Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would know that the past few weeks haven’t been exactly easy for EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II. Looking to rectify the issues with the original 2015 multiplayer-focused shooter, Battlefront II was highly anticipated as the return of Pandemic’s (RIP) thrilling franchise. Most of the issues surrounding the 2015 release revolved around the severe lack of content and the fact that it peddled a $75 season pass. Some people had the foresight to see that EA would likely mishandle the Star Wars IP and some didn’t, either way it sold like hot cakes. As is the way with any game, as long as it is a big name, you aren’t really allowed to call it out for being average because the fans will get upset with you. It’s like this with any big name within the industry, and it doesn’t even have to pertain to a game. Blizzard and Bethesda fans are quick to shoot down anyone who dares criticise their beloved developers for any crappy or unsatisfactory behaviour that the companies in question may roll out. That toxic behaviour, in itself, is partly to blame for the AAA gaming industry being arguably as messed up as it is.
Before we go on with anything else, let’s recap the controversy that has surrounded DICE’s Battlefront II (not to be confused with Pandemic’s Battlefront II which was released in 2006 and is beloved by all and sundry). Battlefront II’s closed beta started on October 4th and it didn’t take long for people who pre-ordered to realise something was very wrong with DICE’s new take on loot boxes. Players were quick to see that the entire basis of Battlefront II’s multiplayer progression system revolved around these loot boxes. This included perks and bonuses which gave clear gameplay advantages. The progression and economy was blatantly pay-to-win and there was no way around it. EA DICE had made a huge mistake and they scrambled to appease the players. Soon after the beta finished it was revealed that DICE were going to dumb down the pay-to-win structure of their loot box system. That’s a win right? Well, no.
Fast forward a month and people who pay for EA/Origin Access were able to play 10 hours of DICE’s Battlefront II. Not long after the preview was available, a reddit post went up about a disgruntled player who learned that he had “paid $80 to have Vader locked”. His claims were based around the fact that you had to use in-game currency to unlock certain heroes/villains for use in-game. Obviously, given the stature of such characters, they aren’t exactly going to be cheap. A user did some calculations and claimed that he would have to grind for approximately 40 hours to save up enough credits (60 000, to be precise) just to buy Darth Vader; Luke Skywalker was also the same price.
Before I go on, I should state that I’m not against grind-based economies and when done right they can be incredibly rewarding. But 40 hours for one character that you aren’t even guaranteed to use is a bit ridiculous.
The EACommunityTeam responded to the user, claiming the lofty prices were there to instill a sense of accomplishment and pride when you finally managed to unlock the hero, though you could whip your wallet out and pay your way through. That response quickly became the most downvoted thing in reddit history and as of time of writing sits at 680 000 downvotes. An impressive feat. Following this uproar, the character pricing was slashed by 75%, from 60 000 credits to 15 000 credits. But sneaky DICE did what DICE does best and balanced a good thing with a bad thing. They quietly slashed the amount of credits you would receive for completing the average campaign by that same margin. Now this didn’t make quite as many headlines because ‘we already won’, right?
Push the people too far and they’ll strike back
To further add to the drama surrounding Battlefront II, DICE suddenly disabled the microtransaction marketplace, meaning players could no longer spend real money on loot boxes. They also put out a statement claiming that the horrendous design around the loot boxes and Star Cards was ‘not what they intended’ and that they’re ‘sorry’. Now, it’s obvious that the backlash against the poor design of the microtransactions is what caused this, but it’s not as much of a win as most would have you believe. I could sit here and talk about whether or not community outcry can really help cases such as this, but Ash already has that covered, and I’d definitely recommend reading his thoughts on that matter. I’m here to discuss why this one case won’t change anything in the industry at large.
People Will Buy The Game Regardless
Something that people seem reluctant to understand is that buying a game that has microtransactions within it is openly supporting the practice, whether or not you make use of them. The success of blockbuster franchises that have gradually started upping the ante on microtracsactional features in full-priced AAA games means they are becoming increasingly predatory in their design, both for single player games and multiplayer games. Stuff like the ‘it’s just cosmetic’ argument has never proven to be constructive or helpful in the matter because really it’s just a gradual erosion that has only enabled games to have their entire design pivoted around microtransactions. People that excused inexcusable trends are the reason Battlefront II happened because these AAA publishers don’t just want some of your money, they want all of it.
Now the argument that games cost more to make is not entirely without merit, however the inflated costs of game development don’t even come close to the money that publishers get by milking you with these shitty trends. Do you really think that a Star Wars game would not sell enough to warrant microtransactions? Let alone game design pivoted towards microtransactions?
