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EA's Star Wars Battlefront II backtrack shows the limitations of loot boxes

EA's Star Wars Battlefront II backtrack shows the limitations of loot boxes

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In an attempt to mitigate a spiraling controversy that saw several death threats made in response to what turned out to be the most downvoted comment in the history of Reddit,  EA has announced that it’s tweaking its new Star Wars video game to let you play as Darth Vader faster. 

This one will take a little explaining.

Star Wars Battlefront II is only the latest and most extreme example of growing discontent over an increasingly common video game monetization strategy known as “loot boxes” or “loot crates.” While specific implementations vary, the basic idea is that you can spend real money on in-game currency that can be used to buy a bundle of randomized items, or loot. In some games, like Overwatch or Destiny, the items are largely cosmetic, while in others — like Battlefront II — they have a more direct impact on gameplay. 

The crucial thing to understand about loot boxes is that they give you items that you could otherwise get simply by playing the game. You’re not paying for items directly, unlike the infamous Oblivion horse armor that kicked off a microtransaction controversy of its own a decade ago, nor is paying the only way to get them. What you’re paying for, essentially, is to save time. Loot boxes are a way to build up your character’s wardrobe, or your soccer team’s roster, or your garage of cars, to an extent that would normally require having played the game for far longer.

Although paying for loot boxes is optional, the problem is the effects they may have on the game for those who don’t want to pay. Publishers are incentivized to encourage players to spend, after all, which means they may consider it in their interest to balance the core game experience so that it’s more of a repetitive slog for those who don’t spend extra. If paid-for loot can give you an advantage in multiplayer, meanwhile, the integrity of the experience is compromised. Finally, if desirable content is perceived as being artificially restricted, players are likely to resent the prospect of being forced to pay for it.

Battlefront II appears, or at least appeared, to be guilty of all three. 

Since the game went live for EA Access and Origin Access subscribers late last week, players have taken umbrage with the various currency systems and how those affect unlockable upgrades, known as Star Cards. Battlefront II also puts a time limit on how often you're able to earn currency in some modes, earning unflattering comparisons with free-to-play mobile games. The biggest issue, however, has been how Battlefront II gates access to the "hero" characters. 

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, players spend most of their time in Battlefront taking the role of a regular grunt on the ground — say, a stormtrooper or battle droid. But over the course of a multiplayer match, players can earn points to call in powerful hero units, letting them play as characters like Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader.

This time around, though, there's a big catch. While some of Battlefront II's heroes are available immediately, if you want to play as Luke, Vader, Chewbacca, Emperor Palpatine, Leia, or campaign protagonist Iden Versio, you have to unlock them first using "credits", one of Battlefront II's three in-game currencies. 

The problem is that until EA backtracked yesterday, the number of credits needed to unlock those characters was really, really high. Luke and Vader needed 60,000 credits each to unlock for use in multiplayer, for example, with Palpatine, Leia, and Chewbacca running for 40,000 credits each, and Iden costing a relatively cheap 20,000 credits. EA reduced these amounts by 75 percent, so Luke and Vader will now cost 15,000 credits each. “Based on what we've seen in the trial,” read EA’s statement, “this amount will make earning these heroes an achievement, but one that will be accessible for all players.”

Although online games are tweaked and adjusted all the time, this is a pretty sizeable and unprecedented reversal considering Battlefront II is coming out in just two days. The issue isn’t as simple as accusing EA of expecting players to shell out extra cash to unlock the heroes, since credits can't be directly bought using money. But players can buy "crystals" and use them to buy loot boxes which contain Star Cards (different swappable abilities and upgrades), and getting duplicate Star Cards rewards players with credits. And it’s this system that led many players to believe that EA was attempting to fleece them.

It could have taken 40 hours to unlock Darth Vader

Once other sources of credits are exhausted — challenges and the campaign mode can apparently net you around 37,000 in total — and assuming you'd rather not spend money on loot crates, the last way to earn credits is by playing the game. According to early reports from players, though, the amount of credits that Battlefront II doles out doesn't seem to be particularly generous. Reddit user TheHotterPotato crunched the numbers to calculate that players are (at least for now) getting around 275 credits per each match of roughly 11 minutes, which would have meant around 40 hours of constant gameplay (not counting challenges and other credit sources) to unlock the pricier heroes. With EA’s adjustments, that should now be around 10 hours.

However all this shakes out once the game is actually available, Battlefront II’s loot box system is a perfect storm of controversy. Rightly or wrongly, the perception is as follows: the game requires dozens of hours of tedious drudgery to access the iconic Star Wars characters and their powerful abilities, while EA is encouraging players to pay money to essentially skip this process. Is the company just being nakedly hostile and money-grabbing?

Battlefront II will have been an absurdly expensive game to produce. Its predecessor, 2015’s Battlefront, was slammed for a lack of content and its $50 season pass that was essentially obligatory for anyone who wanted to continue playing the game. This time around, EA is going all-out with a full cinematic campaign mode developed by new internal studio Motive, while Burnout and Need for Speed team Criterion handles the space combat and Battlefield developers DICE create the multiplayer. It’s essentially three games in one from a development standpoint, all three of which are on the absolute technical cutting edge. Also, you know, it’s Star Wars

Meanwhile, games in the US still cost the same $60 that they have for decades. It’s unlikely that people would react well to a price rise across the board. And after the first Battlefront’s DLC strategy proved unpopular, EA’s decision to skip the season pass for the sequel was met with warm approval. Did people expect that there wouldn’t be anything to make up for the financial hit?

Battlefront II will have been absurdly expensive to produce

To be clear, EA has undoubtedly mishandled the way that it designed some of these systems, or at the very least the way that it’s communicated them. It wouldn’t have been forced to make such a drastic change to Battlefront II’s economy otherwise. And it’s not like the company is approaching financial danger. "We generated record net sales and operating cash flow in fiscal 2017, driven by our ongoing transition to digital as well as our increasing success with live services," CFO Blake Jorgensen said in May after the company reported its fourth-quarter earnings. 

But that doesn’t mean that the soaring costs of game development, especially as we transition to hardware that demands the creation of assets fit for 4K TVs, are necessarily sustainable at the same $60 price point we’re all used to. At the kind of budgets being thrown around now, it’s not hard to imagine a few high-profile failures — on the degree of, say, Mass Effect Andromeda — putting EA in the same sort of trouble that the likes of THQ and Midway faced last generation. Video game companies can and do collapse. 

EA must balance its responsibility to shareholders with its responsibility to customers, however. And by making this change to Battlefront II at such short notice, it seems the company knows it overstepped the mark. Its competitors would do well to note this example and, if they must implement loot boxes, find ways to do so without undermining the experience.