If you’re in-house at one of the global games companies and you deal with Europe, chances are that dealing with Belgium is somewhere on your to-do list. The country may bring under 1% of the global games revenue, but its ruling on the free-to-play mechanics had a far mightier impact.
Tech companies like Facebook and Google, in general, are known to follow the strategy of “expand now, defend your position later” and may pretty much ignore the on-the-ground reality – considering the (possible but not certain) penalties to be a small price to pay, later, for the (immediate and shareholder-pleasing) progress, now. After all, being fast and having no preconceived limits is what made them successful in the first place. When Uber was under stress in Paris, they did not hire more compliance lawyers or GR specialists – they hired more defence lawyers for those drivers that got arrested.
As to the games industry, we’re not really there – because our customer base is more tangible, and we want to keep making money with the same properties for many years to come, and pretty much everywhere. Lose in Belgium – and Norway may come after you. Lose in Norway – and Germany will skin you.
At the same time, very few companies bothered to connect legal and software development in a way that would make it easy to offer different game modes to users in different regions. Valve’s vision for Steam, for a long time, has been that of “one market, one user experience” for everyone. You may be able to launch an app in Canada through Apple ahead of other territories, but for a Steam release, you are very strongly advised to run things globally – a launch should be a launch for players everywhere, from Shanghai to Lima.
All of this results in a challenge that, I think, is still not fully recognised by the global games companies: that if you want to wade in dangerous waters of (possibly exploitative) F2P mechanics, you’d better be ready to offer as many regional versions of your game as you possibly can, and tweak each according to the local rulings.
Take NBA 2019
, for example – a product that’s at no.1 on Steam’s Topsellers list. As of this writing, it sports 65% negative user reviews
, which is pretty exceptional (and not in a good way). It would be one thing if users simply raged about not having enough new features, but they seem to be as much – or even more – pissed off by the presence of micro-transactions in this $59.99 product. As one of the reviews spells it out –
NBA 2K19 is constantly begging you to spend VC [virtual currency]. You’re asked to spend VC on Gatorade for performance boosts, on vehicles to make progression around the plodding Neighbourhood mode quicker, on shoes, on clothes. It’s relentless, in your face the moment you turn the game on, and doesn’t leave you until the second you quit (quite literally, since GET VC is right there underneath QUIT).
The hundreds of negative comments on the game’s Steam forums indeed are focused as much on the hardware problems and lack of expected features, as on the publisher’s desire to milk users from the get-go for more cash.
“2K19 is like a free-to-play mobile game, a predatory experience where the game is always shaking you down for your lunch money (…) It is not fun to be around.”
While I disagree with the conclusion above – I would rather say, “like a bad free-to-play mobile game”, – in general it’s hard to find any love for the product. Chinese players hate it. American players hate it. Swedish players hate it. Something has got to give, and sooner than later folks will start writing formal complaints to their local consumer rights organisations.