Friday, December 27, 2019

Loot Boxes In The UK At The End Of 2019

With the reintroduction of gambling in EVE Online, catching up on the sentiment in the United Kingdom towards gambling in video games is once again relevant to the space game. Back in 2016, the issue was skins gambling. In 2017, the concern shifted to the massive introduction of loot boxes by big game publishers into live service games. As we head into 2020, a look back at some of the activity in the UK over the second half of 2019 is a good idea.

The subject flared up in July when the UK Gambling Commission's program director, made a very unpopular statement at a hearing of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
In an evidence session with the digital, media, culture and sport select committee, which is examining links between gaming and gambling, the UK’s betting regulator said it had “significant concerns” about products such as skins and loot boxes. Skins are in-game items that can be won in the game, such as weapons, outfits or particular football players, while loot boxes invite players to pay a certain amount for a mystery reward.

Such products are not defined as gambling under English law, due to the fact that the in-game items cannot be exchanged for cash within the game, despite the fact they can be bought and traded with real money on other sites and acquiring them may involve an element of chance akin to placing a bet.

The Gambling Commission’s programme director, Brad Enright, said it was “constrained by the current legislation”, although it was prepared to regulate such products if the law were changed.
When regulators state they cannot do what politicians want them to do, the response is a push to change the law. In September, the DCMS committee issued a report recommending the regulation of loot boxes under gambling law. The report's summary specifically addressed loot boxes.
Loot box mechanics were found to be integral to major games companies’ revenues, with further evidence that they facilitated profits from problem gamblers. The Report found current gambling legislation that excludes loot boxes because they do not meet the regulatory definition failed to adequately reflect people's real-world experiences of spending in games. Loot boxes that can be bought with real-world money and do not reveal their contents in advance should be considered games of chance played for money’s worth and regulated by the Gambling Act.

Evidence from gamers highlighted the loot box mechanics in Electronic Arts's FIFA series with one gamer disclosing spending of up to £1000 a year.

The Report calls for loot boxes that contain the element of chance not to be sold to children playing games and instead be earned through in-game credits. In the absence of research on potential harms caused by exposing children to gambling, it calls for the precautionary principle to apply. In addition, better labelling should ensure that games containing loot boxes carry parental advisories or descriptors outlining that they feature gambling content.

  • The Government should bring forward regulations under section 6 of the Gambling Act 2005 in the next parliamentary session to specify that loot boxes are a game of chance. If it determines not to regulate loot boxes under the Act at this time, the Government should produce a paper clearly stating the reasons why it does not consider loot boxes paid for with real-world currency to be a game of chance played for money's worth.
  • UK Government should advise PEGI to apply the existing 'gambling' content labelling, and corresponding age limits, to games containing loot boxes that can be purchased for real-world money and do not reveal their contents before purchase.

A presentation that seemed to leave an impact on the committee concerning loot boxes was a presentation from the 2018 4C International Game Developers Conference in Prague from Dr. Ben Lewis-Evans, a user experience researcher at Epic Games. He discussed some of the thinking behind the loot boxes. The presentation is available on YouTube and embedded above.

In October 2019, the Office of the Children's Commissioner for England issued a report, "Gaming the System", that focused on how the way game companies monetize games affects children. On the summary page, the following recommendations were listed.
  • Bringing financial harm within the scope of the Government’s forthcoming online harms legislation. Developers and platforms should not enable children to progress within a game by spending money and spending should be limited to items which are not linked to performance.
  • All games which allow players to spend money should include features for players to track their historic spend, and there should be maximum daily spend limits introduced in all games which feature in-game spending and turned on by default for children.
  • The Government should take immediate action to amend the definition of gaming in section 6 of the Gambling Act 2005 to regulate loot boxes as gambling.
  • The Government’s age appropriate design code must include provisions on nudge techniques and detrimental use of data, as proposed in the draft code.
  • Games that are distributed online should be subject to a legally enforceable age-rating system, just as physical games are. There should be a requirement for an additional warning to be displayed for games which facilitate in-game spending. The Government should consult on whether age ratings of all games should be moderated pre-release, just as physical games are.
  • Online games should be a key focus of digital citizenship lessons in schools, rather than lessons focusing exclusively on social media. Teachers involved in the delivery of these lessons should be familiar with how key online games that are popular with children work.
With a general election scheduled for 12 December 2019, the issue came to the fore as one the top officials must address. Needless to say, all the political parties came down on the side of saving the children from gambling. The Conservative Party of Boris Johnson specifically mentioned loot boxes in its election manifesto.
Also, given how the online world is moving, the Gambling Act is increasingly becoming an analogue law in a digital age. We will review it, with a particular focus on tackling issues around loot boxes and credit card misuse. (p 20) [emphasis in the original]
On 19 December, Queen Elizabeth gave the Queen's Speech to open parliament. In the background briefing notes, loot boxes and gambling were placed in the Online Harms section.
The Government will carry out a review of the Gambling Act, with a particular focus on tackling issues around online loot boxes and credit card misuse (p. 59).
My understanding is that the Open Harms plan has cross-party support. So while Brexit will get all of the attention, those who follow video game news will have to see what happens with legislation concerning loot boxes and other forms of gambling in online video games. If additional studies, such as the one published by the Royal Society for the Protection of Health the day after the Queen's Speech is any indication, the issue will not go away anytime soon.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Fallout 76: What A Mess

