Power to the People! (Unlockable for $9.99)

Last week, one of the largest movements in gaming history took place. It did not take place in the streets nor did it involve any actual physical coming-together of gamers. Instead, it took place over the internet, as thousands of gamers voiced their displeasure at Star Wars: Battlefront II’s microtransaction system. The game’s publisher, Electronic Arts, has reacted to this by temporarily suspending the ability to purchase in-game “crystals”, which in turn are used to purchase loot crates. But gamers should be aware that this move was very likely completed as a request from Disney to EA, in order to protect the Star Wars franchise. It’s clear from EA’s consistently ludicrous doublespeak that they see no inherent ties between customer service and profit. It will take much more collective work from the gaming community to ensure that positive changes are made to the very core of EA’s philosophy and to the future of the gaming industry.

If you need a full rundown of the events that occurred leading up to and after the release of Battlefront II, Gita Jackson at Kotaku has an easily digested article. In short, Star Wars Battlefront II released in a limited fashion on November 9th. Fans who played the game quickly realized a slew of problems with EA’s implementation of loot boxes, a system that randomly awarded both cosmetic and statistical upgrades to players for either real money or in-game currency. The issues included:

  • Loot boxes contained random statistical upgrades and loot boxes could be purchased with real money. Consumers argued that the ability to pay money for significant boosts such as doubling a player’s health removed any balance in the game and ultimately undermined a player’s enjoyment of playing online competitive matches.
  • Iconic characters, such as Darth Vader, could be unlocked and played online for an exorbitant fee of 60,000 in-game credits. Gamers did the math and estimated that this total would be amassed after playing the game for at least 40 hours. Not only were gamers angry that the $60 Battlefront II had content that was locked behind a pay-wall, the fact that credits could be earned through loot crates, themselves bought by real money, leads many consumers to the conclusion that the 60,000 credit price tag for iconic characters was an attempt by EA to (not so) subtly push players into buying loot crates for these iconic characters.
  • Daily limitations on how many in-game credits a player could earn by playing the single-player portions of the game.

The outrage grew quickly across the internet, with gamers voicing their concerns about a game whose price tag was the full $60, yet left players feeling that this did not give them access to all the content, nor did it promise an online experience that was fair and balanced. Many people started cancelling their online pre-orders for the game, and once EA removed the “refund” button from their store pages, people started phoning to get their money back.

In time, EA responded to this outrage. First through a Reddit AMA, where most questions from fans were either too hostile to answer or were simply ignored, then by reducing the cost of iconic characters from 60,000 credits to 15,000. A day later, one day before the game’s full release, EA removed the ability for consumers to purchase loot crates with real money. However, EA stated that, “The ability to purchase crystals in-game will become available at a later date, only after we’ve made changes to the game.”

If this feels like a cop-out, that’s because it clearly is. While EA did remove the ability for players to use real money to buy loot crates, the structure of the online modes remain the exact same. The underlying issue of statistical upgrades is still there, and so are its side-effects. An online mode where gamers can randomly earn three times the health as their competition, or fill their special meter 20 per cent faster, creates online game modes that are unpredictable, frustrating, and less dependent on skill. Imagine playing a team deathmatch game where a headshot downs one enemy but the next enemy needs two headshots, or maybe its three, you won’t know, because any enemy may or may not have gained a special ability through loot boxes. A game that freely changes its rule set so randomly isn’t much of a game at all, as consistency and expectation is a massive part of enjoying a game and improving at it.

The move is also a cop-out because it is far more likely that the removal of in-game purchases of loot boxes came from Disney (owner of LucasArts and the Star Wars franchise) and not from any goodwill on EA’s part. Forbes reported this, and I have to agree with the concept. After all, Star Wars is one of the biggest franchises in the world and the latest film in the series is set to release in less than a month. The profit from the upcoming movie will greatly outweigh any profit from Battlefront II, and it seems probable that Disney was concerned about the negative press resulting from the game. Fearing that this would affect ticket sales, Disney acted quickly, forcing EA to make the change from in-game purchases.

It is incredibly difficult not to look at EA as the ultimate symbol of corporate greed in the gaming industry, not just for how they set-up the online aspects of Battlefront II, but in how uncompromisingly wooden and opaque their communication has been with the industry and with consumers during the incident. Take for example an excerpt from a reply by the EA Community Team to a thread on Reddit:

As for cost [the initial 60,000 credits to unlock iconic characters], 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.”

It’s a reply so inert and without meaning that it would fit right in at a political debate. Even in the statement released by EA when they decided to remove in-game purchases, there is little to satisfy displeased consumers. EA decided that “concerns about potentially giving players unfair advantages” was the main problem that they were rectifying, yet removing in-game purchases didn’t do that at all since people can still earn unfair advantages through loot crates, just not with real world money. As for saying that in-game purchases will return in due time, it’s great that EA is being honest, but it makes the change that EA made feel superficial and patronizing. It’s a far cry from the public relations miracle that EA needs at this point.

Some gamers may feel satisfaction that EA was forced to temporarily remove in-game purchases, but the fight for a fair marketplace is far from over. EA’s change to Battlefront II should not be seen as a victory for gamers, instead it should serve as a small glimmer of hope that a community’s voice can be heard and can lead to change. Let’s be realistic here: the anger against EA for Battlefront II was a product of the game itself, but its momentum was largely due to the nature of the internet, where people are famous for less than 15 minutes and collective movements grow exponentially up until the next one comes along and takes its place. Chances are high that once 2018 rolls around, people will have seen the new Star Wars movie, and moved on past the tire fire that is Battlefront II. But the point here is that this is just what EA wants, of course. Do you think it is more likely that in-game purchases come back when the developers have made significant changes to the game, or simply after a set period of time, say two or three months, after which EA can expect the heat to be off them? Right now, my pessimism says it will be the latter. The good news is that by actively and consistently fighting against these practices, gamers will see change in the future of the marketplace. It just won’t come easy, and it won’t come quick.

Daniel Podborochynski

A Canadian who loves video games, soccer, sandwiches, reading, cats, dogs, Aphex Twin, bike rides, Fallout, Daft Punk, barbecue, and beer.

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