Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Loot Boxes And Gambling: Politicians Are Taking Note

As the controversy over loot boxes in Star Wars: Battlefront 2 continues, governments and individual politicians around the world increasingly are looking into situation. Yesterday, Belgium's national gambling commission, the Kansspelcommissie (Kanspel Committee) ruled that loot boxes are a form of gambling. VTM News quoted Belgium's Minister of Justice Koen Geens as saying, "Mixing gambling and gaming, especially at a young age, is dangerous for the mental health of the child." The report from the Belgium site also indicated that Geens sought to ban the practice of loot boxes, even outside Belgium.

Are anti-loot box activists blowing the report out of proportion to its importance? Eurogamer offered an alternative view.
It sounds decisive, but it's worth treating with some caution. Responding to the Belgian commission's latest statement, UK gaming lawyer Jas Purewal noted the country still had "no considered policy position, no stated strategy" and that "gambling authorities move slowly on the whole".

"TLDR - don't read much into Belgium news yet. Even if somehow it happens, I don't think it would actually change very much at all. Only if this becomes a concerted international movement against video games gambling would things change. The chances of that happening seems very low."

Is a concerted international movement brewing? In Netherlands, the Dutch Gaming Authority is looking into the practice of video games offering loot boxes.
"Suppose we assume that this is a game of chance," says a spokesperson for the Gaming Authority to "In the Netherlands, a game of chance is subject to licensing when a prize or premium can be won, but we do not yet have a licensing system for online games of chance."

"If someone offers an online game of chance, then this party is in violation, which in the worst case can result in enforcement and a penalty for the provider."

This would mean that the sale of games with loot boxes could potentially be banned until a new law for online games of chance comes into effect. A law for this was adopted in 2016 by the House of Representatives and is now before the Senate.

Member of Parliament Michiel van Nispen (SP) has asked parliamentary questions on Thursday to the Minister for Legal Protection about lootbox games. Among other things, it asks whether the Minister wants to take steps to bring the risks of the games to the attention.
Politicians are also looking into the matter. Jérôme Durain, a senator from Saône-et-Loire, the seventh largest department in France, issued the following letter which was translated and posted on Reddit:
Paris, 16th of November 2017

Mr. President,

Following our exchanges during the parliamentary mission conducted with Mr Rudy Salles, I can only offer my congratulations on the positive trend in the world of video games in general and that of e-sport in particular. Economically dynamic, this cultural industry seems to me a positive contribution to the country: far from the accusation of being an ultra-violent culture that was made only a few years ago, video games allows millions of players to flourish, to exchange, and to develop a practice sometimes close to high level sport. French game developers and the champions of the latest games on the e-sport scene contribute to French cultural influence in the world. I believe that the balanced and benevolent position of ARJEL [French online gambling regulator], which prefers to keep e-sport and gambling distinct from one another, has contributed to the general dynamism that can be observed today.

This context, however, should not prevent us from following the numerous and rapid evolutions of the sector. Today, loot boxes seem to me to require special attention from the public authorities. Many players and specialized observers (see the article devoted to the subject in the magazine Canard PC) question the deleterious effects of the spread of these micro-transactions in the world of video games.While I do not think it is necessary at this stage to put in place specific legislation, I wonder about the desirability of providing consumer protection in this area. The use of loot boxes conferring cosmetic additions to the games seems well-accepted by the public. The development of so-called pay-to-win practices is more contentious, as shown by the recent controversy over the game Star Wars Battlefront 2. Quite aside from the acceptance of the practice, some observers point to a convergence of the video game world and practices specific to gambling.

Transparency is not common with regard to statistics governing loot boxes, even though good practices sometimes exist. China has decided in favour of a transparency of win ratios. Some of our European neighbours (the United Kingdom and Belgium in particular) are looking into the matter through their regulatory authorities. So we see that the question is not unique to France. Does ARJEL have the infrastructure necessary for a general census of win ratios for micro transactions?

I am sensitive to the fact that dialogue is ongoing between the public authorities and the games industry, so I have written in similar terms to Mr. Mahjoubi, Secretary of State for digital affairs, and I have informed the SELL [French videogame consumer body], the SNJV [French games industry association] and the France e-sport association of these initiatives. Prompt and sincere self-regulation of the sector would be reassuring news at a time when some players predict the imminent arrival of e-sports betting. I am convinced that collective reflection will enable us to find a satisfactory answer to this new problem.

