Have you ever wondered what it would be like to leap from a cliff, to plow your car into oncoming traffic? It’s something called the “Call of the Void” and it’s a normal sensation humans get. It’s our brain telling us that we could instantly cause enormous harm to ourselves, but we won't, because everything is fine. A human being won’t willingly throw themselves into danger, but your brain and its endorphins like to keep you on your toes. Problem is, I don’t think psychologists have ever studied FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT) in any detail, as may a crucial example where people willingly submit themselves to such an intentionally harmful practice.
For the uninitiated, FIFA Ultimate Team is EA Sports’ bloated, lowing cash cow. The firm makes between $650 million and $800 million on the sale of digital content through Ultimate Team. Fully 11% of its revenue from last year was made from the purchase of “FIFA Points”, a digital currency players use to buy in-game loot boxes called “packs”.
If you want an image of what it’s like buying these packs in the Ultimate Team mode, imagine going to a shop because you want to buy a television. Instead of being able to buy it outright with the cash you have, you have to hope that it appears in a randomised collection of items, which could just be a box of HDMI cables, a smashed up CRT and a bent wall bracket.
Of course, the mode has a market, where players can sell their virtual footballers for coins, while others pick and choose which man they want without the lottery of packs. This is all well and good, but Ultimate Team has been out for at least five years now, and the practice of price locking is pervasive. Savvy traders - and I hate that I have to call them that - can buy almost every instance of a player in the system and artificially lock their price at a certain level. It means that any card which shows up at a lower price is automatically snapped up by these virtual moguls - sometimes through the use of bots.
The transfer market in FUT is like a perverse little simulation of real-world market dynamics, and EA gets a cut of every digital transaction made between players. It means that a player can have a team of world-beating footballers without so much as playing a match in any of the game’s actual modes. Let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like being beaten by a 14-year old who has used his mum’s credit card to buy all the best players in the game. I’m just thankful I disabled voice chat.
True, FIFA 19 has addressed the problem slightly, by giving regular players a chance at getting rarer packs without having to splash top dollar. Having played the game since 2012, I have a team in 18 which I would have got nowhere near owning in any other iteration of the title.
The problem with tying such a system to success or failure in-game means that FUT is probably the most rage-inducing mode I have ever played. I’m not a particularly angry gamer - I tend to react with fatalistic laughter when my opponent scores a 40-yard bicycle kick in the 89th minute. With FIFA 19 came many more special player cards, which give already-good footballers god-like abilities. This culminates in an experience where you’re not sure if the person your playing is actually good at the game or whether the algorithms are in their favour. When combined properly, many players in the game can conceivably have 99 in every necessary skill rating.
So, why do I keep playing? There are plenty of football-related videogames out there. Yet the thought of transitioning across to FIFA’s rival PES seems sacrosanct to me. As much as I hate it, the feedback loop that FUT gives you is extremely addictive. When skill prevails over cash cash money, and I beat a team of legends, I feel like all my ire is vindicated. Then I might lose 7-0 in the next game while someone born in 2005 calls my mother’s sexual proclivities into question.
It’s then that I find myself on the edge of that cliff face, staring down into the abyss of in-game currency, PayPal deals and .01% chance randomly generated loot boxes. The problem is, my brain won’t keep me from the jump. How can it? Gambling is a Call of the Void in its own right, and it’s an insanely addictive one. Grown men wash life savings down the drain trying to get that last hit of success, on the chance this could be their big break. Now we have a generation of kids trained on that very same feedback loop. How very easy it is to replace an in-form Messi card with a £50 windfall at the bookies. But then again, it’s only a game isn’t it?