EA and DICE came under fire this week when players discovered that Star Wars: Battlefront II hosts one of the most egregious progression/micro-transaction systems we’ve ever seen in an online shooter, forcing players to purchase payable hero characters for in-game credits that can take a ludicrous amount of time to earn in-game, or give up and purchase them outright with real-life money.
In Battlefront II, players mostly control generic troopers from either side of the fictional galactic war, but ‘heroes’ are unlockable special characters that can be used for a short amount of time and take the shape of iconic good and evil characters from across Star Wars‘ vast canon, like Luke Skywalker, Yoda, and Rey. As you can imagine, getting the chance to force choke your friends as Darth Vader or flip around the map with dual lightsabers as Darth Maul is one of Battlefront‘s biggest appeals, so learning how long it will take to unlock a hero for free caused a hubbub when it was discovered.
The issue reached a boiling point when Reddit user TheHotterPotato got early access to the game, measured the average rate that credits are earned through play time and calculated that it would take approximately 40 hours to earn a single hero character without simply buying them outright with a credit card:
“While I was playing, I started a timer as soon as the match started and the opening shot pans down to my character. I stopped the timer on the Victory or Defeat screen. This spreadsheet and subsequent stats are based on minutes of actual gameplay, no loading times or time spent fuddling around in menus is factored in because many people are playing on many different machines and platforms.
Here is the spreadsheet for those of you that want to dive right in to what I have so far.
Gameplay Minutes Required to Unlock One Hero: 2,395.97
You read that correctly. At the current price of 60,000 credits it will take you 40 hours of gameplay time to earn the right to unlock one hero or villain. That means 40 hours of saving each and every credit, no buying any crates at all, so no bonus credits from getting duplicates in crates.”
On Twitch, meanwhile, popular streamer Boogie2988 captured another restriction when he learned the game stops giving players credits in Arcade Mode after playing a certain amount of games in a row. As seen in the video, a post-game menu comes up advising Boogie he’ll have to wait 3 hours before Arcade Mode starts to drop credits again:
The conclusion drawn by the outlandish restrictions and time investment is that EA is purposely making heroes a hassle to earn in-game with the hope that players will give up and pay for them instead (while, in the meantime, their loot boxes feature their own host of pay-to-win concerns).
Readers were understandably angry after learning of TheHotterPotato’s findings, but when EA’s Community Team provided a dismissive response in the thread, it turned a community discussion into an internet-wide explosion of anti-EA sentiment. Here’s the EA Community Team’s comment:
“Our goal involves creating a compelling progression path for all of our players. There’s a lot of content at launch with even more coming via live service, and we’ll continuously adjust our progression mechanics to give players a sense of accomplishment as they explore all of Battlefront 2.
I posted this in another thread, but feel it would be good to post here as well.
Heroes earned through Credits: The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes. We selected initial values based upon data from the Open Beta and other adjustments made to milestone rewards before launch. Among other things, we’re looking at average per-player credit earn rates on a daily basis, and we’ll be making constant adjustments to ensure that players have challenges that are compelling, rewarding, and of course attainable via gameplay.
Credits Earned: We’re looking at the results daily and will be continuing to tune this to ensure that players feel a meaningful sense of reward for the time they spend with Battlefront 2.
We appreciate the conversation here, and our team is working to make the best choices possible for the game and the players. We will provide more details and updates as we can”
EA’s attempt at damage control has amassed a comment score of -20.9K by the writing of this article, supposedly making it the most down-voted comment in Reddit history, and the fallout spread quickly from there. For a few days now, all of Reddit has become an unofficial EA meme and discussion hub, and the broader gaming community has reacted in similar fashion, sharing stories of canceling pre-orders and voicing their anger with the way EA’s monetization seems to be affecting Battlefront II‘s progression path. A lot of it has been justified, though there have been a couple of false alarms that cropped up as well:
In the rush for many early buyers to cancel their pre-orders someone claimed that EA had taken down their ‘cancel pre-order’ option on their digital storefront, which was assumed to be a ploy to get players to give up and keep their purchases rather than take the additional effort to call in and cancel over the phone. However, PCGamesN confirmed that this was a misunderstanding of how the EA store handles pre-orders: It turns out the ‘cancel pre-order’ option doesn’t appear on a game’s page until the game has actually launched.
In another curious incident, a Twitter user claiming he worked at EA stated he was receiving death threats and personal attacks from gamers since the fiasco exploded, though when Kotaku’s Jason Schreier attempted to reach him for comment, Schreier discovered he may have fabricated the incident and been pretending to work at EA on Twitter for the past several years.
In the short time since this whole affair blew up, EA confirmed they’re lowering the cost of heroes by 75% to address player concerns (but they failed to mention that while doing so, they also reduced the 20,000 credits earned after finishing the game’s single-player campaign to 5,000).
Dual Shockers reports that at the UBS Global Technology Conference 2017, EA CFO Blake Jorgensen discussed the current state of Battlefront II‘s monetization:
“Jorgensen admitted that there has been “a lot of chatter” about microtransactions in the game. He explained that what Electronic Arts is really doing is trying to build a live service that will constantly add content to the game, giving people new ways to play.
Players can earn things in the game, or they can pay for them. The important thing to know is that Electronic Arts is trying to listen to the community, and to all the feedback that they’re giving. Games nowadays can be constantly tuned, so things that EA “hears today, and they tune into the game, will be different tomorrow.”
According to Jorgensen running a live service is “all about constantly watching, listening to, and reacting to the community to try to develop great gameplay.”
Jorgensen also thinks that “people need to be patient, but also really understand” that EA listens to the community very closely, and they will always be changing the game to make it better and make the community more excited about playing it.