I'm not a fan of the Fallout franchise. I did try Fallout 3, but first person shooters are not a genre of gaming I enjoy. But when I heard people demanding the ability to mod the new game, I knew to stay far away. Allowing modding of an online game like Fallout 76 like a single-player game was asking for trouble. Seriously, who thinks giving hackers permission to explore the insides of your game is a good idea? Even before the game launched, Bethesda was warned the game was extremely vulnerable to hacking.

A year later, hackers are on the verge of killing Fallout 76. A hack that allows players to add NPCs from Fallout 4 to the world also causes havoc in PvP. Perhaps worse, the same hack allows real money traders to duplicate items. A hack which, if not currently live will go live in the very near future involves stealing inventory items from other players.
There's a new hack in Fallout 76 that gives those who use it the ability to steal items out of your inventory. The hackers are not able to touch your caps, scrip, access to various locations and stash box/scrap box items. Person to person trading is also still safe.

Items you should be scared of losing to the exploit are your weapons, armour and everything else you've got in your inventory. The Pip-Boy can be stolen using the new hack as well as it technically is an item in your inventory. The hacker can steal your items if he/she comes within render distance to you. 
Regular readers of The Nosy Gamer know people can make a lot of money selling virtual goods and currency for real world money. Some can even make a living. I'm always amazed when gaming journalists don't already know. Sometimes I think editors give new writers real money trading assignments to teach them RMT is not a benign activity.

Of course, everyone's amazed when I tell them real money trading is alive and well in Fallout 76. Most people assume the game is so unpopular the small population cannot support a robust secondary market. A new writer at Eurogamer, Emma Kent, provided some reporting, talking to item sellers. Ms. Kent managed to interview one of the largest sellers of Fallout 76 items.
Martin, meanwhile, said he's never been banned. He estimates 80 per cent of his stock is duped (something he says is due to a spate of mass duping crazes previously flooding the market - claiming he's only been involved in later "more controlled duping"), and he's managed to avoid hitting the weight cap by spreading his inventory over 12 PSN accounts and 70 different Fallout 76 characters.

"Bethesda has never interfered with any real life currency trading ... simply because they couldn't care less," he added. "Bethesda is a multi-million company who I assume does not consider from my perspective sellers who are selling items and somewhat promoting their game."
The numbers that Martin pulled in rivals, if not exceeds, those of the top sellers on EVE Online's black market.
While Martin has noticed a gradual decrease in demand for items, he says it's still an extremely profitable industry - claiming he's sold weapons anywhere from £10-£500 each, making a total of $55k (£41.8k) in the 10 months since he started selling the items. "I consider myself the most successful 'individual' seller on the entirety of the platform and I say this as I have spoken to other competing sellers from all platforms," Martin added.
Sometimes I think I need to revisit the subject of RMT, given all the new examples of the harm real money trading does to online games. Admittedly, Kent wrote her Eurogamer article before the inventory theft hack became public knowledge, but this paragraph is either pretty cynical or pretty naive.
Of course, the Fallout 76 sellers were probably never going to argue against their own interests - but they did make a fair point about RMT. Given the, um, buzz around Fallout 76 has now calmed down, it wouldn't make sense for Bethesda or Zenimax to really crack down - and from the sounds of it, the most public duping methods have been patched out, and the demand for items is slowly decreasing. So long as people aren't using mass duping methods to produce the weapons - which upsets the game balance and has been blamed for destabilising servers - it at least seems relatively harmless (if obviously pay to win).
This afternoon, Bethesda addressed the issue on the Fallout 76 sub-reddit.
Hi everyone,

We are investigating reports of a PC-only exploit that could be abused by cheaters, which may have resulted in a few players losing items that their characters had equipped. We have been actively working toward a solution for this and have a fix that we are currently evaluating for release today.

