SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) - A new Star Wars video game is coming under fire for a feature that essentially allows money instead of skill to determine who wins.
Game giant Electronic Arts has been criticised for its "loot boxes", a money-making tactic that typically offers digital items such as stylish outfits for characters or decorations for in-game abodes.
Until recently, game makers were careful to require players to rely on skills for weapons or abilities that could help beat challenges or adversaries.
The controversy over Star Wars Battlefront II centres on how the game prompts players to chance money on loot boxes that hold unknown assortments of in-game goods such as weapons, abilities and items needed to purchase coveted characters like Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader.
EA was accused of going too far by forcing players to bet on loot boxes to advance through the game.
As twitter user @TmarTn lamented, "I miss having cheat codes in video games. Now it's just your credit card number."
While loot boxes can be earned through many hours of play, a widely circulated post from Star Wars Gaming estimated that it would require 4,525 hours, versus US$2,100, to unlock everything in the game.
Jim Sterling, a British reviewer and noted critic of the big budget games industry, called the experience a "gruelling slog for those unwilling to pay more money" than the US$60-US$80 price of the game.
Fans weren't the only source of pressure on Electronic Arts.
The Wall Street Journal said a high-level executive at Disney-Lucasfilm sent word to Electronic Arts that the film giant was unhappy with how the backlash was marring the image of its beloved Star Wars franchise.
On the eve of the release of Battlefront II, Electronic Arts turned off the function of spending money in-game, saying in a statement that "we will now spend more time listening, adjusting, balancing and tuning" before reinstating the ability to purchase loot boxes.
Oddly enough, loot boxes remain the only way to obtain the most items in the game. That means players have to earn loot boxes through countless hours of play, or put the game aside until Electronic Arts introduces a modified way to get goods.
Some players have decided they've waited long enough. A petition at change.org calling on Lucasfilm to revoke Electronic Arts' licence to the Star Wars brand had gathered nearly 50,000 signatures as of Tuesday (Nov 28).
The loot box debate has gone political. The Belgian Gaming Commission recently launched an investigation into whether loot boxes in Battlefront II and the smash hit "Overwatch" constitute gambling, and Hawaii congressman Chris Lee has branded Battlefront II "a Star Wars-themed online casino".
In a video posted on YouTube, Lee slammed the new title for being "designed to lure kids into spending money", adding: "It's a trap."
Britain's Gambling Commission executive director Tim Miller weighed in with an online post on Saturday, warning: "We are concerned with the growth in examples where the line between video gaming and gambling is becoming increasingly blurred."
The Entertainment Software Association, a video game industry trade group, has come out in defence of loot boxes.
"Loot boxes are a voluntary feature in certain video games that provide players with another way to obtain virtual items that can be used to enhance their in-game experiences," the association said. "They are not gambling."
Sales figures were not available, but GamesIndustry.biz reported that opening week sales of Battlefront II were down about 60 percent in Britain compared to the first week sales of its predecessor.
Despite the furore, loot boxes and other in-game purchase strategies are likely here to stay. Superdata reports that "add-on content sales are increasingly out-earning the traditional one-time purchase model, and the trend shows no signs of slowing".