FIFA, the football computer game from EA Sports, has proven the most durable source of ‘in-game’ spending by players of any computer game in history, with over $1bn
spent in each of the past three years. The essay below discusses how the design of the game, and the currency system within it, encourage such purchases. To do this, I have first sought to describe the structure of in-game payments and incentives and then draw out the key features that encourage spending.
EA (the developers of FIFA) have designed two currencies in the game. The first is known as coins and is used to price the value of players when traded but cannot be bought or redeemed externally. As such, its monetary function is a subset of traditional money, restricted solely to a medium of exchange. The other currency is ‘FIFA points’, which can be purchased with real money and is used primarily to purchase packs (discussed in detail below). Note that for EA to gain spending from customers, they must incentivise the purchase of packs (on top of the original game purchase), with coins being purely internal.
The main ways in which EA entices players into purchasing FIFA points can be split into three main categories below:
• The structure of the pack system
• The chemistry system
• The introduction of ‘promos’ and a power curve system
FIFA points are most used to purchase packs. A ‘pack’ in FIFA is a classic example of a loot box system popular in many games today. This gives players the chance to obtain any card in the game, promoting an immediate desire to purchase a pack, with the dreams of packing ultra-rare players and making huge returns on one’s money.
The two figures above depict the returns of packs inside the game. The most striking observation can be seen in the number of near-zero percentage returns on the monetary value. However, the existence of so-called ‘golden packs’, a term used to define packs which have returns of >1000%, can also be seen in the figures. Therefore, the pack system can be reduced to a lottery (the mean return on purchase is below the purchase price and massively above the median return). The promise of wild returns on one’s money dwarfs the seemingly small real-world cost of purchasing FIFA points. The existence of small units compounds this effect for FIFA point purchase availability inside the game – one can promise to buy one pack to ‘test the odds’. This justification is alarmingly similar to the one used by addicts to justify the consumption of their addiction, revealing the addictive nature of the system crafted by EA. Thus, promises about vastly improving one’s team and resources mask the minute probability of these dreams happening and incentivise higher spending.
One way players are enticed into spending money on the game is through the chemistry system. This can be summarised as follows:
• To build a team – one must have ‘links.’
• For cards to link to each other – they must either be from the same nationality or the same league.
• These links improve the stats of each card, hence improving how they play in each game.
This system is designed to reduce the number of cards (substitute goods) that one can use in one team. Therefore, as EA release new unique cards throughout the year, they can release players who are common/are from a common nation to increase the demand and hence entice players to spend money on packs to obtain them. One prominent example of this can be seen with French players. It is generally accepted inside the FIFA community that the French nationality has the highest number of META (Most Effective Tactic Available – good) players inside FIFA. Thus, EA releases far more French players than other nationalities in their promos. This, combined with the higher demand for French players, so high that it places an almost 27% premium on their market prices. Since one is less likely to be able to afford these new players due to the premium, one is thus more likely to spend money on packs to obtain them hence generating revenue for EA.
Alongside the chemistry system, another method used by EA to entice players into spending is their weekly releases of ‘promos’. These are unique versions of cards already in the game with upgraded stats.
The two graphs above depict the distributions of OVRs (overall rating of a card) throughout the annual cycle of the game. The most significant difference is the increase in cards with OVRs 85 and above towards the end of the cycle. This shows the transition of the ‘power curve’, describing how teams and cards progress throughout the game. There is an increase of almost 400% in the number of cards with OVRs 85 and above throughout the game and the introduction of ultra-high OVRs (95 and above). Both observations show the power curve, forcing players to upgrade their teams to stay competitive. Interestingly, a consequence of this is that the FIFA monetary system is inherently inflationary (the opposite of Bitcoin).
As shown in the graph above, the value of cards bought inevitably declines as better cards are issued. This works as the immediate desire of the player to be competitive outweighs their long-term rational optimisation.
Thus, one can see how the system’s design creates behavioural incentives to encourage ongoing purchases by players during a season in a range of ways. This has been incredibly successful but is becoming challenged on two fronts. First, countries such as Belgium are banning the pack system of purchases as a form of gambling aimed at the young (effectively, the design is too good). Secondly, the poor odds in the system and increasing complexity appear to be limiting engagement. Sales are down 15% versus last year, suggesting the company has pushed the immediate profit motive too far. Given this combination of success and challenge, further evolution, as for any monetary system, will be required should it continue to thrive.