Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, time to put some money in Electronic Arts' hat. FIFA 22 rocks up on PC, as ever, in a disappointing form. The main new gimmick, hypermotion technology, is only on the 'next-gen' consoles—and next time around it might not even be called FIFA—but one element persists: FIFA Ultimate Team, and the ongoing conversation about how EA monetises the thing.
Are FUT cards a gateway to gambling? Are FUT players actually gambling when they play (you can after all 'cash out', albeit through shady third-party vendors)? Isn't it a bit skeezy these things feel aimed at young kids? Or there's the other view: FUT is a fun football experience, it's several degrees away from gambling, and if people want to spend money on packets of virtual footballers then that's their choice.
The debate, needless to say, can get pretty heated.
EA's Chris Bruzzo, who has the job title of chief experience officer, spoke to Eurogamer about some of the issues around FUT, and in the process dropped some figures that give you an idea of the scale here. Obviously Bruzzo emphasises that 9/10 FUT packs are opened by FUT Coins (earnable in-game currency), and 78% of the overall playerbase don't spend any money on the game beyond the initial purchase. He adds "30 million people played [FUT] last year, and 100 million in some form or another—mobile games and all over the world."
EA has also made changes to FUT packs in response to the increasing regulatory concern around loot boxes more generally: FIFA 22 includes probabilities for card packs, as well as FIFA Playtime which will allow individuals (and parents) to set their own restrictions.
That does lead, however, to perhaps the most serious issue around FUT. It is incredibly popular among a young audience. Bruzzo can say things like EA "actually want to treat [players] like full human beings who can make good decisions in their lives" but the whole 'choice' argument falls apart when we get to the question of kids. The EA line is, of course...
"Kids should not be spending in our game. Children should not be spending in FIFA," says Bruzzo. "[...] when we look at account signups we see a very low percentage of accounts of people under the age of 18. But more importantly, our default is set to no spending for accounts under 18. And we work with Sony and we work with Microsoft to also institute spending controls as a default for children. Kids should not be spending in FIFA full stop."
EA can of course say this, and no doubt it is sincere. But ask any parent who has a football-obsessed kid or teenager and it's clearly not the case. I don't offer this as proof of anything but I've had two mates with teenage sons talk to me about FUT spending, and the behaviour it encouraged, and there's no shortage of stories on the internet about little Johnny being naughty with the credit card. Point being that whether kids 'should' be spending in FIFA is not really worth saying when, frankly, some of them do.
This itself exposes one of the absurdities of our current regulatory system, which is that FIFA 22 can, for example, get a 3+ rating in the UK—ie, it is an entertainment product suitable for all ages. Yet with that rating it is allowed to contain systems that, by the developer's own admission, should not be used by children. EA has even advertised FUT in childrens' magazines. "It was an oversight," says Bruzzo, "they included FIFA Ultimate Team in this toy catalogue. And we have apologised. We said it was a mistake. We do make mistakes."
EA's playbook for FUT and regulation is emphasising player choice, and the fact that the research is not conclusive. The latter is true: there is not yet any smoking gun about a causal link between loot boxes and problem gambling, though most studies do find a minor-but-significant correlative link between the behaviours. The area does need more research and high-quality studies (something that would be improved immeasurably by greater industry co-operation from companies like EA).
What this interview does show is that EA is going to keep FUT in its current form for as long as possible, for the simple reason it's insanely profitable. Things like packet odds and playtime limits are from one perspective welcome improvements, but from another mere sops to fend off regulation for as long as possible. It's true what they say about football these days: all about the money.