Yours sincerely,Jérôme Durain

Belgium and Netherlands are small countries. What would the effect of France moving against loot boxes have on the stance of the European Union as a whole? Add in the possibility that the UK Gambling Commission might take action against games that sell loot boxes under certain circumstances, and the environment for games with loot boxes in Europe is becoming less friendly to loot boxes by the week.

But what about the United States? Even a few states, if large enough, deciding that loot boxes qualified as gambling would put a crimp in a U.S. distribution of a game. A state representative from Hawaii, Chris Lee, posted a video that went viral before his staff completed the accompanying PR materials.

Senator Lee then posted a statement on Reddit explaining his position.
Chris Lee here - I'm the one in the suit. My staff just told me someone apparently found this youtube upload before we had a chance to finish putting it together, but I thought I'd leave it up and just post here to explain that this fight can be won if people step up. This fight is about protecting kids, protecting families, freedom from exploitation, and the future of entertainment in this country.

People are more powerful than they think. While we are stepping up to act in Hawaii, we have also been in discussions with our counterparts in a number of other states who are also considering how to address this issue. Change is difficult at the federal level, but states can and are taking action.

Even so, elected officials can't do it alone. They need your support and you can compel action wherever you live by calling and emailing your own state legislators and asking them to act. But don't stop there. Call your allies. Call your pastors and teachers and community leaders. Ask them to call your state legislators as well. Their voices are politically powerful.

I believe this fight can be won because all the key bases of political support across the country are on the same side. The religious community, the medical community, the education community, consumer advocates, parents, even many business leaders and local chambers of commerce. This is a fight that unites everyone, even the most polarized conservatives and progressives. Doing something is a political win for Democrats and Republicans alike. And frankly, we don't need to change the laws in every state - we just need to change a few and it will be enough to draw the line and compel change.

These kinds of lootboxes and microtransactions are explicitly designed to prey upon and exploit human psychology in the same way casino games are so designed. This is especially true for young adults who child psychologists and other experts explain are particularly vulnerable. These exploitive mechanisms and the deceptive marketing promoting them have no place in games being marketed to minors, and perhaps no place in games at all.

Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one. You have the power to get involved and decide this and the choice is clear: stand up now, or let this be the new normal from this point forward.
Honestly, I think anti-loot box forces are getting a little too excited about the statements of politicians. Durain is a member of the French Socialist Party, whose candidate managed less than 6.5% of the vote in the presidential election this year. And while Rep. Lee is a member of the majority party running Hawaii, his area of expertise involves environmental issues. While he is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, I don't believe he has the backing of his party on the subject of loot boxes. But, like the Washington State Gambling Commission's actions in regards to CS:GO gambling, the current movement of national and state gambling authorities to take a close look at gambling in video games may restrain the more egregious implementations of loot boxes.

Oh, who am I fooling. The video game companies will keep up the practice until one of them gets hit with legal action.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Honorbuddy Finally Concedes Defeat, Announces It's Closing

On the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of the year 2017, the great war between Blizzard and Bossland finally came to an end.

Greetings Buddies,

The following will be sad news, but this is the result of a six years long legal dispute that recently turned into a battlefield for hackers on Blizzard's side.

With that said, our only possible course of action is to discontinue Honorbuddy. Effective today, we will stop all sales for the following products;

Honorbuddy, Lazymon, Buddywing, Hearthbuddy​

The aforementioned services will however remain intact until 31th December 2017 for those that already own a license.

Within the next week we will decide on Rebornbuddy’s and Pokefarmer's future. Demonbuddy, Exilebuddy and the Hashing service will remain on sale for the foreseeable future.

The forums will undergo a change; the store will be closed. A lot of things will change.

It has always been our opinion that Honorbuddy provides no edge, except to empower players with less time than others to enjoy the game like anyone else. Many disagree, not in the least Blizzard, but being able to provide this service to those players has always been a goal of ours, and something we have been happy to do for the past 8 years.

It saddens us to close these services, but the recent advancements from Blizzard's side are only possible because of their decision to compromise the privacy of their players. While WoW runs, the game is continuously scanning the user's computer with the capability to send back exactly which applications the user is running, and in some situations even going as far as sending back window titles of any window on the computer. These things happen even if WoW is running in the background, and even without logging in to a character.

