If you’ve been following video game news at all for the last couple of weeks, you’ve probably heard that EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront II is having some teething troubles. EA has backpedaled to avoid more controversy, but we’re here to say: don’t fall for it.
The Original Problem with Battlefront II
It’s technically out today in most markets, a short open beta and a pre-play period for EA Access subscribers have exposed extremely troubling parts of the game’s core structure. Namely, it seems to be almost entirely built around microtransactions (in-app purchases, mini-DLC, “player recurring investment,” and so on), driving players to spend more real-world cash to get an advantage over their opponents. You don’t have to pay to play, but you do have to pay to win.
Of course, you don’t have to pay to get that advantage. You could just play the game for free, hoping to earn those rewards eventually. But after early players crunched the numbers and realized it would take about forty hours of play to unlock iconic characters like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, gamers revolted. EA relented, chopping the time it would take to earn those heroes by 75%…but also reducing the rewards for completing the single-player campaign by an equal amount. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
The slow progression wasn’t the only problem. Because a lot of the rewards are hidden in randomized loot boxes, you’d have to pay thousands of dollars or play thousands of hours to unlock all the content. Blocks in the arcade mode meant players could only earn a limited amount of the in-game currency per day. And of course, spending more money on loot boxes means immediate, semi-exclusive advantages over others in multiplayer.
All of these ideas and structures are borrowed from free-to-play and mobile games, and they’re disheartening and insulting to see from one of the biggest games of the year from the world’s biggest gaming software company. They’re hardly surprising, though. With 2017 filled with loot box and microtransaction controversy (see Shadow of War, Destiny 2, Call of Duty: WWII, and more or less every licensed pro sports game), the much-anticipated Star Wars game seems to be the straw that broke the gamer’s back.
How EA “Fixed” the Problem
Rejoice, ye multiplayer masses, for EA hath seen your affliction and given heed to your cry. Yesterday afternoon, Battlefront II developer DICE (a wholly-owned EA subsidiary) posted the following message, claiming that the game will “turn off all in-game purchases.”
…for now. The reprieve from a system tuned and tortured to not-quite-force microtransactions is temporary: the developer didn’t even wait until the end of the paragraph to make sure gamers know that the in-game purchases will be coming back sometime after today’s launch.
Look, I really hate to rely on Internet memes to make my point, but never was there a more appropriate time for its use:
Why should you stay away from Battlefront II? Oh, let me count the reasons.
EA Wants Your Purchase Now
The first few weeks of a game’s availability are the most crucial in terms of sales. Just like Hollywood movies, game purchases and revenue tend to taper off after a month or so. That’s why publishers have been so eager to push pre-order bonuses and special editions, even at a time when more and more gamers are downloading digital copies of games. A pre-order is money in the bank.
So if you’ll allow me to be cynical—and I think cynicism is warranted here—EA is going to say more or less anything to make sure Battlefront II as a success at launch. Microtransactions are now worth billions in annual revenue, sometimes more than the profit from conventional sales. The threatened boycott of the game is unlikely, but if it succeeds and (even worse) gets enough mainstream press, EA’s investors will begin to take notice. Wall Street types might not give two rancor turds about the integrity of the gaming medium, but if they see gamers jumping ship en masse, they’ll probably make their displeasure known in monetary terms.
And investors aren’t the only ones who need to be wary. Remember, the Star Wars license is a license, ultimately owned and controlled by Disney. Star Wars fans were already less than thrilled to learn that the well-regarded LucasArts game studio was shuttered in favor of an exclusive deal with EA, killing off the much-anticipated Star Wars 1313 project. EA already released the arguably half-finished Battlefront two years ago and shuttered Visceral Studios (developers of the Dead Space games), effectively cancelling another single-player Star Wars project. If the Mousefather gets the impression that EA isn’t the best home for its intellectual property and moves it somewhere else, the publisher’s bottom line could take a massive hit. The widespread negative press and a Twitter campaign around the hashtag “#gambling” specifically targeting Disney may have factored into EA’s decision to freeze in-app purchases temporarily.
…and More of Your Money Later
DICE has essentially promised that the current microtransaction system for Battlefront II is coming back in some form. It’s hardly unprecedented. Major PC and console games have been adding microtransactions post-launch for a while now, even when their publishers or developers have promised not to: see PayDay 2, The Division, and Bethesda’s new “mini DLC” Creation Club for Skyrim and Fallout 4.
And this is a bigger problem than it may seem at launch. While the games above were generally made on a conventional manner with microtransactions bolted on afterward, that’s not the case with Battlefront II. Based on early player experiences and the critical reviews that are coming in even as I write this article, EA and DICE rebuilt 2015’s Battlefront from the ground up to invite and encourage players to spend more real money at every turn. Here are a few relevant snippets from Hayden Dingman’s review on PC Gamer:
Which I guess brings us to the dumpster fire in the room…Instead of your progress in the game being tied to completing a match, it’s instead tied to loot boxes and the “Star Cards” contained therein.
