A controversy has brewed for months - if not years - over the legalities of loot box implementations in gaming. The governments of many countries have taken this debate and have started their own investigations into whether loot box implementations - which offer the chance for an in-game item with a real-world money purchase - constitute gambling. Earlier this month, I wrote about how an Electronic Arts vice president was drug before the British House of Commons in June to defend mechanics. EA dubbed loot boxes "surprise mechanics" because even that company is not dumb enough to admit to implementing gambling systems in its games. When the country that started the Brexit process calls you out for being ridiculous, that's embarrassing.
Rockstar Games - headquartered in the United Kingdom for that extra bit of irony - has watched this controversy build and asked the video game industry to hold its beer, because it just launched literal gambling in its most purest form in the "Grand Theft Auto Online" mode. In what has to be some sort of attempt at trolling, the developer recently added the Diamond Casino to the game world and has plastered it all over the digital city of Los Santos.
Players can use ingame money to purchase chips for blackjack, poker, slot machines, video horse racing and roulette. The idea of gambling in "GTA Online" might seem kind of an interesting distraction. It fits in with the overall theme of the online component, which has really blossomed into a small scale MMO with literally hundreds of ways to earn digital currency, which can be used in the casino. But where the problem - the true problem - lies is how players can purchase Shark Cards which real cash that can be converted into chips at the casino. Shark Cards have been immersed in controversy since they were introduced to "GTA Online" months after its launch. Players pay real money for digital currency, which is then used to purchase vehicles, clothes, real estate, weapons and numerous other items in the game. It's no different than almost any other MMO or online game that uses real money for microtransactions. What's predatory about Shark Cards is how inflated the prices for items are in "GTA Online" and how little many activities pay out. Rockstar has constantly tweaked the payouts of activities - raising and lowering them throughout the lifespan of the game. The balance has improved somewhat, but it still requires a tremendous amount of time and grinding in order to obtain some of the more sought after items.
Gambling might be a quick way to take that digital currency obtained by robbing banks, pulling off heists or winning races and parlay it into even larger stacks of money. And that would be fine - if that was the only money you could use in the casino.
Shark Card prices range from $3 for $100,000 of in-game money to $100 for $8 million of in-game money. There are guides online showing which cards offer the most value. Many third party key sellers offer discounts from time to time. The microtransaction economy has been so successful for Rockstar Games that it earns as much as $700 million a year from Shark Card purchases for "GTA Online." And now they can be used for gambling for in-game currency.
This is easily the most tone deaf addition to a game in recent memory. As EA 2K Games and other publishers are being raked over the coals for predatory microtransactions and loot boxes, Rockstar Games just drops literal gambling into its game and doesn't blink an eye. It's as if so many have become desensitized to the violence of the "GTA" series, so the developer needed some new bit of controversy to stoke the metaphorical fires of indignation.
In some countries, the developer has somehow implemented a ban on converting Shark Card money into casino chips, but it's not widespread. That's not the case in the United States, however. Players are free to convert up to $50,000 of in-game currency into casino chips every 48 minutes. There is a very large chance that this system can and will be abused.
Rockstar Games needs to take a step back and reassess what it's doing with this casino. The idea of gambling with in-game currency is not a bad one. Other games have implemented similar systems in the past. Where the problem lies is in being able to use real money in these casinos. The studio obviously knows this can be a problem, because it has a system in place to prevent such a scenario in many countries. That system needs to be implemented across every country. Controversy is always a boon for "Grand Theft Auto," but the industry as a whole will not benefit from the first headlines to pop up as soon as someone goes into serious debt by purchasing Shark Cards in order to gamble in a digital casino with no chance of real world payout. The casino can stay, but ban Shark Cards from being converted into chips.