Hello everyone once again. In the long time I’ve been away, seems the world keeps moving on (better or worse, depends how you look at it). In the world of videogames, things have certainly moved on. One topic I would like to focus on is one we have visited previously. It is time we returned to the dreaded micro-transaction. It was always going to be an issue of money. I wanted to highlight this point because, recently, this came to a head with the release of Star Wars: Battlefront II, and the subsequent uproar that followed shortly before going to sale. But first, a little background…
What is Star Wars: Battlefront II?
Star Wars: Battlefront II is the sequel to Star Wars: Battlefront, but also acts as a tie-in game to the highly-anticipated new film, The Last Jedi. In the same vein as the Battlefield series (it is made by the same creators), it pits players in two teams against each other in various locations form the Star Wars film universe.
In terms of game-play, there is not a lot different than previously before, although the sequel boasts extra content from the upcoming film. There are different game modes to play from as the two teams fight it out for supremacy. Players will also be able to play as characters from the films, either as ‘light-side’ heroes or ‘dark-side’ villains such as Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Han Solo and Rey. Notably, there is now a dedicated single-player campaign that was absent from the previous game. This adds a new flavour to the game and gives people who want to play offline someone something extra.
However, it is not the actually game we are necessarily concerned with, but rather, the reaction to some of its design decisions that have been, unsurprisingly, negative. In fact, the amount of negativity (in the politest sense) has been staggering so let us take a moment to recap what this all means.
Shut up and take my money?
Why are people getting angry over a videogame for? There are plenty of other things to get angry about in real life. Ok, there is no doubt about that. In terms of this discussion, people are getting angry over what they perceive as pure greed and money-grabbing from a company that already has a bad reputation in the industry. So what are people getting angry about Star Wars: Battlefront II? The easiest answer: the not-so-subtle monetising of the game.
Micro-transactions have steadily crept in to become almost an industry standard, and it doesn’t sound like it’s going away. Frequently used free-to-play games, micro-transactions helps keep player interest in playing the game by allowing them to upgrade their character or profile by using real money. How much money spent depends on how much the player is willing to part or committed to the game.
Frequently common in the massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMOPRG) genre, where players are invested in their player-character as they attempt to level up to increase their skill set. To make their character better, players more often than not would have to invest a long time playing to enough experience points to rank up. This is known as a ‘grind’ where players work their way through the bottom rung of the ladder to the top. Sometimes it is easy to go through the earliest levels but once you reach a high enough level, the time it takes to rank up gets longer and longer. In all sense of the word, a grind can really test a player’s resolve to get to the top. It is very easy for someone to lose interest and move on to other things and that is what game developers are fearful off.
An alternative to lessening the time to grind is to allow players to pay for upgrades or items using real money, such as experience point bundles or special items. If a player was willing to do this, they could level up at a faster rate, depending on how much was spent. This is textbook micro-transactions – transactions within the game itself. Micro-transactions are common, and vital, in free-to-play games as they fulfil two things: 1) sustaining player interest levels and 2) sustaining the game (and game company) financially. One person buying in-game may not make much difference, but if tens of thousands are, then the company could stay in profit.
In the post I did about this topic, I used the free-to-play game World of Warships. Not so much an MMOPRG, the same principles of micro-transactions apply. Players could play the game without spending a penny; however, their grind would take much longer than someone who purchased a ‘premium’ account, which gives 50% extra income in-game credits and experience points. It is feasible to get to the best ships simply playing the game but the time it would take could take several months of playing. Checking the premium shop of World of Warships, players can choose from several bundles to help with their progression.
For premium time, the cheapest is 93p for one day all the way to £68.78 for an entire year. Alternatively, players can also spend money buying doubloons, which act as ‘gold’ currency to help buy other in-game items. A bundle for 30,500 doubloons costs £85.55, almost £100. It is hard to justify spending that much money but there must be some takers. From a business point-of-view, it’s entirely understandable to implement a form of micro-transaction as means for profit and sustainability. It is when it is overdone that it can become problematic. Asking someone to part with their hard earned cash is never easy, especially when they have paid already for the game itself.
Stash that Loot
A by-product of micro-transactions is a system known as a ‘loot box’. The loot box is used to hand out randomised in-game rewards to players, usually for the MMOPRG genre. Essentially, it is an in-game crate/box that contains a specific set of special items. These are generally given out during general play or through completing specific tasks. Players can also buy them through the game using real money.
Items contained within these loot boxes can vary but often graded by ‘rarity’; that is, an incredibly rare and powerful item could be given but the chance of that is usually minimal. While the set of items given are randomly selected it can come with certain guarantees, for instance that it will contain at least one item of a certain rarity or above. To highlight rare items, a colour scheme often corresponds so that there is a heightened excitement of revealing the items.
