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Opinion: Clever ‘Fortnite’ altering rules of e-commerce

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2018 was a fortuitous year for Epic Games, the creator of the wildly popular video game “Fortnite.”

A recent article by technology news site TechCrunch reported Epic grossed $3 billion in profits last year, led by “Fortnite.” A report by SuperData put “Fortnite’s” 2018 sales at $2.4 billion, which according to the industry research firm, is “the most annual revenue of any game in history.”

It’s perhaps more impressive that “Fortnite” is a free game. Unlike other big-budget titles that cost in the ballpark of $60, you don’t have to spend a dime to play. But that doesn’t mean its players – 125 million, according to TechCrunch – aren’t paying anyway.

Here’s how it happens.

“Fortnite” is a 3D shooting game in the battle royale genre – “think ‘Lord of the Flies’ meets ‘Hunger Games,’” as TechCrunch aptly states. Players control their character from a third-person view, meaning their avatar’s body is fully visible, as opposed to first-person games where the player is viewing the world from the character’s eyes.

People spend a lot of time with video games, and the look of their character can become very important to the overall experience.

“Fortnite” has cleverly incorporated microtransactions that give customers the option to purchase in-game cosmetic items – clothes and customized gear – that change the look of their character. At $5 or more, these purchases do not give statistical bonuses so players can more easily defeat others; they simply improve the look of the avatar.

It’s a testament to the popularity of the game and its addictive model that Epic has grossed billions of dollars selling what amounts to digital clothes.

But behind the success is a lot of angry customers.

I recently was notified about some alleged shady practices from Cary, North Carolina-based Epic by Stephanie Garland, the Better Business Bureau’s regional director. She said a Springfield complainant recently joined hundreds of others who have contributed to Epic’s “F” rating on its BBB profile.

The local customer claims in-game cosmetic items were lost due to an account issue.

“This is all a scam to confuse people and make us rebuy digital items,” the complaint, provided by Garland, reads.

It echoes similar comments by other customers – 285 in the last three years, according to Epic’s BBB profile. And it doesn’t stop with the BBB. These complaints are fairly widespread on the web, and entire articles exist on how to obtain refunds.

To its credit, Epic has resolved nearly all of the BBB complaints. And not all of the bad press is the video game publisher’s fault.

In some of the cases, user error was to blame, with some accidentally making purchases or disconnecting the email tied to their accounts.

However, Epic’s return policy seems to be reactionary rather than preventive.

For instance, a report in the Triangle Business Journal states a North Carolina woman recently received a $1,200 refund for purchases her 11-year-old son racked up. But that only happened after she filed a complaint with the North Carolina attorney general’s office, as she did not receive a response from Epic directly, according to the article.

Companies like Epic also are pushing their own content delivery systems, which, in the case of “Fortnite,” requires your password-protected account to be linked up at all times to play the game. Problems can arise from this model, as accounts can be hacked and passwords can be lost. And in the case of a huge game like “Fortnite,” it’s going to take customer service agents a while to fix things due to the high volume of requests. The large number of requests they appear to be missing is a big red flag for any potential player.

The ease at which users can spend real money to trigger an instant dopamine release is a bit of a double-edged sword. It makes the experience quicker and can elicit a sense of satisfaction, but there are implications there, whether that’s addiction or fraud. For the companies, it’s an obvious boon. Small transactions can lead to billions in profits. Ask credit card companies.

For internet users, it’s yet another reminder to remain constantly vigilant. And in the case of video games, parents must be watchful and teach their kids to be on the lookout for those red flags. Limiting online purchases is a good first step.

It’s not just video games. A report by research firm Statista predicts global e-commerce sales will break the $3 trillion mark this year.

Internet commerce is a beast, and it’s getting larger every day. The phrase “buyer beware” has never been so important, but on the other side of the coin, the opportunity for business is astronomical.

As businesses grow their online offerings, customers stand to benefit – as long as companies play fair.

Springfield Business Journal Web Producer Geoff Pickle can be reached at gpickle@sbj.net.

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