Fighting this war as long as we have is something no one has done before, and no one will do in the future. It is not quite over yet, but we need to adapt to these new circumstances to even stand a chance of continuing in the future.

We hope you understand these changes are not something we do because we want to, but because we have to. We thank you for your continued support. 

Blizzard is the maker of World of Warcraft and Bossland is the maker of the Honorbuddy bot for WoW. The two companies had battled for years, both in-game and in the courts of two countries. The latest legal news occurred in April when Blizzard won an $8.5 million judgement against Bossland in a California court. The court also ordered Bossland to cease marketing and selling Honorbuddy, as well as cheats for other Blizzard Entertainment games like Demonbuddy, Stormbuddy, Hearthbuddy, and Watchover Tyrant, in the United States.

Apparently a ban wave on 13 October spelled the end of Honorbuddy, although many believe the bot's vaunted Tripwire anti-detection system was fatally compromised in 2015 and from then on users were vulnerable to increasingly frequent ban waves.

The aftermath of the announcement reminds me of some of the things said about the Roid Ripper bot for EVE when it closed after the bot's developer disappeared:

Bazingastar2013:  the last time i saw such a post from a bot creater blizzard paid for it :D! bye bye HB and i have to say it - a lot of ppl said exactly that will happen after u changed the lifetime sub's ;D! 

virtual: Take the money and run. I can't help but think they already knew this was going to be the result when they forced everyone to buy new keys. 

virtual: Im sure those of us who bought the the year key exppected to get more than a few month from it and partial key refunds just sounds silly, I don't care about the money, I CARE ABOUT YOU GUYS THROWING IN THE TOWEL!!!!!! 

matt84: Called it when you revoked lifetime licenses and what was it Tony said.. "come and see us in 6 months" well im here and you're closing the doors... So I guess that smug attitude didn't get you that far after all...

That being said it's the end of an era looks like nothing is safe from blizzard anymore and if they turn to out of process solutions that's the end... I did save myself a lot of time over the years using Honorbuddy but removing lifetime for the last few months of your life doesn't look that great.. 

Shylari: I mean, bossland has been lying about HB being 'undetectable' and 'relatively safe' for a few years, sitting back- collecting money all the while convincing people Blizzard is evil and actually spying on you.

I mean- it's pretty comical really. 

Ferre868: is it that easy? , they knew it was going to be like that and said no more lifetime keys and pushed everyone to purchase annual key made tons of money and run away simpley ha. 

Veliton: In ma opinion it is sad how you just lie to us... just look at the post here in the forum like : wait for the update ... and bam this shit ... i dont know you had the best producte for a long time for sure, but the shittest communication with us ... so yeah fuck you .. hope you will come back better and stronger .. but for now you are bunch of li 

The last day of operation is 31 December, when the doors finally close on Honorbuddy. Despite the brave words, I don't expect the bot to make a comeback. While gaming outlets have declared the bot dead before, I think this time is for real.

Friday, November 10, 2017

On To The Moons

The Crimson Harvest event concluded this week. While the Blood Raider Super Kerr-Induced Nanocoatings (SKINs) look sharp, I'm a Minmatar pilot and won't sport the colors of those lunatics on any of my ships.

Avatar sporting a Blood Raider event SKIN
The most important goal during the event was obtaining enough cerebral accelerators to last until the expiration date of 28 November for my three characters currently training. I'm training my mining/PI alt into not only flying stealth bombers, but my PvE Arbitrator fit that runs these limited time event sites so well. My main character is on a long slog of level 5 skill training plan that will last over a year. I'll finish the last tech 2 medium gunnery skill in the next two weeks, followed by the last electronic warfare skills. With those complete, I'll have Mastery 5 in almost all cruisers and below. Finally, my leadership/industrial character is working on training all of the moon mining skills to level 4 in order to use tech 2 crystals. Currently she can only use the tech 1 variants.

Launching a moon probe
Which leads to my next grand adventure: probing moons. I want to create a resource map for the Minmatar Republic. I haven't decided whether to just keep the information in a Google sheet or try out one of the free geographic information systems available. The Google sheet is working pretty well so far. All I have to do is copy/paste the results into my sheet and I get the classifications of each moon mineral (or gas) along with a classification of each moon (R64, R32, etc) and a count of each type of moon. The only manual work I have to do is add a new system into my system tab because I'm too lazy to figure out how to do that automatically.

