The idea of the corporation as a self-made entity spearheaded by pioneering individuals is a cornerstone of the mythos of American capitalism. It’s found in practically every industry. The assumption is that resources in a corporation have to allocate themselves as efficiently as possible, lest the corporate body itself fail.
In the modern landscape, this is demonstrably not the case. Large corporations, almost as a rule, pay executive members millions while day laborers often struggle in the bottom rungs of the structure. In 2014, the average CEO made over three hundred times what the average worker did. The tech sector fares no better, and that’s not even taking into account the different pay rates of employees depending on their race and gender.
So what does this have to do with videogames?
Well, let’s talk about loot boxes.
Setting aside the arguments of the ethicality of loot boxes as a design choice (most commonly criticized as promoting gambling, or gambling urges) for a moment, the fact of the matter is that loot boxes are big business. About half of Electronic Arts’ entire digital sales revenue in 2015 was made up of “extra digital content” for one mode: Ultimate Team in FIFA, Madden and NHL games.
For those unfamiliar, the “Ultimate Team” mode in these games is effectively a deckbuilding minigame, where players can buy unboxable “packs” which grant your “ultimate team” access to new players. Packs can be purchased with in-game coins or with real money, as is generally the case in games with these mechanics.
It’s not unusual for people who consider themselves critical of loot boxes to fall back on the defense that, since developers are often exploited via crunch hours and outright underpaid or unpaid labor, loot boxes are a necessary evil of sorts—a way to recoup money that is unspent after the initial sale, and distribute it back to the developer.
But the thing is that the money—in cases like Electronic Arts, at the least—already exists. The problem isn’t that the money isn’t being made by the product, but that the money being made by the product is not being allocated fairly.
Electronic Arts is a company valued at $27.4 billion USD. Their sales in the last financial year alone made over four and a half billion dollars. According to their own statements, digital sales were about half of that, and “extra digital content” was half of that number. In total, EA made about $1.3 billion USD in DLC and microtransactions. Their executive compensation (total paid out in salary and benefits to the EA executive board) was fifty million dollars in 2017, of which twenty million went to CEO Andrew Wilson.
I am sure that Mr. Wilson works hard. I am sure that he has made charitable donations in his name with the money that partially came from his Electronic Arts salary and benefits. I am sure he is a nice man.
But, regardless of his personality or background, he is making approximately 266 times the amount the average EA artist makes in a year. He is making 208 times the amount the average EA Software Engineer makes in a year. For every one dollar that an EA Quality Assurance Tester was paid in 2017, Andrew Wilson made approximately a thousand dollars. (Source)
I personally don’t like loot boxes. I think they’re manipulative and prey on the worst aspects of mainstream gaming and the idea of “games as a service.” But they’re not the ultimate villain here, when we’re talking about designer undercompensation. Andrew Wilson may, or may not, work “as hard” as the people I have named above, but they’re being paid literally hundredths of his salary.
If loot boxes were really a necessary evil, we wouldn’t be seeing this sort of disparity. Loot boxes are but a symptom of a larger problem—and that problem begins and ends with inequality in the workforce.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.