Last week, EA found itself in hot water as the official launch of Star Wars: Battlefront II approached. After first attempting to justify making players spend 40 hours unlocking a single hero, the company slashed hero prices, cut rewards and put a time-limited lockout on how many credits you could earn in a day when using Arcade Mode (undoing the impact of slashing prices), and appeared resolute in the face of mounting criticism.
Battlefront II was going to launch with a loot system that relied entirely on loot crates and pay-to-win mechanics, in which how well you competed in-game was mostly dependent on whether you were willing to buy enough loot crates to get (completely random) gear drops that favored your preferred class or scenario. And then EA blinked.
Suddenly, the pay-to-win system EA had spent the week defending and promising to tweak in response to player feedback was gone. In its place, a temporary shutdown to the pay-to-win economy. We say temporary, because EA claims it still has every intention of reenabling it, but there’s no word yet on when that’ll happen. And interestingly, it looks like we might have the House of Mouse to thank. The Wall Street Journal (paywall) reports that Disney executives were “upset at how online outrage over the costs of gaining access to popular characters such as Luke Skywalker reflected on their marquee property.”
Disney has been fairly quiet on the topic, stating only that it supported EA’s decision to temporarily remove the pay-to-win system. But there’ve been signs that all wasn’t perfect, even within DICE. Last week, during the disastrous AMA, EA DICE multiplayer producer Paul Keslin wrote, “Lots of people told us we shouldn’t do this as it wasn’t going to go like we hope it would.” Hrm. Listening to those “lots of people” might be a good way to prevent this from happening again.
Read the reviews on Battlefront II, including the ones published after this change, and the loot system is still a major problem. In most games, including previous Battlefield titles, you earn experience towards unlocking new capabilities or gear for your class by playing that class. But the only loot system in Battlefront II is loot crates, and loot crate rewards are random. You could play for hours and walk away with nothing to show for it. This might be working as intended from the perspective of an EA executive who wanted to see gamers shelling out real cash for digital goods, but it’s not a great way to build interest or incentives around your game.
There’s something remarkably disingenuous in the way companies often cloak their own terrible decisions in the language of “learning” something, as if somehow, nobody at DICE or EA had even the foggiest notion that gamers might not appreciate being forced to grind for thousands of hours to unlock desired in-game content. It’s a farcical argument on its face. No one thinks being steamrolled by players with vastly better gear is fun, yet this is what Battlefront II players were being asked to accept if they didn’t want to shuck out even more money. You don’t have to be a game developer (or hate EA) to see how playing for thousands of hours to unlock content that ought to have been in the game to start with constitutes a problem.
There’s a genuine problem with how game development is funded these days and the huge gap between a $ 60 base price and the nine-figure development costs that some games now flit with. Disney is no angel in this regard — it simply wanted to protect its investment into Star Wars rather than risk seeing unhappy blowback that could impact The Last Jedi‘s theater run (not that this is likely to happen). But if EA wants to prosper in a brave new world of alternative game monetization, it needs to come up with a way of doing it that doesn’t ask players to feed a loot mechanic that’s been deliberately turned into a grindfest as a means of extracting maximum revenue.