A distant look at a moon fracking operation
So far I've probed down the moons in 11 of the 104 low sec systems in the Minmatar Republic. Without going into great detail, I think low sec received a decent distribution of moons. In my admittedly small sample, I scanned 4 R64-class and 13 R32-class moons. As a percentage of total moons scanned, that breaks down to a frequency of 0.7% for R64s and 2.3% for R32s. But as I indicated, that's a very small sample from one region of low security space. The overall distribution could vary greatly.

Moon mining fracking just beginning

I've openly wondered how much moon mining will occur in low sec. Actually, I've openly wondered why would anyone mine in low sec when they can go to null sec and get a better pay with less risk. I stated that on an episode of Talking in Stations a couple of weeks ago, and then talked to the CEO of a new player corporation in Discord after the show who was looking forward to the opportunity. I think I received my answer. The question I have is: are there enough people like that CEO out there to make moon mining in low sec more than just a niche activity that only strange people do?

Only 400 kilometers from the refinery
During my moon probing activity, I only saw three refineries. That does not mean only three refineries are active in the 11 systems I probed. Due to citadel mechanics, refineries do not appear on the overview system-wide unless the owner makes the structure public. Making a refinery in low sec public is just asking for trouble. The refineries I spotted were already in operation fracking a moon when I launched my moon probe. So a moon that was quiet 7-10 days ago could now have a refinery blasting chunks off of it. Perhaps this weekend I will do a survey of refineries as well as probe down more moons.

Flying behind a moon fragment
I hope I can find a group actually mining moon minerals this weekend and get some additional screenshots. I also want to find out a little bit more about the mechanics surrounding moon mining, such as reactions. I probably will never get into moon mining, but knowing what the neighbors are up to always helps surviving in low sec. Besides, I'm just nosy.

Friday, November 3, 2017

CCP's Reorganization And Move Away From VR: What We Know

On Monday, news emerged from Iceland that CCP, the maker of EVE Online and EVE: Valkyrie, planned to make a major change in direction. The news website Icelandic Monitor ( reported that CCP would suspend development of new virtual reality games as well as engage in a major restructuring of the company.
"The Icelandic vi­deo game comp­any CCP plans to launch virtual reality on the shelf for the next 2-3 ye­ars, close its Atlanta office and sell its Newcastle office. Overall, the comp­any's changes will af­fect about 100 empl­oyees of the comp­any by more than 370, of which about 30 in Ice­land. However, their compon­ents will be of­f­ered to move between offices. CCP empl­oyees were notified of the changes today."
CCP's CEO, Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, later on Monday issued the following statement:
"Today we have made tough, but important, changes to CCP in response to how we see the gaming market evolving in the coming years. We have been front and center in the second wave of VR and our belief in the long-term transformative power of the technology remains strong.

"Despite the success of the VR games we have released we will be shifting our focus to our PC and mobile initiatives, and will be centralizing those initiatives, along with the support of our existing VR games, to our offices in Reykjavík and London. We will continue to support our VR games but will not be making material VR investments until we see market conditions that justify further investments beyond what we have already made.

"I am very proud of our VR games and, more importantly, of the people here who made them.

"These changes in strategy come with some tough decisions relating to our overall structure as a company. CCP is in a strong position to make these changes, and we are taking great care to support our departing employees to the very best of our ability. We will be offering relocations to some to our London office where we will be building up our efforts in addition to our development activities in Reykjavík."
In the wake of the announcement, many outlets reported that CCP was cancelling all work on virtual reality games. But as the initial report from Icelandic Monitor indicated, CCP was only suspending work on new VR games for 2-3 years. In a correction, Polygon reported that CCP would continue to maintain both EVE: Valkyrie and Sparc out of its London studio. CCP also posted an update on the near term future of its Newcastle studio on the Valkyrie forums:
"As you may have heard, we announced today that we are working with another company to transition the ownership of CCP’s Newcastle studio into new hands.

"What does this mean for everyone’s favourite first-person spaceship shooter? Well, for starters we can confidently confirm that EVE: Valkyrie – Warzone is not going away. We love the game just as much as we love our players, so you can rest assured that we’ll continue to support the product into the future.