While we’ve determined that only a small number of characters have been negatively affected, we are taking this very seriously and resolving this is currently our top priority.

We would like to apologize to those of you who were impacted by this exploit. We want to make this right, and we are currently looking into ways we may be able to compensate you. If you believe you have been affected, please let us know by submitting a ticket to our Customer Support team.

As mentioned above, this issue only affects PC, and we are currently planning to bring the PC version of the game offline today to release a fix. We will let you know as soon as we are ready to begin

Thank you very much.
Hopefully Bethesda found the code vulnerability and players can play on Christmas without worry. But problems like those described above will eventually kill a game.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

My First Wormhole Relic Site On An Alpha Pilot

Sometimes I just need to get away from talk of gambling and economic reports and just fly around New Eden. Really, I'm still pissed that CCP decided to put the new raffle system in a release named Free Market. And what's up with also releasing something called Kicking Over Castles at the same time? So, when I wasn't finishing up my R course, I hopped on my characters and played EVE.

For some reason, I thought using a Hurricane to run Emerging Conduits was a good idea. Maybe a shield-tanked battlecruiser would work, but the armor-tanked Hurricane I tried to make work struggled. I need to go back to my Vagabond and see how much the improvements to medium auto-cannons help. It's possible that with the added DPS, I won't have to warp out of every other site.

When I wasn't working out how to fly an armor-tanked Hurricane, I hopped on my Signal Cartel character and did a little exploring. In the first session, I looked at Dotlan and saw I was close to Providence. I thought to myself, "Why not?" So off I went.

Did I mention my Signal Cartel character is an alpha? That's right. I flew around in a 1 million skill point character though an area that has seen better days. Thankfully whoever put up the interdiction bubbles left them untended, so I got to practice extracting myself from the situation. While Providence has a reputation of being a bit friendlier than normal, seeing an interceptor on a gate as I warp to the next location is a bit nerve racking.

I safely arrived in my destination constellation an did a little probing. I found the entrance to a C5 wormhole and went in. I played around a bit, then realized two things. The first was that I was kind of sleepy and wasn't going to play much longer. The second was that even if I found a relic or data site, the NPCs would eat me alive. I needed to find a C1, C2, or C3 wormhole. Those are easier to find in high sec. I think.

As I said, the time was late so I exited the wormhole to go back to my high sec station. When I emerged back in known space, one of the locals asked if I had just come from Thera. I told him no, and then began my journey home. I only ran across one gate camp on the way back. Looking back, my reactions were kind of funny. First, I saw two Rattlesnakes on grid and thought, "No dumb Rattlesnakes can catch me!" I decloaked and aligned for the next gate. Then I had the bright idea to scroll down. That's when I saw all the cruisers. Oh well. They let me through.

My second session of the weekend had me thinking of moving locations. With all the presents from CCP, I needed to find a place to store them. I undocked to probe down a few relic sites, keeping in the back of my mind the desire to escape the station I was in. I figured travelling via wormhole was a lot safer than scooting through Amarr or Uedama.

The first site I attempted to probe down was a Sansha relic site. The difference between a max skill alpha and max skill omega was readily apparent. A site I could probe down with just a little difficulty with my main I could only reach 94% with on my alpha. The next site was a wormhole. I jumped through and, much to my surprise, I found myself in Thera.

That's right. If I had checked, I would have seen I was in a system with an entrance to Thera. But truthfully, I was more concerned with practicing my probing. Since I was already on the website, I decided to check if any exits led to where I base the rest of my characters. Sure enough, an exit to a low sec system would place me only five jumps away. But the board indicated the exit would collapse in less than four hours. Now, instead of just jumping to the bookmark, I decided to probe down the exit. I really needed the practice. I bit to my surprise, the wormhole still existed and I jumped through to low sec. A few minutes later and I was at my new high sec base.