Admittedly, what you do with your money is your business and no one else’s, however when market and business trends go down such a predatory and exploitative path as a result of people unwittingly supporting shitty tactics, that’s where I begin to draw the line. Games have become increasingly focused on microtransactions this generation and it has begun to ruin the integrity of otherwise good developers. Look at Rockstar, while I may not a big fan of their games, the impressive nature of GTA V was something of a marvel when it released initially for the Xbox 360 and PS3. However, the further away we moved from the launch and the longer GTA Online became a staple for a lot of players, the more we saw microtransactions peddled into an otherwise solid title. For people who played a lot of GTA Online or were just fortunate enough to play when the economy was incredibly broken and earning lots of cash wasn’t very hard, the later updates weren’t so bad. However, the game’s design was quickly shifted to be aimed at shoehorning the microtransactions (or shark cards) in a way where people who are new to the game would feel like most things are out of reach due to their high in-game price point. This trend has continued for a while and it’s blatantly a pay-to-win system aimed at newcomers; veterans *generally* felt less of a burn as they already had a steady flow of in-game income to support the added content.
The Grotti X80 alone is $2.7 million
What does this have to do with Battlefront II exactly? A lot, actually. There are two games which are responsible for the prominent rise of microtransactions in AAA games, really, those being GTA V and Blizzard’s critically acclaimed Overwatch. The latter is the game that really popularised the glorified gambling system known as loot boxes. When the rest of the industry saw how insanely popular Blizzard’s online shooter was and how wildly successful its loot boxes were, they saw an opportunity to exploit the market for everything it has. This is most certainly the very root of where Battlefront II’s contemptuous design came from. It’s no lie that microtransactions earn a ludicrous amount of money for AAA publishers, and because of this, game quality is slipping and design around microtransactions is increasing. It’s getting to the point where games are starting to feel more like free-to-play games with a retail price tacked onto them.
So how do we combat this? Simple, stop buying the bloody games. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Screaming and yelling won’t do a thing, especially when you buy the game regardless of its malicious and avaricious intent as a product. Hell, we recently learned that the only reason Battlefront II’s microtransactions were pulled is because Disney told them (EA DICE) to, not because they were actually sorry about the terrible design. The only way gaming executives will hear the message is if it directly impacts their wallets. Simply not buying the microtransactions isn’t enough, don’t buy the game outright. Sadly, there will have to be a few IPs that take a hit (most IPs that resort to microtransactions lack integrity anyway), but that is the price we have to pay if we wish for devs and publishers to be held accountable.
Publishers Push The Envelope (In A Bad Way)
This year has seen a lot of promising titles fall victim to the AAA claws of avarice, there’s no denying that. But why have publishers and devs alike been so bold to design so many systems in games with utter contempt for the users? Well the answer is quite simple, yet sneaky at the same time.
Back when microtransactions were initially being pushed into retail games, there was a lot of pushback from the consumer base, and rightly so. One of the earliest instances of this that I can think of was former EA developer Visceral’s Dead Space series. When Dead Space first hit store shelves, it was incredibly well received. I, myself, was a huge fan of Visceral’s survival horror IP before the third game, which is where EA (surprise, surprise) stepped in and ‘EA’d’ everything. Dead Space 3, to put it bluntly, was a shit show which was stripped of what made its predecessors unique in order to house game design around microtransactions. As a result, it was mass maligned by critics and players alike and was the death of both the IP and the studio itself (Battlefield Hardline can also be attributed to Visceral’s closure). Since then, we have seen a stupendous amount of games that peddled microtransactions (as well as season passes, but that’s a whole different discussion). It’s basically all been amounting to the very situation we find ourselves in now. Why is that?
The reason publishers continue to push such bad trends into our games is mainly because if they eventually hit a point where there is massive pushback, earlier instances of microtransactions don’t seem so bad. The ‘it’s just cosmetic’ argument is proof of that. Remember that there used to be pushback against any form of microtranscations in retail games but now it’s considered passable if they’re just cosmetic. As mentioned before, it’s a gradual erosion of what’s considered acceptable; publishers will undoubtedly continue to do this until they can get away with pay-to-win, Battlefront II was just the start.
Cheers to my mate, Jarrod, for grabbing this before they were pulled down
Publishers Are Beginning To Focus Less On Quality Games And More On Recurrent Pricing Models
There are a multitude of signs pointing in the direction of AAA publishers wanting to more consistently implement recurrent pricing models in current and future titles. Recurrent pricing models are essentially games designed around enticing the player to pump more money into the game that they have already paid for. Games like Overwatch, GTA V, Battlefront II, Destiny 2, the last few Call of Duty games, Battlefield 1 and more are all examples of this strategy; Overwatch, GTA V and Battlefront II being the worst offenders.
