Star Wars Battlefront II: EA Embraces the Dark Side of Gaming
Best Price on: Star Wars Battlefront II
The economics of videogames is serious business. Budgets for high-profile games routinely outclass those of blockbuster movies, not to mention the GDP of small independent nations. But, with great budgets come great expectations for profit, which is why publishers are always looking for ways to wring even more from the games they release.
One of the latest methods for squeezing more profit from games involves complex in-game economies designed to gently nudge players into spending real-world money on “microtransactions”. The ill-will generated by the growing prominence of microtransactions in videogames reached crisis proportions last Friday with the release of Star Wars Battlefront II by EA.
Microtransaction Backlash Against EA
Star Wars Battlefront II has been lighting up the gaming community with bad press around what gamers are decrying is a corrupt in-game economy. Since the loot-box system was announced, EA has been criticized for creating a blatant “pay-to-win” economy that favors spending money on in-game loot-boxes, a form of gambling to gain access to locked game content that includes everything from playable characters to equipment upgrades that make players more competitive in multiplayer modes. Of course, the system conceals the play-to-win nature of its game by making the loot-box credits earnable by performing hours of tedious in-game tasks, known in videogame parlance as “grinding”.
The controversy has resulted in the most downvoted comment in Reddit history, when EA’s public relations account tried to defend its decision to keep the most sought-after playable characters in the game, including Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, locked behind a grind-or-pay wall:
“The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.” – EACommunityTeam, Reddit
At the time of writing, the downvotes stand at 677K, and due to the backlash, EA is temporarily backing away from the for-pay microtransaction model, but promises to bring it back soon in another form. Incidentally, EA stock took a dip in the wake of fan backlash, as investors pulled out after EA made the decision to temporarily remove the microtransaction part of its revenue model.
It will be some time before we know exactly how Star Wars Battlefront II microtransactions will play out, but if the “pay-to-win” economy lingers on, the resulting imbalance will keep Battlefront II from being a serious competitive multiplayer game, and instead will simply remain a space-fantasy gambling platform.
Can Battlefront II be saved? I do not doubt in the creative capability of modern game designers. But it seems that the only possible positive outcome, when EA microtransactions return, would see EA take Battlefront II in the direction of Activision’s recent Call of Duty World War II.
Activision suffered similar backlash when previous versions of Call of Duty did in fact allow in-game transactions that gave players access to unique weapons that amounted to in-game advantages and imbalance. Yes, the new Call of Duty World War II, released earlier this month, does have microtransactions and loot-boxes. But, so far the items available remain superficial. Call of Duty World War II loot-boxes only offer new uniforms and skins for weapons that let players customize the look of their in-game avatars, but won’t make them any more powerful.
Gaming as a Platform For Microtransactions
The EA Battlefront II controversy represents a threshold for videogaming between balanced, competitive multiplayer games and pay-to-win. If the economics of gaming requires new games to be built as platforms for paid microtransactions, competitive multiplayer will be the first casualty, but what will become of the future of immersive singleplayer games? I can’t imagine anything more destructive to the fantasy role-playing experience of Skyrim, than being nagged to gamble for upgraded weapons and armor in exchange for my credit card number.
The fans seem to universally agree that buying a game, then having that game incentivize spending even more money on locked game content, not only kills multiplayer competitiveness, but will almost certainly detract from an immersive campaign game.
It’s hard to say what aspect of the microtransaction is more insidious: The removal of competitive balance, or the creepy way game companies optimize in-game economies to hijack our brain’s reward system and make us want to gamble with real-world money. At best, they simply ruin a fine competitive multiplayer game. But at worst, they’re introducing an ethos of gambling to an audience that might be otherwise innocent to the destructive draw of the casino slot machine.
Loot Box Trend Destroying Gameplay as We Know It?
There is no other way to describe it: The loot-box economy in many of today’s games is nothing more than playing casino slot machines with new icons. In Star Wars Battlefront II, EA has simply substituted cherries, diamonds and lucky sevens with hardware from the Star Wars universe.
The real tragedy is that the game itself looks like a beautifully rendered depiction of George Lucas’ vision that I fell in love with when I saw Star Wars at the movie theater as a kid. It’s an affection that has lasted literally decades. I really want to give the creators my money to play in that light-sabre flashing, hyperspace jumping, laser-gun shooting sandbox, but there are lines I won’t cross. Star Wars Battlefront II was undoubtedly created through hundreds of hours of labor by some of the best creative talent in the industry, and they don’t get enough attention for the great work they’ve surely put into this game. But we’ve now seen how all that work has been reduced to a platform for the game’s real purpose, getting players addicted to loot-boxes.
While one team was hard at work developing the creative aspect of the game, another team was equally hard at work optimizing a system of costs and rewards that maximize profitability by funneling players into the decision to enter their credit card number. The transaction is low-cost enough to be easily justified for instant, tiny rewards, while high-value rewards are just rare enough to keep the player hooked. I can think of nothing more antithetical to the spirit of Star Wars than a game experience designed as a shake down, the whole microtransaction system as initially put forth by EA is dark and sleazy. I want no part of it. Do you? Share your comments in the related forum thread below.