A Pre-Mortem of a Dodgy Practice in Videogames
If you’ve been living under a rock these past few weeks, there’s a bit of a storm raging on the Star Wars (Battle)front. I.e. EA are being EA squared and the public are finally catching up to it. There may be hope for the gaming industry yet… And we’re about to dive into the deep end of it all, even if things have died down a bit lately, kicking bank accounts and taking names all for a just, non-capitalist cause.
But first, these messages from our sponsors!
In all seriousness, things are as follows (we’ll break them down further on):
1. Star Wars Battlefront II comes out, people having already preordered it in droves. Turns out some of the characters are locked behind either paywalls or playwalls, having you choose to either fork up money or put copious amounts of hours in to get them.
2. This causes a consumer revolt, with mass preorder cancellation.
3. EA comments on how they’re trying to create a sense of achievement and progression for players, ends up with the most downvoted post in Reddit history. Videogame reviewers target EA something fierce, voicing concerns harbored by many over the years.
4. EA stock plummets more or less overnight (now is the time to buy, btw!). Disney execs step in, and EA takes measures to limit the effects of it all.
5. Consumer base seems appeased and everything mostly simmers down.
But should it simmer down? Does this win the war?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: nooooo.
Longer answer: a petition has popped up and is gaining a fair amount of traction in making the public’s feelings on the matter known: EA does not deserve to own the Star Wars videogame IP. Let’s start digging into this.
Let me be perfectly clear from the get-go: I feel no compassion for the people who dropped $60 on an EA title the second the preorders opened and ended up feeling taken advantage of. This isn’t some indie developer trying to crowdfund their lifelong dream here, it’s a gigantic corporation that reels people in with mostly cosmetic, borderline useless items that most of the player base shouldn’t be impressed by at all. Preorders these days (at least in the videogame industry) give too little to merit money thrown at AAA developers anymore. They also hook many on the power of the IP alone and not their own merit, capable as the developer they employ may be.
So if you’re one of the above people, and I’m putting this as mildly as I can, what did you expect? This is EA we’re talking about… Microtransactions have been a staple of their flagship games for years now, and them still doing this means that it was profitable enough to merit implementation in SWBFII. Further, BFI was a failure in all respects if you sit down and look at it: no singleplayer campaign, shallow gameplay, on-rails set pieces that looked entirely more fun than they ended up being...
They got your money too damn easy.
With the market as it is today, filled with unique, worthy, amazing smaller companies putting out some truly exciting stuff, AAA should bend over backwards to draw any income via preorders. But their demographic is (for some part) easily impressed and willing to just throw money at something just because it has Star Wars draped all over it.
Stop it. Don’t. Wait a while. Judge based on cold, hard facts and opinions, and don’t give in to the marketing hype. You’ll be better off for it and send a meaningful message as well.
Playwall vs. Paywall
On to the more prickly side of the matter: the option to choose between playing or paying to win.
Now I’m definitely not one for microtransactions, but I’ll admit I probably spent somewhere in the vicinity of $8 total (yes, for as long as I’ve played games) on some monthly coin benefits and stuff in the Ubi-made mobile Trials game cause I didn’t have enough time to put the grind in anymore.
So in that regard, I may have been part of the problem for a certain amount of time, but the BF conundrum runs deeper than just upgrading your speeder bike faster to beat that Ewok that holds the record for the Endor “I can’t believe they’re not Wookies” course.
Eurogamer article from Nov: link
Putting Vader, Luke, Yoda et. al. on a pedestal achievable via actual progression (or shortcutting via swiping your card) didn’t sit well with some people, especially since the appended upgrade system seems to be aimed by its very nature at testing players’ patience and steering them towards yelling “That’s not how the Force works!” and just buying more crates...
Neither did the long play times to be put in to get to buy them. But were the consumers 100% entitled to lash out the way they did?
Yes. And no…
This may come off as indecisive, but hear me out, the truth is always somewhere down the middle, usually meaning that both sides may share in the blame for the state of things.
Canceling your preorder as a result of bits of info coming out is an entirely legitimate course of action if you ask me. Vote with your wallet. It’s what we should always do, and what we should do in the first place. But acting like EA reached through your monitor, scanned your card details and then clicked “purchase” for you is beyond me.
Are you saying you expected anything else than dubious practices from a AAA videogame producer in this day and age? The moment you based your preorder on a handful of tidbits that only hinted at the big picture, you were setting yourself up for the fall. And good on those who caught on and backed out either before or after preordering.
Other than kids getting a hold of their parents’ card details and buying these without consent, I see no reasonable adult admitting, straight-faced, that they paid for this with the highest hopes that EA would churn out a paragon of consumer-friendly business unless they were completely out of the loop as to what’s going on in the gaming market.
