Does EA have an economic incentive to manipulate matches through scripting, handicapping or momentum? In this article, I poke into some of the theories on how scripting would improve EA’s business.
Why would EA manipulate matches? Is there a motive to do so? It’s a key question in this debate. After all, software companies like EA usually don’t invest money in developing code, unless there is a reasonable return on investment. So, if there isn’t a motive, they probably didn’t do it.
Scripting believers are pretty creative when it comes to inventing motives. However, there seems to be three main ideas about why EA would have an interest in changing the outcome of a match:
- Losing makes people buy more packs, because they will want to improve their squad in order to win. Therefore, making them lose will increase earnings.  
- New players will stop playing FIFA if they don’t win now and then, and if they stop playing, they don’t spend money. Therefore, making bad players win will increase earnings. 
- If people win or lose by too big a margin, they will stop playing because the game becomes too boring or too frustrating. Therefore, keeping matches tight will maintain people’s interest in the game and hence increase the likelihood that they spend more money. Scripting makes sense, because it makes matches tight. 
All three theses above may appear credible at a glance, but as I will show below, they all suffer from various degrees of lack of empirical support and lack of logical consistency.
Thesis #1: Making people lose will increase pack sales
Would it make sense for EA to intervene in matches in order to make people lose? Does losing create a desire for people to improve their squads? Does that desire drive people to buy more FIFA points? There are a few problems with this idea.
First, there is a very nearby limit to how long you can trick people into believing that buying packs improves their chances of winning, if you continuously make them lose even when they buy packs.
Second, we essentially don’t know anything about, to what extent people are more or less inclined to buy packs after a win or a loss. For all we know, it’s possible that people will feel more inclined to buy packs after a victory.
Third, a two-player match can only have one loser. This is a trivial statement, but nevertheless a very fundamental truth: To the extent that losing player creates an incentive to buy packs, manipulating the outcome of the match won’t increase pack sales, as it won’t increase the number of losing players!
Fourth, you don’t need to make people lose. All players lose on a regular basis under all circumstances. The vast majority will lose on a very regular basis. 99 % of all FIFA players lose minimum 1 in 4 matches.
Fifth, buying packs isn’t an effective way to improve your squad and the game offers a free and much more efficient method: Buying players off the market with coins. The chances of packing a player that you really can use, are minute. The poll charted below reflects this pretty well: Only 15 % of the respondents reported that they buy packs in order to find players to improve their squads. Even though you can sell of the pack contents and buy players for the coins, anyone who ever tried this more than once or twice probably knows that it’s an expensive and highly inefficient way to improve a squad.
Why people buy packs
So, in conclusion, it wouldn’t make sense for EA to intervene in matches in order to make people lose.
Thesis #2: Making the game accessible to casual players will increase pack sales
Would it make sense for EA to intervene in matches in order to make new, bad or casual players win more often?
First, you don’t need to manipulate matches to make less successful players win. We already confirmed that FIFA uses ELO matchmaking, meaning that less successful players will get matched against other players with a similar track record.
Second, the thesis that you can optimize the overall revenue by making certain people win and hence certain others lose, rests on two questionable assumptions:
- Some identifiable players will buy more packs if they win, while some other identifiable players won’t stop playing, even if they lose in an unjust manor.
- EA has the ability to control the outcome of a game in the desired direction, while allowing the users to exercise a significant amount of influence on the proceedings of the game.
Nothing indicates that any of these assumptions are correct.
It’s unlikely that EA would be able to predict whether and how the result of a particular match will impact the shopping behavior of each of the individual players involved. Simply collecting data on people’s previous shopping behavior will provide little insight, because most players have bought packs after having lost and won matches in the past. It will be extremely difficult to identify patterns in such data without knowing anything about fundamental factors such as the person’s mood, temper or for that matter financial situation. Please also consider that EA would need the ability to predict the outcome (1) automatically for (2) 9 million players (3) whom they never met in person and know little about. Most people won’t be able to predict their own reactions to a specific result with the level of confidence required here.
Thesis #3: Avoiding that people win or lose too much keeps the game exciting
The third and final thesis is that EA uses scripting, handicapping or momentum to maintain a reasonable level of difficulty. No one – including EA – disputes the importance of getting get the difficulty right. No one wants to play if they either can’t win or can’t lose. And obviously, the better you are at getting the difficulty right, the more games you will sell.
But the mere fact that EA wants to get the difficulty right doesn’t lead to the conclusion that they also need to or want to manipulate matches.
There are other sports, where a handicap system is needed to create truly competitive matches. In sports like golf, polo, rowing, horse racing and bowling, handicap systems are used to ensure competitiveness in matches even when the available players possess different abilities.
But FUT doesn’t suffer from the lack of access to opponents with similar skills: Each and every hour of the day, more than 11.000 FUT matches are played. At any given point during a day, there will be thousands of players available. Hence, all the game needs to do to create balanced matches is to match people up against opponents with similar capabilities. And as already stated, this is indeed the approach that EA evidently have taken.
Why would EA implement a momentum or handicap feature on top of the existing ELO matchmaking system? I’m aware that a few people have argued that the handicap / momentum system may be used to create additional equality on top of what can be achieved through matchmaking, but let’s get real here: Absolutely nothing indicates that EA would gain anything financially from turning all matches into draws or 1-0 wins. Besides, they clearly haven’t done anything like that: FUT matches aren’t really that even.
What works and what doesn’t?
People, who believe that the game or EA is out to get them, need a rationale. Above, I have analysed the three most common rationales, and pointed out some of the obvious flaws, which I’m certain that EA is able to see as well.
To wrap this discussion about EA’s possible motives up, I would like to share some factual knowledge about what actually works and what doesn’t work, if you are a game development company which earns it’s money on micro transactions.
EA indeed has a number of extremely effective ways to improve revenue through increased pack selling.
In my survey on Ultimateteam.co.uk, I asked people to asses how their own shopping behavior was affected by various events in or outside the game. The survey covered players on almost every XP level between 8 and 98. This is how they responded:
The events which were most likely to trigger a positive reaction were Happy hour and Experiencing pack luck. Seeing others experience pack luck also had a strong effect, which probably is why EA’s social media people spend time re-tweeting screendumps from users who found four TOTS, a legend and an inform in the same pack.
With regards to handicapping, it’s notable that very few users reported that their purchasing inclination was connected to certain results. This could indicate that handicapping wouldn’t have a large potential as a sales-promotion initiative, because it’s difficult to affect people’s pack purchasing behavior by influencing their match results.
An additional observation is that for all the result-related events, the number of people who would be less inclined to buy packs exceeds the number of people who would be more inclined. This is yet another reason to disregard the theses presented in the beginning of this article.