We’ve reached a point in game monetization where customers like Old Pliny here will happily plunk down dollar after dollar for DLC. In the last couple of years alone I’ve bought and enjoyed Far Harbor, Nuka World, Blood and Wine,Hearts of Stone, The Frozen Wilds, Ashes of Ariendel, The Ringed City, The Old Hunters, all of Destiny’s DLC and more. I bought a couple of mounts in World of Warcraft back in the dawn of the microtransaction movement. Shit I’ve even bought Overwatch loot boxes twice, though I immediately regretted it and, looking back, that was about the time that I became frustrated with the drop rates and stopped playing.
A litany of games have made small and steady progress towards the games as service model in which the initial purchase price is just a starting point and companies are getting increasing amounts of revenue from stripping out content that would have been included in the base game a few years ago.
This has caused controversy from Casandras howling in the abyss. One of the best is JimSterling whose has been pointing out the insidious nature of micro transactions in full priced releases for ages. While his anti-corporatism is more idealistic than mine (I’m older now and have less energy for outrage) his reporting has been on the money. So why is the latest EA controversy surrounding Battlefront 2 so much bigger than what came before?
EA was able to sell 14 million copies of Star Wars Battlefront (half a game that had less features than the original 10 year old game) then sell the other half to consumers in the form of map packs to only mild grumbling and discontent. But outrage over Battlefront 2 has caused a furor that has even spilled into the mainstream press forcing, for I think the first time, a publisher to backtrack and (at least temporarily) turn off their micro-transaction system at launch.
So why? Why has Battlefront 2 caused such a firestorm when for years companies have been able to sell us skins and mounts and DLC missions and map packs and even cosmetic loot boxes with only some complaining but no appreciable effect onsales.
Unraveling this requires a brief overview of the last Star Wars Battlefront game and Battlefront 2's progression system just in case you’re recently returning from a tour at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica and have no idea what’s going on.
In 2013 Disney, after purchasing the rights to the Star Wars license shuttered Lucas Games and looked to sell the exclusive rights to make Star Wars games. A property this massive was only realistically open to the largest of publishers and EA quickly scooped up 10 years of exclusive rights. They started by giving the rights for a single player title to Visceral Games beloved for their first two Dead Space games who then tabbed Amy Henning formerly of Uncharted fame to direct and produce. We all know how that turned out.
Luckily there’s almost no way to fuck up a Star Wars Battlefront game. The series was already well established and in the years since Lucas released those games the appetite for multiplayer titles has only increased. Realistically all EA and Dice had to do was reskin the original releases with current generation graphics and they’d have been huge hits and game of the year contenders.
But that’s not what EA did. Instead they stripped features that were available in the first game out, made the gameplay shallower by removing classes and decided to release the thing with only 4 large mode maps. FOUR! But not toworry. EA was ready to sell you the rest of those maps over the next two years at the cost of almost another base game. There were no space battles and while the production value was high, player counts dropped quickly and only further fragmented as DLC package after DLC package continued to split the player base.
Fans grumbled about feeling like they’d been sold half a game and EA said they heard fan complaints and would address them all in the sequel.
Which brings us to Battlefront 2. Early previews looked extremely promising. There was single player campaign, and more maps and modes at launch including space battles. And, to everyone’s surprise EA announced there would be no map packs. All future maps added would be updates and not paid DLC.
Then people got their hands on the game and while most said the gameplay was solid if not particularly exciting, the new classes felt underwhelming to play and the same lack of depth was present. This was disappointing but overall the production values were sky high, the modes seemed fun and the attention to detail in the environments and character designs were top notch, demonstrating what big publishers can accomplish when they decide to ramp production values up to the nth degree.
There was one problem though. Players saw that Star Cards were back and that they’d be given out in loot crates that could be bought with real world money. These weren’t insignificant cosmetic items. They were powerful stat boosts that would give the player who spent money on loot crates up to a %30 advantage on one who only paid for the game itself. This caused outrage. But I intend to argue that as terrible as this system is (and boy, it’s fucking terrible) it’s NOT what this is really all about.
The reason people hate this system more than any other monetization system tried in any other full price AAA game is because it destroys the illusion of the relationship between game maker and game player and brings into painfully sharp focus that the relationship is actually between Developer and Customer.
Previous efforts at continuing monetization in AAA games have always strived to be completely incidental to the gameplay itself. Warcraft Micro-transaction mounts didn’t effect gameplay because by that time Warcraft mounts no longer had different speeds. You were only paying for a cool LOOKING mount. Ditto Overwatch. While I would argue that cosmetic items and different skins had previously been part of the content you bought with the base game and a big reason players would grind, game developers could at least say that the ability to buy cosmetic items with real world money did not in any way effect the way the game was created, tuned, balanced or enjoyed. And to be fair that’sabsolutely true. My experience PLAYING Overwatch is the same whether I buy loot boxes and get the skin I want or if I don’t buy boxes and have bad luck and never get Officer Diva .