This has been a thing for years. CSGO had their scandal, Overwatch is doing it to no backlash, literally every top mobile game wears this as a badge of honor, be it regular currency, special currencies, one-time or recurring events, skins, unique items, boosts etc.
Everyone is doing it.
And the consumer base is what brought it on in the first place. It was the preorders, the buying of Season Passes, of diamonds, gems, cookies, that one superspeshul skin for your gun that you just couldn’t live without… Hell, I did it for 2 months at one point cause I thought “ah, screw it, my $4 ain’t gonna make a difference”.
But that’s exactly what brought us here in the first place, and exactly why I stopped doing it... along with not playing that particular game anymore. But I digress.
This idea of wanting to have stuff “just because” in some cases is wrong, and a symptom of a much larger issue with society at large these days. We buy stuff just because it’s cheap. Or quirky. Or discounted (don’t get me started on release prices for games these days…). Or we’re only doing it this one time (hey, that’s me!).
Enough gamers do this precise thing for these reasons, that microtransactions are now a staple of gaming, and they’re just as annoying as QTEs. Companies are banking on 2 main things to keep printing money from this: lack of time and the increase of the more casual gamers, and a nigh-unhealthy desire for completionism among a large swathe of the populace.
We don’t need everything. Most of us will probably never use every item, power-up, gun, character, or skill in a game, let alone complete every bit of story content. But we’ll be damned if we won’t get them all. Just because.
This has seeped into the boardgaming genre too as of late, with FFG notoriously coming out with mini-expansions for their games, on an aggressive release schedule (by their own admission), with many of the contents of these bringing too little to the table to merit a full release. Even more so when you get into competitive play where X-Wing is a prime example of forking over for a ship expansion when the one thing you need is just 1 card within that pack.
Do you see the issue here?
EA(AA) vs. the World
I’ll be going through the following points en-gros here, because they’re pretty much linked and happened like a cascading one-two punch to EA’s already crappy image. Which was weirdly satisfying to watch unfold, really.
Schadenfreude, if you will. I’m not even sorry.
Now I love obtaining things through progression, gaining levels, earning points, unlocking skills. Gods know how much I debated using my upgrade points back in Witcher 1, debating between the various fighting styles, spells, innate abilities and whatnot (and I didn’t watch no skill tree tutorials either!) because points were pretty few and far between and ended up influencing the playthrough experience wildly.
I probably sunk hundreds of hours into that game over 3 different runs, each more distinct than the last. I also install Morrowind to each new PC I buy, along with all my saves, and keep running through it (although lately I’ve installed that nifty Guar Mount mod that keeps the running to a minimum) and racking up the XP. I’m not against progression, no matter how long it may take.
But slapping a purchasing option on XP tends to cheapen the experience.
Shortcuts are great when trying to get home from work during rush hour, but even then you have to work for them, look for the best routes, or at least install the bloody app and input a few commands before you can zoom through the jams. Although I’ll dare you to try and “zoom” through Bucharest no matter how many apps you use...
But the choice to work for something when others (arguably most) will get it from the start just by overpaying is, I find, inherently flawed, at least for a certain category of games.
I hate fast travel. With a burning passion.
The only instance of it that was done in a meaningful way and toed the line between the vacuous, A-to-B-in-3 we have these days and regular travel was the old Fallout one that paused your route the moment you ran into some sort of danger so that you didn’t really avoid conflict, but rather dealt away with the literally empty swathes of map towards your next adventure.
Compare this with Skyrim and running between 2 edges of the map. Imagine all the wildlife you’d miss, all the herding giants, the vistas, the small villages or towns or bandit camps or ruins replete with XP opportunities, and imagine all the things you would end up learning/gathering along the way if you just played the damned game. Which has bloody horses so that you can *wait for it* travel faster.
Now I pretty much hate (or at least strongly dislike) Skyrim too, but that’s a topic for another day…
I hope the above paragraph sheds some light on my stance on microtransactions. I’m by no means an old gamer, but I AM an oldschool one, or at least I’d like to think so. I can get in with the new when the quality is on point (hello, Witcher series) and I won’t wag my stick at the kids playing CoD on a daily basis either as I’m not one to shy away from the odd online FPS fuckery. I will, however call out players for giving in to the cheap crap being peddled to them for years.
Turns out it didn’t take that long for players to unlock Vader and Luke anyway (with the original estimate being around 40 hours to unlock 1 of them and most scoring both the goods after they’d finished the 6ish-hour-long singleplayer campaign). What the estimates didn’t also take into consideration was arcade mode, which gives you the opportunity to set match parametres and play offline, winning matches within a couple minutes of loading the map.
