Update: There are reports that EA “compensated” for slashing the price of heroes by slashing how many credits you can earn in the single-player campaign and in Arcade Mode. Which… I mean, really, EA? Really? Is there an attached limb you won’t blow off?
Original Story Below:
EA has been playing defense on Star Wars Battlefront II for nearly a week. While early coverage of the game was positive, highlighting deeper multiplayer and a genuine single-player story, things have changed in the run-up to launch. Players were extremely unhappy to discover that it could take 40 hours to unlock heroes, and EA’s initial response to this absolutely didn’t help.
While the company has slashed the cost of major heroes, follow-up stories have detailed how the loot crate system is fundamentally a play-to-win gambit, in which players who spend real-world money will have huge advantages over those who don’t. Now, Belgium is investigating the loot crate situation and EA’s attempts to do damage control via a Reddit AMA appear to have backfired.
Let’s talk about Belgium first. Belgium is investigating EA on the grounds that the loot crates in Battlefront II could constitute gambling. The problem with EA’s approach here is partly that the game doesn’t just offer skins or visual effects for purchase — it’s selling content that makes it easier to excel. Moreover, it’s not exactly selling it cheap. Star Wars Gaming calculated how much it will cost to max out the game with upgrades for every class, hero, and vehicle type. There are four base trooper classes (Officer, Specialist, Assault, Heavy) and it’ll take 238 hours of play to hit max level, statistically, with each (950 hours total). Factoring in the amount of time it will take max out everything else, the current projected total is 4,528 hours of play or $2,100 dollars. That’s enough to get ears pricked in the EU, where Overwatch is also under investigation for its use of loot crates and overall game mechanics.
One response to the SWG estimates is most players don’t bother unlocking everything in a game. That’s quite true. If you play an MMO, you probably have 1-2 characters you focus on, even if you level up alts for fun. If you play games like Call of Duty, Overwatch, or Battlefield, you probably have specific heroes or classes you focus on.
But even if you slash the Battlefront II figures to 20 percent of base value, you’re looking at 906 hours played (that’s just over half a year at 40 hours per week) or $420. Counting the $60 base price, that’s $480 spent. In one game. For gear and options that used to be earned for free. Even unlocking 10 percent of the content would take 453 hours and well over $200, including the game’s base purchase price. I have no doubt that Battlefront II is a polished, engaging title in many respects, but there’s no way I’m paying over $200 for it or grinding for months given how little I can play anything on a daily basis.
Why AMAs Don’t Work in Situations Like This
As for the Battlefront II AMA, the developers ran face-first into a common problem in these situations: Fans want specific answers, but developers often can’t give them as quickly as desired. There are objective reasons why this is so: Microtransactions and the Battlefront II progression system are baked into the game as a way to generate additional revenue. The developer team and publisher are going to want to see hard data on how much money people are spending, how it impacts team play, whether the matchmaking system successfully keeps people matched against others of equivalent skill, and how over/under-powered various Star Cards are. At one point a dev disputes SWG’s figures on how long it will take to unlock content, but provides no hard data or information that disputes SWG’s math. This leaves gamers feeling as if they’re being blown off. Developers may in turn become frustrated when their earnest promises to examine problems with the gameplay loop and to fix them to keep the player base happy are ignored or denigrated for not containing specific examples of how systems will be tweaked.
It makes perfect sense for the developer team to promise it’s watching the data, taking player feedback into account, and plans to correct for problems and imbalances. It’s not a dodge, but it also doesn’t address the concerns of players who have seen the reviews, played the beta (in some cases), and question why the game shipped with such an absurd system in the first place. Either no one cared enough to do the math (bad) or the insane grind is a feature, not a bug (worse). Damion Schubert, a game developer who has worked extensively on F2P monetization, published an excellent Tweetstorm on the problem EA has created for itself and I recommend reading it through to the end.
Let’s talk lootboxes, and how annoying it is to watch AAA publishers fuck them up from the perspective of someone who has to design to them. (1)
— Damion Schubert, Dark Warlord of Game Design (@ZenOfDesign) November 15, 2017
As he writes, a great monetization rate today is 5 percent, meaning 5 percent of your players engage with your loot crate system. The other 95 percent of your player base experiences the normal, un-monetized version of the game. When the “regular” multiplayer requires an insane grind unless you’re willing to shuck out hundreds of dollars to skip it, it’s not hard to see the perverse incentive at work. Few things poison a game faster than the overwhelming resentment of a fan base forced to serve cannon fodder for the handful of players who can drop hundreds or thousands of dollars to buy every upgrade in the game.
Battlefront II’s developers probably couldn’t have given concrete answers to many of the questions redditors were asking, because the changes have to be evaluated, tested, and approved at multiple levels between DICE and EA. But the widespread dissatisfaction with the monetization system should serve as a wake-up call for what players will and won’t tolerate.
It’s one thing to sell skins, emotes, or cosmetic upgrades. For that matter, it’s fine to sell weapons, armor, resources, and other assets in single-player games, provided those items and elements of gameplay are reasonably abundant in-game and can be earned in a reasonable amount of time. But creating a AAA multiplayer game that so blatantly caters to pay-to-win was a huge mistake, and if Battlefront II goes down in flames it’ll be the fault of a publisher and/or developer that refused to consider how player blowback might doom its own project. I can accept DICE and EA may not have realized how much of a problem they were creating for themselves, but all that means is that these companies needed to engage with outside focus groups much more thoroughly than they obviously did.