EA thinks first and foremost about “engagement” in its games: if they can keep people engaged in something they love, they can find ways to “improve their experience and monetize that along the way.” According to Jorgensen, the consumer “doesn’t mind that” as they are getting a chance to “go deeper and spend longer with the game than they ever did before,” and they can play a game for three or four years as the developers keep adding content.
Live events have also become “an incredible and enjoyable feature” for customers, Jorgensen continues, as they don’t talk anymore about “playing the game” as much as “playing the live services.” This is the direction the whole industry is going, and EA feels that it’s “incredible value” for the consumer and a lot of fun engaging with the game.”
EA’s message throughout Star Wars: Battlefront II‘s development has been that all post-launch content, including new heroes, maps, etc. will be completely free and the optional micro-transactions are a way to allow players the chance to pay a bit more to express themselves or enhance their own experience, and at the same time, offset the development costs for all that future content. They also stress the flexibility of a live-service platform, suggesting that balancing prices and in-game unlocks is something that evolves over time as they listen to fans and work with them to land on a stable, equitable system.
EA’s suggestion that they’re taking an open, good-natured and collaborative approach to their micro-transaction/progression systems is not entirely unbelievable in a vacuum. Other live-service games follow the same idea, with the ideal ecosystem allowing players to engage with the service for months, if not years, while the developer and publisher receive a stream of additional money from the odd optional purchases here and there to maintain servers and add occasional updates.
But the starting point EA has landed on is predatory and slanted far too hard in their favor. Either the additional revenue stream DICE needs to support Battlefront II after its launch is far too high to sustain or this is a bald-faced money grab from EA, and consumers shouldn’t be strung along with insulting business practices like this for either reason.
Hiding behind the excuse that currencies can be adjusted and balanced over time is unacceptable too, and a manipulative psychological game. Implementing a severely unfair system in order to correct it later and claim they’re listening to the community lets companies like EA poke and prod at what consumers will accept and then play the good guy when they’re forced to dial it back. We’ve already seen them put this ploy in action with their proud claim they’ve lowered the cost of heroes, playing it as an example that they’re doing things right. And the practice will continue – Should Battlefront II eventually appease its player-base in the coming weeks and months, they’re likely banking on all of this being forgotten about so that a similar practice can be attempted in their next online game. It’s about setting the bar as low to the ground as possible and nudging it up in inches to see the bare minimum players will tolerate.
Most of all, there’s no reason at all for players to be patient and trusting with a company that’s shown they have little to no respect for their fanbase.
So what can we do?
The trend of live-service games and micro-transactions is going to continue to expand: EA earned $1.86 Billion in recurrent consumer spending in their 2017 fiscal year. Meanwhile Ubisoft just confirmed that recurrent spending made up 50% of their digital revenue and Take Two, publisher for studios like Rockstar Games (GTA 5, Red Dead Redemption 2) and 2K Games (Bioshock, NBA 2K), has discussed their plans to feature some form of recurrent spending in every title they make based on the success they’ve seen with it on their end. Publishers are not going to curb the invasiveness of these micro-transactions on their end as long as they continue to make large profits.
Now, chances are that the people reading 2000 word articles on GEEK about the subject are not the whales spending thousands every year on loot boxes and Candy Crush currency, so you’re not going to single-handedly stop companies like EA from pulling stunts like this. And you might not even want the practice to die entirely: We play live-service games like Overwatch and Destiny 2, and EA’s own Anthem looks extremely promising. We want to hit that ideal dream of supporting a studio with reasonable post-launch financial support, and in return get a lasting, evolving online platform. To do that, we can do two things:
1) Continue to communicate with developers and publishers. This is the internet age, where the little guy has a voice that has potential to reach corporations. People like TheHotterPotato can rally a community together to force companies like EA to pay attention. And I can’t believe I have to say this, but do it civilly: One person may have fabricated allegations of death threats and personal attacks, but these things happen all too frequently online, especially surrounding the video games industry. Beyond the basic fact that it’s disgusting behavior and criminal activity (which should be enough on its own), harassment and threats completely dismantle the message. You can’t control what some other person on the internet does, but when the next mouth-breather doxxes or threatens an employee because they’re unhappy with a video game, condemn those actions publicly. Don’t allow things like that to be a part of our gaming community.
2) Vote with your wallet. EA’s banking on you giving up and buying your way to a hero character. Cut down on the micro-transactions you purchase, or cut them out entirely. If you’re really that upset, don’t buy the game at all. Most importantly, stop pre-ordering games. If you are upset with EA’s intended plan for Battlefront II, be aware that your pre-order of the game is already being counted as an indicator of the game’s success. Battlefront II isn’t even out right now, but executives will be measuring pre-order numbers to determine plans for Battlefront III or Anthem or whatever else they have coming down the pipeline, and your reservation of a copy has already told EA that you love what they’re doing. Besides the fact that pre-order bonuses are always worthless, when was the last time your local game store ran out of stock on launch day? The truth is that pre-orders have little to no value to consumers at all, but have massive benefits to publishers.
Star Wars: Battlefront II is the latest and maybe the biggest call to arms surrounding micro-transactions we’ve had, but it will not be the last one. Video game development is widely understood to be both hugely profitable and at the same time unsustainably expensive. Development costs will continue to increase as hardware gets more powerful and fan expectations get bigger, and publishers will fight tooth and nail to make wider profit margins while that happens. Until the bubble bursts (and ideally, even after that), we as consumers should take as much responsibility as possible to condemn bad business practices and support the good ones. As it stands right now, we have been sending a message to companies like EA that they can keep heading in their current direction.
Images: EA, Disney