Why would I want to base out of high sec. Time, really. I figure my chances of finding a lower-class wormhole with sites I could run would increase if I was in high sec. My next session bore that out.

On Saturday night, I probed down a C2 wormhole. After making sure Allison was engaged, I jumped into the wormhole. An occupied wormhole.

Well, I think the wormhole was occupied. I saw player-owned customs offices and a citadel. But no one appeared in local. Of course, unlike Jita, people who live in wormholes don't like to clutter up local with mindless chit-chat. Which is too bad, because I wanted to chat with the cloaked Proteus pilot I knew was just in scram range of me, ready to pounce. He wasn't in local, and I didn't see him uncloaked, but he was there. Trust me.

I knew the wormhole had to hold a relic site. I had no doubt at all. But I needed to shake this cloaky Proteus who thought he was clever and fooling a new player. Ha! I did what any half-competent explorer would do and decided to create a midpoint bookmark. After making sure to bookmark my original entry point, I warped to a planet, creating a bookmark about half-way to my destination. Then I immediately doubled back to my newly created bookmark. To make things interesting, I then lit the afterburners and turned on my two ECCM modules. The technique wouldn't save me from a dedicated probing pilot in a dedicated probing ship, but the measures should defeat the efforts of a casual day tripper. Or any alpha character like myself.

The wormhole only contained five signatures, including my entry point. I decided to probe the signatures until I identified what type they were, and then complete the scan if I found either another wormhole or a relic or data site. All the time Allison was reminding me to use my directional scanner.

As an aside, I know that Allison is probably programmed to give a reminder after a set amount of time. But at one point, I had just hit the d-scan when she reminded me again. I actually said out loud, "I just did!" Besides, d-scan will not detect a cloaky Proteus.

Then it happened. I found the cloaky Proteus. Well, I didn't actually find him, but I found an Angel's relic site. Where else would a cloaky Proteus sit? Considering I had to fiddle with my probes at .25 AU in order to get a 100% result, Mr. Proteus Pilot had plenty of warning. But you only live once, so I warped to the relic site.

I landed and got to work. The site held six hackable containers. I tried to follow the rule of sixes and managed to hack four of them. I lost a fifth when hacking the final node. Four out of six on an alpha isn't bad. Just a warning, though. The second time you fail the hack, the can explodes. Fortunately, my ship took no damage.

After clearing the site, I looked at my haul. 22.9 million ISK. Then I looked at my ship. The fitting window valued my ship at 788,000 ISK. In other words, I was carrying loot worth 29 times the value of my ship. I looked at the time and decided I needed to go to sleep, so I exited the wormhole and docked up for the night.

Okay, it took three tries, but I finally found a relic site in a wormhole and hacked the site. Now that I think I figured out the secret, I just need to find the time to play and practice. But since I found my main characters, I can hand off the loot to my market character to sell in Dodixie. Or maybe somewhere else. I haven't decided yet.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

EVE Online's Stormy 3rd Quarter

The Pearl Abyss investors call on 8 November basically ended the stream of data those outside CCP would receive for the third quarter of 2019. Designated "The Chaos Era" by CCP, the summer of 2019 was dominated by an event officially called "Blackout" and some wags labeled Hurricane Hilmar, CCP's design decisions were controversial with their effects of shaking up the game world. While most of the EVE commentariat and denizens on social media have moved on, I thought a look back at New Eden's stormy summer was in order.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Star Citizen Has Raised How Much?

Star Citizen is in the news once again. On the positive side, the latest ship sale pushed player funding for the game over $250 million USD.

Star Citizen Funding Page As Seen on 5 December 2019
On the negative side, at least for Cloud Imperium Games, the BBC produced technology show Click is broadcasting an episode on Star Citizen:
Click investigates why there has been continued delays in bringing $250m crowd funded video game Star Citizen from Gameplay [sic] testing to market.
Now, $250 million is an amazing number. Going back to when Chris Roberts began the current Star Citizen project in late 2011/early 2012, the $200 million Bioware reportedly spent producing Star Wars: The Old Republic was considered a massive amount of money. But the crowd funding is not all the money raised by Chris Roberts and Cloud Imperium Games.

In December 2018, CIG released financial information to the public after receiving $46 million in private funding designated to market Squadron 42 & Star Citizen.

