“The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.” Never has a quote from a game developer had such a negative reaction than this innocuous comment from a Star Wars Battlefront II maker. Posted on Reddit, the message responded to accusations of the “pay to play” aspect of the game. It lead to a customer backlash, last-minute game changes, and an 11% drop in stock price for the game’s publisher. What should have been the successful video game launch of a popular franchise turned into a much-publicized disaster, with government officials looking to take action.
In most situations, a video game based on the Star Wars franchise would be just an opportunity to print money. Electronic Arts (EA) were up to the task, having made hit games for lucrative franchises like FIFA, NHL, NBA, and NFL. But in recent years, EA’s approach to making games has changed due to online capabilities. Where once a game would appear on shelves as a finished product, they can now sell it incomplete. Although incomplete, the publishers vow to release missing or additional content for download. This turned into a gateway for game companies to profit from hidden sales of a game that should have been released complete.
This was exactly one of the issues players encountered with Star Wars Battlefront II. Iconic characters were missing from the game but available for purchase within it. Imagine playing a Star Wars game without the option to choose Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, Han Solo, and others. According to the math of one Reddit user, unlocking these fan favourites would take about 40 hours of gameplay each.
The alternative is to pay for microtransactions to unlock them. This is where the phrase “pay-to-win” comes into the picture. “Pay-to-win” is a controversial practice where game developers charge players for noticeable advantages. While it’s a shortcut for desperate or time-strapped players, the general feeling within the gaming community is that there shouldn’t be hidden charges in an already full-price game.
EA’s approach prompted the initial backlash from Reddit users and customers alike. The comment from EA comparing their shady business practices to providing customers with “a sense of pride and accomplishment” received 673,000 downvotes, Reddit’s comment rating system, making it the most downvoted in the website’s history. But what EA didn’t expect was the involvement of government officials.
EA structured their microtransactions around a “loot box” system. Loot boxes are digital boxes (sometimes called crates) with prizes inside. The prizes vary, ranging from randomized in-game items or characters. Since it involves real money purchases, this turns loot boxes into a virtual slot machine. This becomes even more problematic with the fact that children can access the game – and purchases.
The Belgian Minister of Justice, Koen Geens, wants to ban the in-game purchases, expressing that it combines gambling and games, making it “dangerous for the mental health of a young child”. The Belgium gambling committee added “the combination of money and addiction is gambling”. Geens is creating a proposal to the European Union to have these sorts of games banned from Europe.
Even United States government officials have expressed concern. Chris Lee, a Hawaiian legislator, publicly spoke out against EA’s “predatory practices” against kids. “We’re looking at legislation this coming year which could prohibit access [and] sale of these games to folks who are underage”, he says.
Despite a loyal Star Wars fan base, Star Wars Battlefront II has underperformed critically, and in sales. It garnered a Metacritic score (from fans) of 0.9/10, with critic scores averaging in the 60s (out of 100). Sales-wise, not even the holiday season could help. The game sold only 882,000 units in the US, dropping a dramatic 50% from EA’s 2016 high-profile game, Battlefield 1. The figure pales in comparison to the holiday season’s only other high-profile competition in gaming, Call of Duty: WWII, which sold 4.4 million units.
Sales and public backlash aside, this is not only bad news for EA, but for Disney as well. The franchise owners can’t risk the negative publicity with the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi during the holidays. It’s one thing to upset customers, but EA is about to learn that it’s another thing entirely to upset The Mouse.
Alex Correa | The Edge Blog