the traveler… at least at that moment in time. You can negotiate reimbursement of those accommodations should the airline extend that courtesy, but don’t expect it right then (or at all), like some of the people interviewed for this article.

This BBC article describes a detailed account of what happens when travelers make the wrong assumptions about airline delay responsibility. This article describes that British Airlines left people stranded at the airport made worse by being in NY (which NY is always notoriously short on accommodations, unless you’re willing to drive to Newark or Queens or farther). Apparently, this wait took 77 hours. The flight was supposed to depart on Thursday and ended up departing on Saturday arriving on Sunday. The delay took slightly over 3 days in total.

Who has Responsibility?

For a 3 day delay, whose responsibility is it to make sure that you are fed, have shelter and have the basic necessities for living? It’s certainly not the airline’s responsibility. Travel problems are rare, but they do happen. YOU are the traveler. YOU need to accommodate yourself. It’s YOUR responsibility as the traveler to make sure YOU and your immediate co-travelers are accommodated. For example, if you have a family of four, expect that you will have to go find a hotel and pay for it out of your own pocket. This means having a phone handy or a device capable of using the Internet and WiFi. Use the airport WiFi if you have nothing else available. Just make sure you have an Internet capable device or a working phone with you.

Don’t expect the airline to do anything for you other than provide you with a flight. Unless the airline is holding you hostage on the plane on the tarmac, you can’t expect anything from the airline. When you’re at the airport terminal waiting, you need to assess your own accommodations and take action yourself.

It’s always worth asking the airline for help, but don’t expect the airline to do anything for you. The airlines are not obligated to do anything other than see to your flight. Sitting around at the airport complaining that the airline is not seeing to your personal needs is called over-dependence. You can only depend on yourself to manage your own personal welfare. You can’t throw your person at an airline and expect them to become your personal caregiver. It’s not their responsibility. It seems a lot of people completely misunderstand this aspect of airline travel. Your ticket also doesn’t require them to do this. You take care of you. At some point, you will need to understand taking this personal level of responsibility for yourself while traveling.

The only time that the airline is responsible for your welfare is when you are actually in your seat on the plane. That’s the only time when the airline needs to accommodate you and your needs. When you are sitting in the terminal awaiting a plane, you are firmly on your own. It’s not the airport’s responsibility nor is it the responsibility of the airline.

Stranded for Days

Being stranded by an airline is rare, but it can happen for various reasons. Reasons that may not make you happy as a stressed out traveler, but that are unavoidable by the airline. This is part and parcel of traveling by budget flights these days. Airlines are running their routes very, very lean. Meaning, they don’t have extra planes or personnel should the need arise. This means that you could be waiting hours or even days before a plane might become available should your original flight’s plane end up out of service.

As a traveler, you need to bring along enough money for (or have the means to handle) unexpected delays. If the delay extends beyond a few hours, it then becomes your responsibility to handle your own personal needs up to possibly even forfeiting your old ticket and booking separate travel arrangements yourself. In fact, if time is important to you, then you should already be looking for alternatives within 15 minutes of finding out about the delay. Don’t wait. You can always cancel the arrangements, but it can be difficult to make arrangements if you wait even 3 hours. If you need medical treatments, medicines, food, baby formula or other accommodations, you absolutely cannot expect the airline or the airport to see to those needs.

I realize airlines might string you along by saying “an hour longer” via the terminal attendants. However, by hour 6 or 7 of that stringing, you need to request a straight answer from the airline. If they’re unwilling to give it to you, it means it is time to seek your own alternatives. You can continue to wait if you like, but that’s on you. If waiting gets to the 24 hour mark, then you have waited far too long. At 8 hours, you definitely need to seek your own accommodations for food and lodging and perhaps even alternative transportation to your destination. Even at 3 hours of waiting (unless expressly stated on the ticket as a 3 hour layover), you should have already spent that time seeking alternatives.

You can spend time later fighting with the original airline carrier about refunds or other issues, but it is up to you to take care of yourself and see to your own needs and comfort. Throwing yourself at an airline, then complaining about it won’t make matters better. You’ll also have wasted a lot of time when you could have had hotel accommodations a lot sooner. Sure, you may not have planned for that extra time or that extra hotel, but traveling isn’t always problem free. At 24 hours waiting, the airline can’t expect you to hang around the terminal waiting forever for their plane to arrive. Even 8 hours waiting is expecting too much of travelers.

If you don’t have enough money to cover either alternative flight accommodations or a hotel (until your flight becomes available), I might suggest that you probably shouldn’t have traveled in the first place. You should always have enough money to realistically cover a few extra days including food, lodging and any other basic needs when traveling, just in case.

Airline Courtesy

The problem with many travelers these days is that far too many people think that the airline has 100% responsibility for their welfare the moment they enter the airport. That that ticket you’re holding is some kind of magical device that grants the airline 100% ownership of your person until you step off at your final destination.

This belief is 100% false. That ticket is simply a travel voucher. It lets you onto the plane and offers you passage to the end destination. When a plane is not available for that flight, the airline may be irresponsible in its notifications of when you might be able to travel, but you cannot expect the airline to begin accommodating your personal needs for the duration of that long delay.

That’s not part of the ticket you paid for. Perhaps this issue requires a special line of travel insurance. Perhaps the airlines (or booking agencies) need to offer delay insurance where you pay extra in case of delay. The delay insurance should cover accommodations at a local airport hotel for the duration of delay. It might cover for a single meal voucher for each person up to a specific amount. It might even cover for transportation to and from the hotel.

If you paid for such insurance (were it to exist), then if a delay occurs, you know exactly how it will be handled, exactly what you’ll get, exactly what the airline’s responsibility is to you and that your needs will be taken care of. It also means the airlines will be forced to support and accommodate travelers who buy this delay travel insurance. It means that the airlines must notify and then hold the plane until all insurance travelers are back at the airport, through security and on the plane after the plane is finally available (within reason, of course). Adding delay insurance means that instead of sitting around waiting, you now have definitive rules that must be adhered to by the airline personnel and when those accommodations kick in.

If it costs $50 to check a bag and $30 for each carry-on, what makes you think an airline is going to see to your food and lodging accommodations during a long delay? Are you expecting it out of their own ‘courtesy’ for free? I don’t think so. Those days are over. Adding delay insurance, on the other hand, means that you have paid for and know exactly what you’re going to get if an airline has a delay like British Airlines.

For now, no such separate delay insurance exists. Until such insurance exists, you need to see to your own welfare and make sure you have enough money when traveling to do so, even when stranded at an airport because of an excessively long airline delay.

As a side note, some travel cancellation insurance plans may include trip delay coverage. But, these delay benefits kick in under very specific conditions and may not cover a scenario like British Airline’s 3 day delay. If you’re curious if a plan might cover such a delay, you should contact a travel insurer to find out more.

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