Cloud Imperium Games income, 2012-2017
In the first 5 years of operations, CIG had collected an additional $11.2 million in subscriptions. CIG also raised an additional $10.3 million in "other income", defined as:
Income from incentives, sponsors, licensing and partnerships. This also includes timing differences and bookings for exchange rate differences between the standard rates used for the counter and actual exchange rates received.
So through today, CIG has raised at least $274.7 million. But we don't know how much CIG raised in subscriptions and other inomce. Given that in both 2016 and 2017 CIG raised $8.8 million for both categories, I think a reasonable estimate through the end of 2019 is an additional $17.6 million. Prorating that amount gives us an estimate of $16.9 million raised for the period January 2018 - November 2019.

Raising $291 million is a fairly impressive amount. Add in the $46 million in private funding and Cloud Imperium as raised an estimated $337 million to create and market Squadron 42 and Star Citizen. And given the beta for Squadron 42 was pushed back another 3 months to Q3 2020, I anticipate that by the time the first game launches, the funding raised will approach $400 million.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Next Step To EVE's Holy Grail

When I first started playing EVE Online in 2009, downtime lasted an hour every day, from 1100-1200 UTC. On 1 November 2010, downtime officially was reduced to 30 minutes. On 11 May 2016, the daily downtime for the Tranquility server was halved again to 15 minutes. Today, downtime typically lasts 4-5 minutes. And tomorrow, EVE will have no downtime.
Downtime today is not like downtime was a few years ago when it was usually up to an hour, enough time for a long lunch, including dessert. These days Tranquility's auto-reboot on weekends takes approximately 4 minutes and 20-40 seconds, just enough for a quick cup of tea. But it is still an inconvenience since you must time your activities to be at a safe place at 11:00 UTC. Downtime waits for no one.

Therefore, for the first time in the more than six thousand days of EVE Online, there will be no downtime on Wednesday, 4 December! We will begin the first 48 hour run ever of EVE at 11 o'clock on Tuesday 3 December and end it on Thursday, 5 December.
In a time honored IT practice, CCP plans to shut off a feature (the daily reboot) and see what breaks.
First, let’s take a step back and look at the reasons why we have downtime in the first place:
  • We have excessive memory consumption and lack of clean-up in certain areas, and we don't necessarily refresh cache since the daily reboot will take care of it all.
  • We still have daily database jobs that run during downtime.
  • There are certain things that must be done regularly, and it is most convenient to do them during startup when there are no players online.
This is our dirty laundry. We have documented all the things we know that can go wrong. Then there are the things we don't know about and testing is the only way to find out…

Eliminating downtime is a goal CCP has pursued for a long time. Back in the 2010 dev blog announcing the reduction of downtime down to 15 minutes, CCP Hunter (yes, that CCP Hunter), wrote:
What has been done to reduce downtime?

In the old days, systems in EVE Online were built on the fact that there was daily downtime. In the last few years no new code has been produced that relies on downtime and a great deal of work has been done in removing old dependencies on downtime. You could say that we are still paying for past sins.

In addition to this we have worked on the cluster shutdown procedure and startup procedure so that the cluster goes down and up faster.

What does the future hold, when will the daily downtime go away?

As a part of the Carbon initiative, cluster management is being re-architected. It is our goal that sometime in the not too distant future, EVE Online will have no daily downtime. How awesome will that be!
I put the above in to show that Pearl Abyss is not responsible for the concern about downtime. I can't help but point out that downtime currently occurs at 2000 (8pm) in Seoul. Also, with the launch of the Korean language client in November, the Australian/East Asia time zone is noticeably growing. However, CCP isn't totally comfortable with moving downtime to before the AUTZ begins their playtime.
The first instinct would be to say that downtime should be at 7 o'clock when the online population is the lowest. This is the "Pacific Downtime"; after the American play session and before the Asian play session...

There is more than can be read from these graphs such as that CPU usage overnight and at 7 o'clock, during the lowest population, is quite high, so activity per player is high during the American play session. Americans also play longer into the night than, say, Europeans. Shortening the American play session at the tail end with the "Pacific Downtime" is, therefore, not the right choice.
The dev blog suggests that downtime could move from 1100 UTC to 0930 UTC (1830 in Seoul), which might play into some laws about excessive playing in South Korea. But for now, CCP wants to try to move to only having downtime once every 48 hours. Tomorrow's cancelled downtime is the first step toward accomplishing a long dreamed of goal.