Last week’s report by the UK government regarding loot boxes and their potential regulation is making waves this week as well. In particular, it’s RuneScape that’s in the crosshairs, as the free-to-play MMORPG was called out a few times in the report for how it makes its money.
In the section titled “Financial harms of immersive technologies,” the writers of the report state that they were contacted by a person whose adult son had racked up “in excess of £50,000” (about $62,000) in debt by playing RuneScape. That included five separate payments totaling £247.95 (about $300) in one day. Another player confessed that he’s spent $2000 CAD (about $1500 USD) over his five years playing the game, which isn’t too much when you think about it — about $33 CAD/$25 USD per month — but that includes having
“loaded my credit card with $500 CAD in one night to skip hundreds of hours of content I didn’t find enjoyable to unlock achievements because of a promotion they were running.”
In total, Jagex told Parliament that it makes about 1/3 of its revenue from microtransactions. (Elsewhere in the report, it’s mentioned that EA admitted in 2016 to about $650 million in revenue coming from FIFA Ultimate Team.) The company’s director of player experience said that a player “can potentially spend up to £1,000 a week or £5,000 a month,” but that only one player had hit that limit over the past year. While some measures are in place to lock down accounts and prevent players from overspending, those must be initiated by the account holder, so in the above case, the mother was unable to take action on behalf of her son.
In another section of the report, Jagex told Parliament that “only about 10%” of RuneScape players purchase microtransactions, with an annual average of “about £50 or £60.” According to the report, Jagex also said that it supports mental health awareness, even going so far as to include “characters in their games from mental health charities so that players can ‘ask questions and interact with them around issues of mental health.'”
Is all that enough? Maybe for 99+% of players, it is, but it’s that remaining audience, like the man who spent £50,000, that all the outreach programs in the world won’t touch. While having such a low percentage of people be negatively impacted might seem like it shouldn’t invite regulation, the same could be said of most undesirable activity. 99+% of people aren’t murderers, 99+% don’t drink and drive, 99+% don’t steal, and 99+% aren’t problem gamblers. Yet there are rules in place for all of those, and they all affect a very small percentage of the population. And when you’re dealing with games that have millions of players, even a fraction of a percent is a lot of people.