Electronic Arts made a great game in Star Wars: Battlefront II. But it stepped in a pile of controversy by adding an unpopular monetization system known as loot crates. Those crates appear in a lot of games, mostly free-to-play titles where you pay real money for the crates and a chance to get some good loot. Gamers viewed the loot crate scheme as a money grab. As of last night, EA decided to back off on the controversial microtransactions for the loot crates.
Call it a victory for consumers, but this is going to come at a price for everyone.
In console games, where you already pay $60 for a full game, they have been taboo. People feel like they’ve already paid once, and they don’t want to pay again to unlock something else. EA pushed the envelope with Battlefront II, removing the traditional fee for downloadable content (DLC) such as new maps and characters. That was good for gamers and keeping the community whole. But EA also added in loot crates that you could buy for real money. Those loot crates not only gave you cosmetic stuff. They also helped accelerate weapon unlocks and the use of heroes and villains, such as Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.
“Battlefront 2 EA is said to have gotten rid of the whole DLC thing with their introduction of microtransaction galore,” said one gamer on Steam. “We’ve traded one type of evil for another in the form of casting aside DLC for loot crates.”
This kind of sentiment has been expressed about other games, like Middle-earth: Shadow of War, where the final ending was locked behind a number of grind-like missions, and fans fretted that they could shorten that grind by buying loot crates. But EA’s problem looks worse because Battlefront II — whose predecessor sold 14 million units — is one of the biggest titles of the year.
Battlefront II launches today on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. But it is sad that this loot crate controversy has dominated the conversation. And it’s not necessarily the fault of oversenstive gamers who are raging. This problem is also a case of EA shooting itself in the foot. If you are a developer on this game, imagine the horror. You’ve spent a couple of years polishing this game, but it’s going to suffer because of the way monetization was built into the loot crate system.
Gamers have been strident, and EA has had to retreat and deal with the growing outrage.
Listen, the Battlefront II issue isn’t about pissy gamers complaining. It’s about what the industry has turned into and what people won’t tolerate anymore. If you purchase the game, you are basically telling EA it’s okay. When in fact, it isn’t. #StarWarsBattlefrontII
— Dalton Davis (@daltonldavis) November 16, 2017
In other games like Overwatch, loot crates unlock purely cosmetic items that don’t affect gameplay or the progression through the multiplayer ladder, which gets you access to better gear and makes you more powerful in multiplayer.
But EA tied its Star Card system to more than just cosmetic items, and that made the gamers mad. It reeked of “pay-to-win” schemes where players who spent the most money can outplay those who don’t. Such schemes are OK in China but not so in the West.
Loot boxes, by the way, are also controversial for another reason. When you buy one, you don’t know what you’ll get. Sometimes you get something good. Sometimes it’s bad. That’s a lot like a slot machine. They’re akin to gambling, and some regulators think they should be regulated. In Japan, loot crates known as “gacha” systems were forcibly changed by regulators, as some personalities became addicted to the chance to win big in purchases.
Back to EA. The trouble popped up when EA showed off its beta and left gamers to interpret the loot crate system. In the beta tests, you could unlock things like weapons in multiplayer over time. Each class of character, such as a Heavy Gunner, had four guns. One was free. The others had to be unlocked. You could unlock them with points, but players noted how long it took to get those points through online battles. EA clarified at the time that some things you couldn’t buy with money.
But players still had complaints. You could unlock guns through credits that you earned through loot crates. And those loot crates could either be earned through gameplay or purchased with real money. The crystals that you purchased could effectively be used to unlock better weapons as well as heroes and villains. One fan estimated that it would take $80 or 40 hours to unlock Darth Vader. That’s a long time to unlock a character in a game that you have already paid for. EA’s response to this became the most downvoted comment in Reddit history.
So EA took one step back and, earlier this week, announced that it would cut the time required to earn Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker by 75 percent, and it would make it much easier to earn the lesser characters. That definitely helped, and EA did a Reddit conversation with its developers to help alleviate fan concerns. EA constantly said it was listening to fan feedback and would adjust the system. EA said that Epic Star Cards, or rare items that you can get in the loot crates, would have to be earned only through gameplay. Other Star Cards could be purchased through the loot crates still. But you had to reach a certain level of play to use the Star Cards.
In certain modes, you could still play as any of the heroes or villains, such as the multiplayer mode Heroes vs Villains. But that was different from regular multiplayer, where if you show up with a hero, then you have a chance to dominate gameplay.
But the fans still complained, and the conversation got even louder after the Reddit Q&A session. So last night, EA took the final step and disabled the system for purchasing crystals in the game with real money. Now you can’t buy loot crates at all, and all progression will be earned through gameplay. EA said that microtransactions will return, but only after EA had changed the system and the game.
Now the system will be fair for all players, from the point of view of gamers. But this will likely create far-reaching consequences. Encouraged by the success of microtransactions and live operations in games like FIFA, Madden, and Battlefield, EA tried to evolve the monetization too far.
We don’t what the consequences are yet, but gamers should know that nothing comes for free. If you take away monetization of DLC, and monetization of loot crates, you also take away the things that those make possible, like more and better game content.
EA has taken a lot of abuse online. Many fans called it greedy and the most-hated company in video games. Those words come after EA bought Titanfall maker Respawn Entertainment for $455 million last week. And after EA shut down Visceral Games because its Star Wars game wasn’t resonating with fans. Both the Respawn and Visceral moves prompted a lot of cynicism from fans. I thought the criticism was unfair and I gave EA the benefit of the doubt in those cases. But in my opinion, EA’s handling of the loot crates has been worse. The company has staged a long retreat, when a simple and short one would have been better, in hindsight.
We haven’t heard such hateful words about EA since former CEO John Riccitiello left EA in 2013 and the company appointed Andrew Wilson as its CEO. Wilson’s policy has been to put players first, but with this controversy, now his reputation has some tarnish on it. And the tragedy here? The game is good, particularly when you’re playing big 20-versus-20 multiplayer battles that make you feel like you’re in a Star Wars movie.