One of the dirtiest words in the gaming industry at this moment is “microtransactions”. Despite the etymology of the word implying that they are merely small purchases, there’s an implied negativity, most of which stems from an assumed pay-to-win model. In a free-to-play game, microtransactions are their bread and butter. The games are designed to be played for free, but microtransactions exist because there needs to be some sort of consistent money flow, even if few people actually buy into them. The pay-to-win model is what happens when microtransactions actually lead to noticeable gameplay advantages. Maybe it’s just a double experience modifier. Maybe it’s a cool gun that’s slightly more powerful than the gun anyone else has when they start.
Or maybe it’s access to items that will help significantly in multiplayer against others. When EA unleashed Star Wars Battlefront II on the world, it’s clear they had no idea what the reaction was going to be about their implementation of microtransactions. Or rather, they had an idea but weren’t prepared for the worst possible outcome. After days of Battlefront players complaining and EA quickly trying to put out a fire that just didn’t want to extinguish itself, they completely pulled microtransactions from Star Wars Battlefront II. Their premium currency, crystals, will return at a later date, but for now they’ve been completely removed from purchase, which forces all rewards in-game to be earned from actually playing the game.
That being said, it’s clear that EA wants there to be microtransactions. There’s no way around it for them. And in all honesty, that would be okay if they hadn’t reacted in the ways they have. Battlefront II brings back my bitter feelings about Mass Effect 3 (another EA-published game) and its ending controversy. In that, developers Bioware received a multitude of complaints that their ending was uncharacteristically singular. Fans felt betrayed that the game’s final ending lacked variety in its outcome, which was weird for a series that was so indebted to player choice having an impact. Of course, most people already know what happened with Mass Effect 3: new endings were made.
Here is why that decision left a bitter taste in my mouth. It shows multiple things about the games industry and the people who play and make games. There was no concrete vision behind why the ending of Mass Effect 3 was what it was. Or rather, there might have been but if you want your game to sell beyond launch day, you need to fix any issues. Usually those are just performance things that can be ironed out in an update. You never see story moments get changed in movies because someone complained about them. The same used to be said about games, but then this happened. It highlighted the lack of significance authorial intent has in an industry that sells expensive products. It doesn’t matter how much the creative director or writers believed in their ending. If the consumers complain, the consumers get what they want.
We see movies like Fight Club and The Thing bomb at the box office when they’re released. But we still talk about them, for some weird reason. It’s because there was a vision, and it just simply wasn’t received well right away. We have come to regard those films as masterpieces. I’m not saying Mass Effect 3 was ever going to be a masterpiece. While I didn’t mind the ending, I disliked the act of playing the game and found much of the story to be bland. But the fact is that whatever vision existed during the development of the game was sacrificed when money was factored in.
In comes Star Wars Battlefront II, a game that will take a while to do well financially now. Or maybe the Star Wars name is enough for it. What is clear is that the way EA handled their microtransaction debacle was a bad look. At first, there was a defense of their in-game currency (which doesn’t require you to make any purchases). Hero characters like Darth Vader would take upwards of 40 hours to attain via this currency, and the currency wasn’t given out for being good at the game but for spending more time. Or you could spend real money on crystals, which buy you loot crates that can contain credits and duplicate items that can be turned into credits. So, if you really don’t want to spend 40 hours to unlock Darth Vader, just purchase a lot of loot crates to speed things up. It’s completely random of course, but it will speed things up.
But EA’s defense was that the credit costs provided were fair and based on several factors. In the now notoriously downvoted comment on Reddit, EA claimed to have intent in why the credit costs were as high as they were. They weren’t just randomly assigned, but based on “data” from the open beta. Whatever EA’s reasons were, they followed it up with a decrease of 75% for credit costs to unlock heroes.
With a decrease that significant, it became obvious that EA was trying to stop all of this controversy immediately. Yet crystals and loot crates remained. This was really the worst possible move EA could have made. It shows a transparency in their business tactics. It demonstrates a willingness to exploit players. While the wool was being pulled over players’ eyes, someone was whispering all of EA’s business plans in their ears like no one would call them out on it. It’s ballsy, but not surprising. What was most surprising was that they didn’t address the elephant in the room: where did they come up with 75% for a decrease? Do any of the credit costs for other things have any logic behind them?
Pulling the microtransactions from Battlefront II was smart. Pulling them with the caveat that they would be coming back was bad. Try and convince players to engage in any microtransactions when credit costs feel like they were arbitrarily assigned and not given the thought that was originally asserted. I’ll give EA one thing: they probably knew what to charge for crystals. If it involves getting money out of players, you have to put thought into that. What they didn’t estimate was how important Hero characters would be to players and how little time they’d want to put into the game to get them.
The rationale behind Hero characters being hidden behind a large credit cost is obvious: incentive to play for longer. Everybody wants to play as Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker. EA knows this. That’s why they need to be unlocked. The oversight was that everyone wants to play as Hero characters, but don’t want to put in the work. It’s a Star Wars game and the expectation is that you’ll be able to play as central characters to the series. Making players spend 40 hours to play as characters they love is definitely incentive, but there’s no fun in getting there.
I mentioned that Battlefront II is likely doomed to stagnate in sales for a while. It will eventually do well because it is Star Wars and who doesn’t like Star Wars? But the changes they’re making won’t make the game better. It will just make it less egregious in its business tactics. Every EA game will be met with even further scrutiny, especially since microtransactions aren’t going anywhere in games. Battlefront II might actually be the best test case for this mess because it will be okay in the end. It will take time, but even I’m ready to play it once it’s much cheaper in price. If this had been a Dragon Age or Titanfall, then there would be much less certainty in any recovery from such a mess. After all, they’re not Star Wars.
Going back to Mass Effect 3, that game was considered improved once the new endings were released for free. That was a change that affected content within the game. The content that was paid for with the initial $60 purchase that the game cost. People who buy Battlefront II aren’t getting a better game later. The game remains the same, like it or not. Instead, what changes is that no one has an advantage over another. Unless when microtransactions return they still can be used to affect gameplay. But for now, I’m giving EA the benefit of the doubt and assuming that they will not reintroduce microtransactions if they give any players an advantage over another by spending money. I hope they’re not that stupid.
EA shot themselves in the foot and there’s nothing they can do to fix that without a staggering shift in business strategy. There will always be microtransactions because why should they miss out on extra money when Ubisoft and other publishers get to participate? Let’s not be silly about how businesses operate and expect significant shifts like that. There are other ways to earn back favor (and I was someone who was in defense of EA for a while after they switched leadership), but like all things, it will take a lot of effort and an open-minded gaming audience. Not the audience that complains about a game’s ending not being what they like, but one that puts publishers on blast for being greedy and exploitative.
The largest loss from all of this is that EA is no longer a company that we can just applaud for releasing a good game. Now we need to know the hooks they’re putting in people who purchase their titles. This hurts the developers who poured all their time and energy into making the best game they can. At the same time, it hurts the audiences that want to support good games.