"The development team at the Newcastle studio will remain intact and complete work on the upcoming Winter Update for EVE: Valkyrie – Warzone. So don’t panic! You’ll still receive in-game support for custom matches, tournament tools and a spectator mode before the end of this year.

"Our CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson said, 'I couldn’t be more proud of our VR games and, more importantly, of the people here who made them.' This statement rings true for everyone at CCP.

"This is not the end of EVE: Valkyrie, not by a long shot. It’s the just the beginning of a new chapter.

"Welcome to the next life."

In addition to selling the Newcastle studio, CCP is shutting down the Atlanta office, the home of Sparc and CCP's VR Labs research unit. The Icelandic game company established a presence in Georgia by acquiring White Wolf Publishing in 2006. CCP attempted to create a game, World of Darkness, based White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade IP in Atlanta, only to shut down the effort in 2014. CCP eventually sold White Wolf to Paradox in October 2015, maintaining a small staff in Atlanta. Monday's announcement marks the end of CCP's presence in North America.

Of note, the announcement also marks the departure of the last former White Wolf employee from CCP. Ned "CCP Manifest" Coker, CCP's Senior PR and Social Media Lead, apparently chose not to relocate from Atlanta and will leave the company after 10 years.

UPDATE - 5 November 2017: I've received word that CCP Manifest was not offered to relocate outside the U.S.

The original announcement also seems to have caused confusion. While the BBC reported the number of layoffs at 30, gaming sites like PCGamer reported the number at approximately 100. I think the key word is "affected". Affected does not necessarily mean laid off. For example, the developers working in the Newcastle studio on EVE: Valkyrie weren't laid off. They will still work on EVE: Valkyrie until the sale of the studio is complete. But at the end of the day, those working in Newcastle will no longer receive paychecks from CCP. Whether they keep receiving paychecks or need to find new jobs depends on whoever purchases the Newcastle studio.

I think a lot of players thought that the changes would not affect EVE. Someone reading the post made by EVE's community manager, CCP Falcon, on the EVE Online forums may have assumed so:
"Just a quick follow up to this, given that there are questions about EVE, and the future.

"Obviously this is a really difficult day for CCP, and it’s been super tough to see a lot of our friends and colleagues end their journey with CCP.

"With regards to EVE, it’s kind of bittersweet that this puts us in a more solid position going forward, as a lot more focus is back on EVE Online, its services and all the technology and support around it.

"The EVE Online development team was not impacted at all by these changes, and remains the same size, working toward the same goals and features that have already been announced.

"We still have very big plans for EVE Online, and everything we’ve announced, plus more, is still going ahead, so there shouldn’t be any concerns from our pilots in that respect.

"There’ll be more information about other projects, studios and suchlike in the coming days, and there’s also communication going out soon to the Valkyrie community too that has further information." (emphasis mine)
But the statement did say that the changes would affect 30 people in Reykjavik, which probably meant 30 people would lose their jobs. While the development team emerged unscathed, the community team was hit hard. After the dust settled, the community team was cut down to two people, CCP Falcon and CCP Guard.

Another group in Reykjavik probably hit hard by layoffs was the group working on Project Nova. With the announcement at EVE Vegas that CCP was working with Sumo Digital to develop the game, some, if not most, of the developers working on the game probably became superfluous. This is just speculation as I did not see any proof of such layoffs on social media.

The last of CCP's studios, in Shanghai, did not receive much attention in the press. The Iceland Monitor article mentioned CCP is looking to work with Chinese companies to produce mobile games. Hilmar stated his belief that complex mobile games will become popular in the West in the next 3-5 years. The little we know about the changes in the Shanghai studio seem to confirm the shift away from game design. CCP Frame, a producer on both Gunjack and Gunjack 2, was one of the people let go on Monday.

I'm not sure exactly what happens moving forward. Speculation is running through some quarters that the venture capitalists who invested in CCP in 2015 are looking for a return on their money sooner rather than later. Others believe that the move to a free-to-play model failed to attract the anticipated revenue, thus requiring the restructuring. Of course, the skeptics of the current wave of virtual reality point to Monday's announcement as proof that VR is bad. All I do know is that the ramifications of the decisions made at CCP's headquarters are just beginning and we need to keep an eye on the news to see how the story ends.