I’m going full-on advocate of the devil here, but this is just to show that the overreaction is strong with gamers anyway. And boy, was the butthurt strong with all sides here…
EA had this statement get several tens of thousands of thumbs down within minutes of being posted, it sitting currently as the most downvoted comment in Reddit history. And you can see why.
They’re trying to paint a masked herding of the masses towards buying more stuff as consumer-oriented attitude, allowing players to obtain things via hard work and determination.
Which, incidentally, is what EA should be doing with their games. Blaster shots fired.
Between their trying (and ultimately failing, thank the maker!) to disguise their totally transparent actions and not realising that this was a step too far even with the current microtrans-munching-mobs that roam the interwebs, EA saw its stocks take a nosedive which, eventually, had big cahoona Disney execs decided to intervene to see that things settle down. What this means, of course, is that MTs aren’t gone, they’re just turned off for retooling and ready to be input further down the line. I’m willing to bet this will coincide with a big DLC or some other update/expansion that will be too good to pass up on so that enough users go “Eerghhh! I hate them, but I want this!”.
What we can take away from this is that nobody cares until it’s their money on the line.
EA doesn’t care about being customer-friendly or oriented. Not in the slightest. They just care about turning a profit. A huge one, especially when it’s linked to such a grandiose IP.
The same goes for Disney: they only stepped in when things got so bad they hurt EA’s image, stock, and by connection Disney themselves for, basically, allowing it to happen. So everything’s been reset under the same “we care, we are improving” slogan, and will come back whenever the right coat of paint is determined and applied to this rusty, hole-ridden concept that just keeps on working.
On your marks and get set, people. EA may have let go of your wallet but it’s put a tracker on that sucker so that it’s always a mere click away… And to be honest, it’s not that hard for them to reel people back in, it seems.
Highway to the Danger Zone
We’re treading murky waters here.
On one hand, it’s taken a long time for people (or at least some of them) to finally snap and go “Hang on a minute…” while furiously asking for their money back. On the other, the mobile gaming industry sees this business model as their daily bread and barely anyone’s complaining over there.
It’s probably going to take an industry-wide revolt for this practice to fall into human oblivion alongside other ill-fated endeavours like UGGs, pet rocks, or whatever this thing is. But there’s still a long way to go to that moment, if you ask me.
And this is not only true with gaming, but with many facets of the consumer-centric society we live in. People are compulsive buyers by design, at least today. And the market advertises to cater to this, as Georgie puts it so succinctly here.
Consumers, in this case gamers, are used to their buyer’s sense tingling when hearing things like “season pass”, “free DLC”, “included”, “bonus” and others of the sort. They will overlook previous bad experiences (of which we have many at this point… Activision… Ubisoft… Bethesda, in part…) and wholeheartedly gobble up whatever shiny new turd the industry finds fit to crap out next month.
And then they’ll complain about it when it’s just as turdy as the last game that had a lower number affixed to its rebooted, rehashed, retreaded, and entirely unoriginal concept.
What’s sad here is that this is directly affecting developers as well.
I think that Dice are pretty damn good at their job, as their games are usually solid, at least mechanically if not in presentation and initial efficiency. They need to pop out the product and set it free on an avid market no matter its state (which is why Day 1 Patches are a thing) otherwise they’ll get the chop from the publisher… And if the game fails, the publisher will gobble them up, and they’ll end up as afterthoughts that struck gold but were slowly but surely engulfed by these magnates.
The petition we mentioned earlier also goes a long way to give a blow-by-blow account of things, including the closing down of Visceral Games, bulking up a rather long line of previously successful studios that EA has been the death knell of.
It’s even funnier now to see EA struggling to keep the patches working as intended, having servers work like… well, servers, and seeing other outlets somehow manage to defend EA’s approach and call their backpedalling as the wrong move.
Whatever the case, this has hopefully lit a fire under as many people’s behinds as possible, and will mean that the steady increase of microtransactions in AAA games will at least limit itself to purely cosmetic items... and still make a ton of money for the publishers regardless.
Then again, resting on laurels now and purchasing BFII at the Xmas sale (which, many will do, more so since they’ve since announced free TLJ content, or at least real-life-money free, suckers!) will probably go against enforcing the message that this kerfuffle has so emphatically stated.
That said, Serenity taught us you can’t stop the signal.
It’s up to us, to all of us, to gently push nostalgia out of the way, demand what we thoroughly deserve at this point, and to see that this signal reaches out far and wide and keeps reverberating for a long time to come.
And this Zachary Levi EA burn will surely do so...