Star Wars. The franchise has long held a special place in the heart of geekdom, and despite the mixed-bag reception of Episodes I-III in the late 90s through early 2000s, it has managed to maintain itself as a cornerstone of popular culture for sci-fi and fantasy fans the world over. A variety of toys, coloring books, novels, and video games have been borne from this series, and EA’s latest title, Star Wars Battlefront 2, due to arrive in two days, is yet another addition to the pile.
And yet, there is a disturbance in the Force. As if millions of disgruntled gamers suddenly cried out in anger – and continued to get louder. You see, EA is about as popular with gamers as Darth Vader would be with the Rebellion. For the uninitiated, EA is infamously known for utilizing their wealth and influence to snatch up smaller studios, previously acclaimed for unique and engaging titles, and then draining the life out of them by transforming the previously plucky studio into a shell of corporate servitude. Surprisingly, even Lucas Arts, the video game wing of the LucasFilm studio, fell victim to its insatiable appetite in 2013. The first Battlefront entry came in 2015 – bearing the EA logo, it managed to garner solid reviews due to its stellar visuals and fun multiplayer, though the various game modes were lackluster. Hype for Battlefront 2 has been building for some time, but in recent weeks the hype train has come to a grinding halt as more and more of the game has been revealed. There, beneath the shiny veneer of this highly anticipated title, lies a festering disease that has been plaguing the gaming community since the arrival of Farmville: micro-transactions.
A recent calculation discovered that in order to unlock every character in Battlefront 2, you would have to invest over 4500 hours. That’s just over 2 years of 40 hours/week of gameplay – a prohibitive amount of time for most gamers. Of course, you could also pay to unlock the characters. The price tag? Approximately $2,100.
After paying $60 (or $80, or $100, depending on the country in which you’re hoping to fire up your lightsaber), it’s understandable that gamers would be just slightly annoyed at the prospect of having to invest so much time and energy into a game to catch a glimpse of Darth Vader or any of the other icons of this franchise.
What has made this whole situation so much worse, however, has been EA’s response. A few days ago the concern regarding character costs was brought up on Reddit, to which the official EA Community account responded with this now-infamous response that has become the most down voted comment in Reddit history:
With over 650,000+ down votes, the collective gaming community on Reddit offered a combo of “gilding” the message (to improve visibility) while viciously down-voting it. It has also given birth to a now oft-repeated meme that sprinkles the response with moneybags any time the topic of Battlefront 2 comes up.
A rash of canceled pre-orders followed this response, and a temporary frenzy ensued when a rumor emerged that EA had removed the online refund option (spoiler alert: this was overblown and later proved to be untrue – Online refunds were never an option for any EA title through Origin). Still, the negative press combined with this seeming retaliation stirred consumers into further anger.
Following the backlash and attempting to save face, EA followed this debacle with the announcement that heroes’ cost would be reduced by 75%. Unfortunately for them, gamers also realized almost immediately that the earn rates of playing games was reduced by a comparable amount, resulting in a net zero improvement. Of course, they were raked over the coals yet again for this deceptive change.
The drama continued yesterday, as the arcade mode was discovered to have a timed gate on earning credits after 3-5 missions were completed.
Overall, with less than 2 days to go before the official launch, EA has been bombarded with negative press and, quite frankly, have bungled pretty much every attempt at regaining the trust of the thousands upon thousands of gamers who have pre-ordered the game.
At its heart, it seems that the drama surrounding Battlefront 2 boils down to the nature of micro-transactions. We’ve seen paid content do very well (Overwatch being an often-repeated example), and typically the best systems are purely cosmetic changes. Rare skins, stickers, graffiti…things that don’t actively impact the gameplay. These are “acceptable” forms of micro-transactions. Earlier today, Damion Schubert (responsible for designing the Star Wars the Old Republic game overhaul when it went free-to-play), had an extensive Twitter conversation about how loot-boxes can be done well. He mentions some fascinating statistics, namely that over 90% of your base will never drop a dime on whatever “extra” features you want to charge for. Typically 2-5% of the population will spend on micro-transactions, and that minority will spend a staggering amount. Enough to justify them in the first place. However, if you make the extra paid content impact the game, or make it imbalanced, it will serve to antagonize the majority of your audience, and is largely seen as not a smart thing to do. And yet, the allure of making Candy Crush level money in micro-transactions on top of the already steep base price is seemingly too much for many large companies, EA most of all.
Still, the anger and backlash to this seems extreme. What is it about Battlefront 2 and EA that has got the gaming community so worked up? I would argue that if you were to dig slightly deeper than the anger over micro-transactions, you would uncover an overall frustration with the “evolution” of video games in the last decade. With the advent of downloadable content (DLC), “pre-order bonuses”, and massive patches on day one, gamers can’t help but feel they’re paying more and more of their money for less and less content. Sure, the exceptions are shining beacons on a hill (Witcher 3 being brought up in conversation pretty regularly as these discussions happen), but the wider industry can see the profit to be had in a game that relies on pre-orders and DLC to flesh out an otherwise incomplete game. Combine that with the degradation of a beloved franchise like Star Wars, and you have a recipe for some royally pissed off gamers.
At the end of the day, however, there are those who wonder what the use of all the fussing is. “EA’s going to make their money and keep doing things the same way.” “Quit whining and buy the game.” Typically I would share in the apathetic response, save for one thing: Disney. Disney is insanely protective of its brands and franchises – and when it forked out $4 billion back in 2012 to acquire Lucasfilm, it brought Star Wars under its massive, bullet-proof umbrella of intellectual property. With Episode VIII rapidly approaching next month, the last thing Disney wants is this whole mess to sour fans from going to the movies. It will be interesting to see if they intervene, and for those who are interested in making their voices heard, reaching out to Disney will likely be a powerful platform.
The gaming community has altered the deal, EA. Pray they do not alter it further.