You might ENJOY your gaming experience more after nabbing that skin. But the moment to moment experience, the core gameplay loop is completely unaffected. This has been the law of the gaming land for years outside of the free to play space where consumers were willing to tolerate intrusive monetization models because the base experience was completely free.
Not any more though. What makes StarWars Battlefront 2 a new and terrible change is that the monetization system was clearly baked directly in. Video game progression systems have been tuned and adjusted for decades before arriving at a general consensus. Players unlock more skills, weapons and powers the more they play. Each match gets you closer to something you had your eye on. You’re working towards a goal and have a clear path to getting to that goal. Games have been carefully balanced to make that grind just long enough to feel like you’ve accomplished something without feeling like the developer is wasting your time.
Progression systems have basically been perfected. That’s why most people play games until they’ve finished leveling before dropping out of the end game at various stages depending upon how satisfying that end game is or what their tolerance or enjoyment of repetitive grinding is. I happen to enjoy grinding but to each his own.
Star Wars Battlefront 2 completely does away with a traditional leveling system in favor of ALL progression being made through random drops from Loot Boxes. Interested in trying a different rifle in your load-out? Well you’ll have to hope it drops from a random number generator. Want to try a different grenade or cool-down skill? Random number generator.
This completely breaks the core gameplay loop of playing matches, accumulating XP and spending that XP on items or abilities you want before trying them out and using them to unlock more and different abilities. It’s utterly impossible to believe that this system was deemed more fun. Which means that this system was instituted for only one reason.
What this means is that countless hours of development time and intellectual effort was expended not on making that progression system as fun and compelling as possible but rather to maximize ongoing revenue streams without ruining the experience.
There’s a big difference between balancing a system to be fun and balancing a system to be less obnoxious. It says to the player that their fun, their enjoyment of the moment to moment gameplay was less important to the developers than hitting a certain leveling threshold that would spur the most loot box purchases.
This changes everything. It drops all pretense in this relationship, it removes the veil that we were all happy to have up and makes the actual game maker to game player interaction explicit and transparent.
It’s not game maker to game player. It’s game monetization developer to ongoing customer.
In a normal progression system the consumer can be completely confident that the only consideration that was made in development was how to make that system as fun and engaging to the most players for the longest possible time. Great care has always gone into game economies to make that experience smooth and fun and make progress feel consistent and earned.
In this progression system, however, you have zero agency. You don’t unlock anything through play. You earn the right to have a chance of getting something you might or might not want to use. And because it’s now clear to everybody that maximizing their enjoyment was not the goal at the heart of the progression system it’s obvious to all what the goal actually was. The goal was to frustrate juuuust enough to spur extra lootbox sales without frustrating so much that people simply put the game down and don’t come back.
That’s supposed to be an invisible consideration to the consumer. We shouldn’t see these decisions. Profit maximization is a business and publisher goal not a game MAKER’S goal. The goal of a game maker has traditionally been to simply make a great game.
And so what you’re left with is players realizing they aren’t players. They’re marks to be fleeced. This system is not designed for your fun. It’s designed to be less fun so that you pay more in the hope that the game becomes fun.
The monetization scheme is built into the gameplay in a way that’s obtrusive, obnoxious and aggressively not fun.
I find it amusing that EA and Dice seemed caught off guard by the scale of this controversy. The only thing amazing about this is that EA and Dice didn’t realize it was coming. The fact that play testers didn’t go crazy over this shows the limits of making decisions off of the reactions of people in a highly controlled environment.
The controversy was always going tohappen. Because EA and Dice forgot that players expect the games they paid for to be developed first and foremost with their enjoyment in mind. The proper development cycle is to make a game that people want to play and THEN decide how best to get as much money as possible from it. That’s entirely reasonable and defensible. I might not like it but I understand it and realize it’s a necessity. But balancing actual core gameplay around a monetization strategy is a recipe for disaster. Because what’s most fun and what’s mostprofitable aren’t always correlated. They often have nothing to do with each other in fact. And trying to tie those two considerations together rips the caul from consumers eyes and leaves them bitter and feeling like nothing more than wallets with legs.
No matter how much we disliked DLC or micro-transactions or cosmetic loot boxes we could at least be certain that the developers made the core gameplay as fun as they could. That they operated with a singular focus. Make the game as much fun as we can with the resources available.
EA/Dice tried to bypass that and go directly to how to make as much money as possible. And it seems like that’s finally a bridge to far.
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