A new class-action lawsuit accuses Electronic Arts of using dynamic difficulty to pressure players into buying more loot boxes in the card-collecting Ultimate Team mode of Fifa and other sports games. The plaintiffs claim the games use a dynamically difficulty adjustment system which makes teams seem worse than they are, perpetually nudging people to buy 'Player Packs' for improve their teams. EA responded saying simply nope, that's not true. But the fact that some believe it strongly enough to file a lawsuit demonstrates one of the problems with loot boxes: their presence makes it easy to suspect a game is weighted against you to tempt you to pay more.
GamesIndustry.biz report that the lawsuit filed in California by three people revolves around Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment. This patented technology, helpfully described in a 2017 paper from EA, would be able to silently adjust a game's difficulty to keep players engaged and prevent them from becoming bored or frustrated. It'd make sense for some games. The trouble started when some players started suspecting that EA have applied this system to Fifa, NHL, and Madden, and that they use it to boost loot box sales in Ultimate Team modes.
Hundreds of thousands of YouTube views have gone to videos which collate clips of characters missing open goals, glitches like balls going through the keeper's hands, questionable offside calls, and other such supposed evidence that DDA is in the game and working against players. The conspiracy theory grew enough that last year EA felt a need to publicly declare they don't use that Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment in Fifa. "We would never use it to advantage or disadvantage any group of players against another in any of our games," they said. Evidently, the statement didn't convince everyone.
"EA's undisclosed use of Difficulty Adjusting Mechanisms deprives gamers who purchase Player Packs of the benefit of their bargains because EA's Difficulty Adjusting Mechanisms, rather than only the stated ranking of the gamers' Ultimate Team players and the gamers' relative skill, dictates, or at least highly influences the outcome of the match," GI.biz report the lawsuit says.
"This is a self-perpetuating cycle that benefits EA to the detriment of EA Sports gamers, since Difficulty Adjusting Mechanisms make gamers believe their teams are less skilled than they actually are, leading them to purchase additional Player Packs in hopes of receiving better players and being more competitive."
While EA's lawyers will presumably file highfalutin legal responses, EA's PR statement is a shortie: "We believe the claims are baseless and misrepresent our games, and we will defend," they told GI.biz.
I watched several videos declaring they have "proof" of dynamic difficulty in Fifa and honestly it looked like glitches or daft AI to me. Ah, some videos said, that's how EA get away with it: plausible deniability. I am not convinced. But I'm not surprised that people are wary. It's hard to trust that a game with loot boxes has the integrity to respect your time and wallet.
I'm loath to use the phrase "pay-to-win" but Fifa Ultimate Team certainly lets you pay for a better chance to win, selling random packs of players with low odds to find the best. It's a huge moneymaker - Ultimate Team modes brought in $1491 million (about £1100m) during EA's last fiscal year. So when you know the odds are stacked against you and someone's profiting off it, it might be easy to start suspecting the game's applying underhanded pressure too. Glitches and missed open goals could then look like shenanigans rather than mistakes. The presence of loot boxes and other microtransactions with tangible benefits often makes a whole game feel grubby and sneaky, like it could be weighted to coerce me into paying extra. It's not a strong foundation for a good and trustful time.
Ultimate Team loot boxes have also come under fire from people who consider them illegal gambling. Last year, EA were forced to effectively stop selling packs in Belgium.