In the multiplayer game, Team Fortress 2, there is an ‘item drop’ system where players are randomly given items through play that was implemented around 2010. Some of these items were weapons or cosmetic hats, but have grown to include supply creates. I have played the game when they first introduced this and have seen them add more and different crates to the game. For example, during December, special Christmas-theme crates were introduced for festive items.
The feature is always the same: each crate was pre-loaded with a specific item set, with rare items listed as a different colour. Upon opening the crate, a random item is given out, although this is based on the probability system, so a common item was more likely to be given as opposed to a rare one. Upon playing the game, one would normally accumulate several lots of crates in their inventory to open.
But the catch is this: in order to ‘open’ these crates, one needed a ‘key’. Keys are a further consumable item and are the only way to open crates. But you can of course guess that the keys themselves are not free. Currently, the supply crate key is selling for £1.89 per key. This may not sound much for a one-off, but that’s exactly what the keys are. They are single-use only item and once a key is used, another must be purchased. If a player wanted to open 5 crates, the total cost of buying 5 keys is £9.45. You could get a meal deal for less. Also remember that whatever item you get is randomised so a player could have spent money on a key to get something they already owned.
The player’s inventory is managed in server databases run by the game’s developers or publishers. This may allow for players to view the inventory of other players and arrange for trades with them or for players to showcase what they own. Valve, the game’s developers, reported a 12x increase in player count after Team Fortress 2 became free-to-play. The in-game supplies a whole range of items to buy and with the game’s huge player-base, this alone is probably enough to sustain itself.
A Place of Scum and Villainy
Loot boxes (and micro-transactions for that matter) may offer replay value for the game, but they have come under criticism and controversy. Loot boxes have been likened to contribute towards videogame addiction as part of a compulsion loop, which in turn could lead to gambling issues. The idea of getting that rare item is so impulsive, people are (and have) willing to fork out lots of money to get these.
This forking out money has lent to the term as ‘pay-to-win’. Pay-to-win is players pay for upgrades or items to get an advantage over others who have not, and is generally a negative phrase. Games that implement micro-transactions are often criticised for promoting this pay-to-win mechanic. ‘The allegation that a game is pay to win can still carries some weight even now when games are absolutely riddled with it. It is an old hatred, an established fear in gaming, the sense that your opponent has an advantage because he or she got their credit card out. For all the negative connotations of gamer behaviour that have come up over the years, video games do try remain a refuge of fair play, albeit increasingly unsuccessfully. The concept of pay to win undermines that fairness to the core’ (Hartup, 2015).
Some players pay to help with the grind of the game, which is not so much an issue. Eventually, given enough time and effort, the players who did not pay could complete the grind but not nearly as fast. People who are willing to pay generally are entitled to what they get, as they shelled out more money. For things like cosmetic items like hats for Team Fortress 2, this doesn’t pose a problem. The problem happens when people pay for items that change the balance of the game in their favour, such as paying for better weapons or abilities that become a clear advantage over others, and that’s where pay-to-win gets its name from. It’s a fine balancing act for the games company to keep everyone on side, because to annoy one set of players is likely to be bad PR.
Before we continue, let’s just preface this by saying that Star Wars: Battlefront II’s publisher is none other than EA. If you didn’t know already, EA has had bad press about the way it tries to monetise its games using in-game purchases. In the previous game, there was a feature known as a season’s pass, which if one paid would get access to all the downloadable content that would be developed and released. This created a divide between those that did and those that didn’t. This time round, EA have decided to put in place micro-transactions where everyone has access, including the loot boxes. Within these loot boxes are a feature called ‘Star Cards’, which act as booster upgrades to specific game classes. The rarer the card, the better its bonus would be. The higher-tiered Star Cards give direct advantages to players who pay, giving them a distinct advantage in a classic example of pay-to-win. The alternative to this is to spend many, many hours of playing to accumulate enough credits to gain access to unlock special hero characters like Luke Skywalker.
Not surprisingly, this drew intense criticism at EA that they would monetise an already expensive game with even more micro-transactions. A Reddit poster wrote to complain they had spent $80 for the deluxe edition of the game and still Darth Vader remained locked. Someone had calculated that to unlock Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker, it would take roughly 40 hours of play. A full time job is about 37.5 hours to give scale. Alex Newhouse (2017) explains, ‘some fans began expressing frustration and anger toward the game when it came to light that you could only gain access to certain heroes through loot boxes. Further, rough calculations estimated that it would take upwards of 40 hours to earn enough in-game currency to purchase the boxes – meaning that you were either in for a long grind, or you could pay real money to get more loot boxes to get in-game currency more quickly.’