There are a few ways that the publishers and their development studio do this. For cases like GTA V, Halo 5: Guardians, Overwatch and Battlefront II, they offer ‘free DLC’ which is ‘paid for’ by microtransactions. Firstly, this is full of shit as you don’t need to shovel microtransactions into your game to offer free DLC. Splatoon (1 and 2) managed to do this without compromising its integrity, as did Titanfall 2 (for a while, at least). Once again, they are getting away with it as people genuinely believe that these freemium economies are a necessity if it means facilitating ‘free content’. It’s all a part of the future where the Games As A Service model becomes the approach for nearly every AAA title, a future which will not be able to sustain itself and will more than likely crash as a result of competing with itself.
Taking the spotlight away from EA for a brief period, it wasn’t very long ago that people were criticising Activision Blizzard for patenting a matchmaking system which is designed around encouraging players to give in and spend money on microtranscations. The whole idea is that newcomers would be matched with higher profile players who would have obtained more of the items that are available within the microtransactions. So new players would undoubtedly be getting steamrolled by people who have put countless hours into the game and it would cause them to think that if they had those items that they might be able to play as well as the higher profile players (not really true but the perception is there). Now just the idea of this is incredibly slimy and it’s very fitting that Activision Blizzard were the ones to patent this as they have always had a love for microtransactions (if you ask me, their season passes are microtransactions).
For a better look at Activision Blizzard’s patent visit http://www.rollingstone.com/glixel/news/how-activision-uses-matchmaking-tricks-to-sell-in-game-items-w509288
Activision Blizzard have come out and said that this system isn’t in anything, but you can tell they are trying to ease into that direction with Call of Duty WWII and Destiny 2. In both games, you have loot boxes (by whatever name) and social hubs where you can hang out in between activities. Said social hubs are the ONLY places where you can open your loot boxes, and when opening said loot boxes the items which you receive are displayed for everyone in your instance to see. Destiny 2 does this with legendary and exotic items from Bright Engrams and COD WWII lets you watch people as they open their Supply Crates (a grand spectacle where the crate falls from the sky) and look at everything they receive from said drop. Now the shittiest part about this second example is that players actually receive an in-game medal for watching three players open their loot boxes. What better way to encourage microtransactions than to make other people see all the cool stuff you get from loot boxes if they give in to said microtransactions. I would argue that this is sneakery is in the same vein as the matchmaking patent mentioned above, just not on a competitive level (jealousy’s a curse, as they say).
Now to bring the spotlight back to EA. In an effort to justify the terrible means of recurrent pricing and just the all-round piss-poor design of the progression system itself, EA’s CFO said they opted to not use cosmetics in the lootboxes because (I kid you not) they didn’t want to begin ‘violating the canon of Star Wars’. Yes, that is the very best excuse they could come up with to try and justify the sliminess and the unapologetic avarice. According to Blake Jorgensen “Darth Vader on white probably doesn’t make sense, versus in black. Not to mention you probably don’t want Darth Vader in pink. No offence to pink, but I don’t think that’s right in the canon.” First of all, piss off for assuming that I wouldn’t want Darth Vader in pink. I think that would be fabulous. Secondly, you are completely forgetting that fact that 2015’s Battlefront had cosmetics in it – cosmetics that were believable to the universe the game was set in. Not only that, you’d think if they wanted to pull that argument they wouldn’t make a game where Rey can kick the crap out of Darth Vader.
Spare us your rubbish
This isn’t even all the trash that EA has pulled as of late. They recently made the beta for their upcoming sports title, UFC 3, available for people to try out. Now while this is well and good, it was quickly revealed that UFC 3 features a lootbox-based progression system that was similar, if not worse, than Battlefront II’s system. It’s seems a bit daft to implement such a system right after they get in trouble for using a similar system in another game. But then again, according to EA, Battlefront II’s microtranscations being turned off will not affect earnings (because the microtransactions weren’t ever needed to make money). The $3.1 billion hit to their stock value says otherwise, and while EA don’t appear to care about gamers, they most certainly care about their stakeholders.
So while it pleases me greatly to see EA finally get what they deserve, it also makes me realise that this won’t do much. The industry is moving in a very anti-consumer direction, yet gamers will continue to blindly defend it because it’s Star Wars or some other big name IP. It’s asking a lot of the general gaming community to take a stand against these trends because it’s the same community that allowed this to happen. It wouldn’t surprise me if we see more games with bad design like Battlefront II in the near future; the upcoming Anthem looks to be yet another victim of publisher avarice. The reality is that if people are willing to buy a remaster which has microtransactions and the DLC resold at a marked up price, what won’t they buy?