…I hate literally everything about it. It’s no fun to dig through menus to equip a bunch of similar-sounding bonuses to each class. It’s no fun to die and see the person you died to had three top-tier cards slotted and you had none. It’s no fun to open a loot box and get five trash items for classes you don’t play or, worse, heroes you haven’t even unlocked yet. It’s no fun to manage “Crafting Parts,” an entirely separate currency you get primarily from loot boxes and use to upgrade your cards to better versions.
It. Sucks. And I don’t think EA can fix it.
The simple and sad truth is that Battlefront II is not a conventional AAA release. It’s basically a mobile game, with the development investment and full price of a boxed PC and console game. It is designed and intended to be a continual source of money for EA, siphoning purchases off of players who desperately want to win its multiplayer mode. It’s Clash of Clans with an eight-figure budget.
EA has paused its money-making scheme for the moment, but it will be back—the core structure of the game would have to be entirely remade to avoid it. And since the randomized advantages inherent in that structure rely on psychological manipulation and casino-style “whale” customers to be effective, EA almost has to bring back a system that rewards players who pay and punishes those who don’t.
This Game Needs to Fail
EA’s surprisingly contrite attitude towards its ever-advancing microtransaction push will only last as long as players stay angry. If the game launches without any kind of noticeable sales slump, then microtransactions will return and make as much money as they’ve been making (read: hundreds of millions of dollars on a single title), then this will all be for naught.
The public has a short memory for outrage, and next week some other company will certainly pull some anti-consumer stunt that will blessedly take some heat off EA and DICE. It’s only the steady stream of in-depth analysis of Battlefront II, enabled by the preview period on EA Access, that kept such a large amount of attention on it for a solid week. (You can bet your battlecruiser that the next major release from EA won’t have that option.) For example, Take-Two’s CEO said last week that microtransactions will be in every single game the company makes and see you’re already clicking on that story instead of finishing this one.
EA is watching, and so is every other publisher that sees dollar signs whenever they use the phrase “recurrent consumer spending opportunities.” Battlefront II is now more than just one of the big-budget titles set for a winter release, it’s become a symbol of every method the gaming industry is using to actively screw over those players who are still willing to buy full-priced games. Even if you think that the controversy is overblown (and it isn’t), if the game goes on to be a sales success it will postpone the inevitable and very necessary clash of creator and consumer.
Pardon me for the dramatic imagery, but Battlefront II needs to be a line in the sand. Gamers, especially gamers who buy the big, flashy titles at the top of major publishers’ catalogs, need to stop accepting the encroachment of free-to-play structures in premium games as a matter of course.
Oh, and by the way, you can return games on Origin for up to twenty-four hours after purchase.
There Are Other Games to Play
I get it: the allure of multiplayer combat with the characters you love from Star Wars flicks old and new is hard to resist. But according to the first batch of gaming press reviews for Battlefront II, the game is only “pretty good” at best. The new multiplayer battle progression system is unbalanced (even without the pay-to-win elements), the much anticipated single-player mode is short and uninteresting, and big chunks of both modes are off-limits at launch to build up hype for Star Wars: The Last Jedi in December.
I’d be lying if I told you the game isn’t fun. Its authentic Star Wars sights and sounds are digital crack for fans of the series, and there’s an adrenaline-fueled chaos to any multiplayer shooter with dozens of real humans to shoot at on either side. But at the end of the day, this isn’t one of those transcendent experiences that every gamer needs to try at least once. It’s a Battlefront game. EA released one two years ago, and they’ll probably release another one two years from now.
Just sticking to major AAA releases, you can get that multiplayer rush and a unique setting from EA’s own Battlefield 1. Want an engrossing single-player sci-fi shooter? There’s Titanfall 2, also from EA, which is down to just twenty bucks on PC. In the mood for space combat, of the arcade or simulator variety? Try Strike Suit Zero or Elite Dangerous, respectively.
The phrase “vote with your wallet” is a bit of a cliché, but it’s become so for a reason. This year alone, there are literally thousands of new AAA and indie games hitting the market, and it won’t take you too long to find some that aren’t actively manipulating you to spend real money on fake stuff. The games might be near-limitless, but your free time isn’t…and you can certainly find games to spend it on that aren’t so objectionable.
Hell, if you just have to get your Star Wars juices flowing, the slightly older Battlefront is still very much alive. It uses a more balanced progression system, it doesn’t have pay-to-win microtransactions, and you can grab the original game and all its extra content for less than the non-super-special-limited-deluxe price of the hobbled Battlefront II. It’s missing some of the new characters and vehicles from the latest Star Wars movies, but if all you want is fast-paced multiplayer set to a John Williams score, it will do nicely. And failing that, there are decades of Star Wars games (some of which are really good!) that you can catch up on.
EA’s exclusive license to current Star Wars games, the breathless marketing push for both Battlefront II and The Last Jedi, and the hollow platitudes of DICE’s pre-launch concessions are all designed to make you feel like you need this game. You don’t, and you absolutely don’t need the microtransactions it’s dragging in its wake. Try not to forget it.