In response to the situation, EA took to Reddit, a social news platform, to address the backlash with this statement:
‘The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes. As for cost, we selected initial values based upon data from the Open Beta and other adjustments made to milestone rewards before launch. Among other things, we’re looking at average per-player credit earn rates on a daily basis, and we’ll be making constant adjustments to ensure that players have challenges that are compelling, rewarding, and of course attainable via gameplay.’ –EA, November, 2017.
This statement has gone on to become the most downvoted post in the history of Reddit, somewhere in the region of 674,000 downvotes. Once the issue become known to the videogame community, the wave of negativity literally snowballed. To many, this statement came out as a feeble excuse by EA to use the value of ‘hard work’ and ‘reward’ as motivating factors to unlocking special characters. There is nothing wrong with earning rewards through general play, but it feels like people are quietly encouraged to pay in order to obtain them. Part of the appeal in Battlefront II is the ability to play as some of the film series’ iconic characters, and if those going to take 40 hours of play to unlock, that would put many off.
The upgrade system in the game has been described as notoriously complex. ‘Battlefront II’s biggest problem might be the sheer disconnect between what you do in the game and how you progress. It’s a structure that ultimately robs players of feeling like they’ve accomplished something. In Battlefront II, every class and hero character has a variety of equippable “star cards,” which are modifiers and upgrades that players can choose to equip when they run into battle. Players can equip up to three star cards at a time, which grant abilities like alternate weapons, increased damage, or more durable starfighters. The problem is, Battlefront II buries the ability to unlock star cards behind loot boxes, crates of in-game items with randomized contents that players typically can earn through playing the game or with actual money. It’s still a pitifully slow rate. I can use crafting parts to manually unlock cards, but those are also only dispensed through loot boxes, purely at random, and are the only way to unlock the fourth and final level of a particular card’ (Gartenberg, 2017).
A laboriously long, complex (and potentially expensive) grind process that resulted in overwhelming negative feedback and PR; it was no surprise that EA later changed its prior stance. No company could received that much backlash and not do anything about it.
In the wake of such negative feedback and criticism, the game’s developer, DICE released a statement from its executive producer, John Wasilczyk, stating, ‘unlocking a hero is a great accomplishment in the game, something we want players to have fun earning. We used data from the beta to help set those levels, but it’s clear that more changes were needed. Based on what we’ve seen in the trial, this amount will make earning these heroes and achievement, but one that will be accessible for all players. It’s a big change, and it’s one we can make quickly. It will be live today, with an update that is getting loaded into the game.”
And so it was when the decision came to reduce the amount of credits needed to unlock the game’s iconic characters. ‘‘In response to this, DICE is dropping the number of credits you need to unlock “top heroes” by 75 percent; Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader can now be unlocked at 15,000 credits, while Emperor Palpatine, Chewbacca, and Leia Organa can be unlocked at 10,000 credits. Iden Versio can be unlocked with 5,000 credits under the new system.’ Additionally, one day before initial release, EA temporarily disabled micro-transactions.
EA is not exactly the most-loved name in the videogame industry. We can view this change as EA trying to save face from what, frankly, is a disaster (in every sense of the word) for them. They probably expected negative feedback in the off, but when a post on Reddit written by EA themselves become the most downvoted in its history, then they knew the gravity of the situation. If that wasn’t quite clear to them, by the end of November, EA lost $3 billion in its stock value.
When people are paying in the region of £40-50 for the game itself, having to either spend 40 hours or pay even more money seems like bad deals either way. If people weren’t bothered playing as iconic characters from Star Wars, that wouldn’t be so much an issue. Yet cutting down other players with a lightsaber as either Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker certainly is one of the selling points of the game, and to have that aspect ‘locked’ to many was probably enough for many to vent their frustrations and annoyance of it all.
I wanted to revisit this topic because I think what this shows most of all is the ugly nature of micro-transactions as it increasingly assimilates itself into standard business practices. As mentioned previously in this post, micro-transactions are common and necessary in free-to-play games, but when a triple-A title also implements it in such a way that its almost forced, there is a disconnect.
Players are not stupid and they can see when enough is enough. The massive response on Reddit was enough to make a global company like EA change its stance.
Chaim Gartenberg’s article, ‘EA’S Battlefront II changes highlight the disconnect between gameplay and progress’
Phil Hartup’s article, ‘Should videogames let you pay to win?’
Alex Newhouse’s article, ‘Star Wars: Battlefront II Reddit post receives over 680,000 downvotes’