Axios Gaming

Picture of a gaming controller.
June 02, 2022

Happy Thursday. I had to take a short break from newslettering today to rescue a traumatized mouse from our cats. I brought it outside, which probably means some other animal got it by now. Circle of life, I guess.

Reminder: Sony's State of Play is happening at 6pm ET today. Sony has said it'll showcase third-party games and PSVR2. A new showing of Final Fantasy XVI would fit those criteria, but a God of War Ragnarok update would not.

Today's edition: 1,240 words, 4.5 minutes.

1 big thing: Calls for a loot box crackdown

Illustration of a soccer ball made out of a patchwork of different bill denominations.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A coalition of child advocacy groups wants the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate Electronic Arts, warning the agency in a complaint Thursday that EA's popular FIFA video game exploits children and teens, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

What's happening: 15 groups, including Fairplay and the Center for Digital Democracy, told the FTC that the game's use of loot boxes (boxes containing randomized virtual content, which can be bought with real money) exploits children by promising a competitive advantage and obscures the real cost with virtual currency.

  • The coalition also argues knowing the probability of unlocking the best items can be unclear and that it can cost thousands of dollars to get the most coveted cards.
  • They want the agency to investigate whether EA is engaging in unfair and deceptive practices in the design of the loot boxes.

How it works: Players of FIFA's Ultimate Team, a competitive online mode in the FIFA game, obtain the loot boxes — which contain player cards, team kits or badges — by spending real-world money on virtual currency or building up virtual currency through gameplay.

State of play: EA and other game makers are facing some headwinds in Europe over the use of loot boxes, and the FTC has signaled the issue is on its radar as well.

What they're saying: “By relentlessly marketing pay-to-win loot boxes, EA is exploiting children’s desire to compete with their friends, despite the fact that most adults, let alone kids, could not determine their odds of receiving a highly coveted card or what cards cost in real money," Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, said in a statement.

The other side: EA told Eurogamer in October that players have a choice on whether to spend money to obtain the loot boxes — called packs — and that it has put probability information in the packs.

  • "We encourage the use of parental controls, including spend controls, that are available for every major gaming platform, including EA’s own platforms," an EA rep told Axios.
  • "We also introduced FIFA Playtime, a dashboard that provides players with visibility into their time played, packs opened, and points purchased."

Stephen's thought bubble: Potential U.S. regulation of loot boxes in games has been a thing — and has spurred industry reaction — at least since Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced a bill against them in 2019.

  • But they're so lucrative that their extinction seems unfathomable, even as EA becomes more discrete about how much money they make.
  • Ultimate Team generated $1.4 billion, $1.5 billion and $1.6 billion in each of the three years ending March 31, 2021, according to EA financial documents. The company provided no new figure for the past year in its most recent annual report.

2. Microsoft's union pledge

A composite image showing logos and character art for the game studios Microsoft would own if it buys Activision Blizzard
All the game studios Microsoft would own if it buys Activision Blizzard. Image: Klobrille

Microsoft says it won't stand in the way of company employee efforts to unionize, putting it in stark contrast to other tech and gaming companies, Axios' Ina Fried reports.

Why it matters: The announcement comes amid a growing movement to unionize parts of the tech workforce, and as Microsoft seeks to close a deal to purchase Activision Blizzard, some units of which have pursued unionization.

  • "We’re not asking our employees to go form a union, but we will meet people where they are at," Microsoft president Brad Smith told Axios.

Driving the news: In a new blog post, Smith said that the company is "committed to creative and collaborative approaches with unions when employees wish to exercise their rights and Microsoft is presented with a specific unionization proposal."

  • Smith said that it is inevitable that unions will touch more businesses. "We don’t need to make contentious things that can be handled more amicably," he said in the interview.

Between the lines: Microsoft has been evaluating its stance toward unions for several months, Smith said, saying that the Activision Blizzard deal was among many factors that led the company to explore the issue more deeply.

  • Quality Assurance workers at Activision-owned Raven Software recently voted to form a union. The vote followed a strike within Raven that lasted nearly seven weeks.
  • While Microsoft told Axios in March it would not stand in the way of Activision Blizzard's recognizing a union, Xbox head Phil Spencer said last week that he would recognize Raven's union once the deal closes.
  • Labor leaders are hoping to see others follow in Microsoft's footsteps. "Microsoft’s collaborative approach to working with its employees who seek to organize is a best practice that we look forward to seeing implemented at Microsoft and other companies," AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler said in a statement.

Stephen's thought bubble: In our talk earlier this year, I suggested to Spencer that the acquisition of Activision Blizzard would give Microsoft a chance to set standards for the industry, given its breadth of studios.

  • “I do not feel like we're in a position, assuming this deal gets closed, to start to uniquely, on our own, shape policies around video games,” he told me.
  • But should the deal close, Microsoft's new position on unionization would be relevant to Raven, Treyarch, Infinity Ward, Blizzard, Bethesda, id Software, Arkane, 343 Industries, Turn 10, Double Fine and many more.

Go deeper: Microsoft pledges to work with employee unions

3. Need to know

💰 GameStop reported net sales of $1.4 billion for the quarter ending April 30, up from the same quarter the year prior, but it also showed an operating loss of $154 million.

  • The company once again reported results without hosting a Q&A with investors. But CEO Matt Furlong said it has focused on rebuilding its commerce business and pursued “growth opportunities in the cryptocurrency, NFT and Web3 gaming verticals, all of which we expect to be increasingly relevant for games of the future.”

☹️ The dock for Valve’s Switch-like Steam Deck continues to be delayed, now indefinitely, the company says, blaming pandemic-related production issues.

🚗 The opening for Universal Studios Hollywood’s Nintendo theme park has been narrowed to “early” 2023, and will include a Mario Kart ride.

🎮 Dragon Age: Dreadwolf is the name of the next big fantasy role-playing game from EA’s BioWare studio, the company revealed. Release date: Not this year.

4. Surviving vampires

Vampire Survivors. Screenshot: Poncle

If you’re on the hunt for a cheap, chill game to while away the summer, Vampire Survivors is ready to stake its claim as your next gaming addiction, Axios' Peter Allen Clark writes.

Details: Vampire Survivors can be described as a run-based, bullet hell, single-stick shooter. One that leans heavily into the Castlevania aesthetic of old.

  • In this 2D pixel art game, players only control a character’s movement through various maps, while weapons auto-deploy and monsters slowly begin to appear.
  • It doesn’t take long until those monsters are swarming, forcing players to intricately maneuver through them and pray that the weapons clear a path.
  • Characters rapidly level up, giving players a rich arsenal of dizzying attacks.

The goal is mostly just to survive. If you’re lucky enough to do so, the screen will be utterly filled with enemies, weapons attacking and damage numbers flying.

  • We found those late-stage melees as satisfying as they are incomprehensible.
  • When you die (which you definitely will), you can use any coins collected to purchase upgrades for future rounds.

State of play: We’re not the only ones who found a lot to love in this small, $2.99 game.

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🐦 Find me on Twitter: @stephentotilo.

Thought bubble: So many thought bubbles today.