I regret to report that both the Jedi and the Republic have fallen, with the dark shadow of the Empire rising to take their place. … Trust in the force. -Obi-Wan Kenobi
The last several months it has been hard to escape the controversy surrounding EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront II and its poorly executed product launch. The entire fiasco has drawn attention to a business practice that is increasingly alienating casual video gamers; the loathed microtransaction. Today, I am going to discuss why microtransactions are turning off casual gamers and offer some alternatives.
What are Microtransactions
First of all, microtransactions are not new, the microtransaction business model has been used in mobile games for some years. Players download a game for free and are given the option to spend real money to purchase in-game currency. Virtual currency is often used to speed up upgrades, and unlock characters or features. In mobile games, players who are unwilling to spend real money can unlock the same benefits by spending time performing tasks.
PC and console game developers are always on the lookout for new ways to monetize their games as production costs keep escalating. A recent development is for these developers to offer a form of microtransactions known as loot boxes or loot crates. With Loot boxes, players spend real money to purchase a box of randomized items. Players may receive the items they are looking for or they may not. The developer’s goal is that gamers will spend more money buying several randomized boxes to eventually get the item they want than they would if they could purchase the desired item directly. If what I just described sounds an awful lot like gambling, that was also the feeling among many gamers. Even some politicians entered the fray and considered regulating the practice.
“Gambling is the wagering of money or something of value on an event with an uncertain outcome with the primary intent of winning money or material goods” -Wikipedia
Why It was a big deal
Before the release of Battlefront II EA allowed players to beta test the game. These early testers immediately began to compute the amount of time or in-game virtual currency would be necessary to unlock fan-favorite characters like Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker. Reports began to pour in that game felt exploitive, requiring nearly 90 dollars to unlock Darth Vader. Players took to social media to voice their displeasure, and before the game even shipped out, EA was in the middle of public relations nightmare. The public backlash not only prompted a response from EA but also from Disney. EA was forced to immediately suspended sales of loot crates. The negative press has continued to damage sales of the game, and when EA last announced sales of Battlefront II, they had sold just 9 million copies whereas they were expecting to ship 12 million.
Industry analysts and EA executives were shocked the inclusion of loot boxes would trigger such massive protests and harm sales to the extent that they have. EA felt that Star Wars was essentially a license to print money and it’s apparent that both EA and the Wall Street elite were going to attempt to milk gamers for every penny possible. Investors panicked during the backlash, and EA’s stock price plummeted erasing nearly 3 billion in the companies value. I wish I could say that the comparative failure of Battlefront II has caused EA or even the industry to reconsider the microtransaction model. Surprisingly, EA is successfully monetizing their other games with these same tactics, and their stock price is currently once again on the rise.
Where EA went wrong
What EA failed to consider is that many Star Wars gamers are casual players that are turned off by the prospects of needing to “grind’ out menial tasks for in-game currency. Likewise, many casual players are turned off by needing to spend real money to unlock features they feel should be part of the standard game. Star Wars has a rich history of narrative-based games that support and enhance the lore of the Star Wars universe. Gamers were expecting to be able to immerse themselves in the game as their favorite characters. What they received was a game that was visually gorgeous, but lacked any real substance. Enemies pour out of predictable places, and the gameplay mechanics fall short for such a large tentpole production.
The most disappointing aspect of Battlefront II is the single-player campaign. In an attempt to woo players looking for a narrative based experience EA promised a compelling single-player campaign. Christie Golden was drafted to write a tie-in book to provide the backstory. Christie delivered an excellent book with Battlefront II: Inferno Squad. Christie’s book is arguably the best part of what was otherwise a failed product launch. Inferno Squad introduces a great story and an interesting cast of new characters to the lore. Sadly, the game fails to deliver a narrative that lives up to the expectations set by Christie’s book.
What you can do to stop it
First, if you are concerned with the trend of microtransactions and pay-to-win mechanics in Star Wars video games contact Disney. EA and its shareholders are only interested in maximizing profits and have shown no signs of moving away from the microtransaction model. Disney, on the other hand, is more likely to cave to public pressure as they are concerned about bad press spilling over into their other merchandising and studio efforts.
Second, don’t buy these types of games or their in-game virtual currency, to include holding off on pre-ordering future games. Regrettably I made the mistake of pre-ordering Battlefront II, had I known how exploitative the game would end up being I wouldn’t have purchased it. Do not give these type of games to children who are much more likely to become addicted to the gambling like nature of loot boxes.
Third, consider alternatives such as narrative-based video games, or multi-player games that do not use microtransactions. Sadly, EA has the sole license to Star Wars video games production for the time being. Gamers looking for an interactive Star Wars experience will need to revisit older games like Knights Of The Old Republic or Shadows of the Empire. Gamers should also consider picking up one or several of the excellent Star Wars tabletop games, such as X-Wing Miniatures, Imperial Assault or the Star Wars RPG.
What are your feelings about microtransactions in Star Wars video games? leave your comments in the section below and stay tuned for more reviews.