The controversy over microtransactions in full-price triple-A games has been brewing for a few years now, but it finally came to a head with EA’s release of Star Wars Battlefront II.
To recap: Reddit poster “MBMMaverick” was frustrated to discover that he had paid $80 for the game only to find that a favourite character, Darth Vader, was locked behind either an extremely long grind or having to pay further real money for a chance of unlocking him through the game’s loot box system. And with the variable character abilities and other unlockables in the game, this meant that the game most definitely had an element of “pay to win” about it, since those with the cash could simply pay up and get better things with which to dominate other players.
EA’s response became one of the most downvoted Reddit comments of all time, sitting at a mighty -676k points — that’s minus six hundred and seventy-six thousand — at the time of writing. And things didn’t get any better from there.
The negative reception to EA’s response was primarily due to the fact that it was a load of wiffly-waffly corporatespeak that didn’t really mean anything; it was simple justification of an extremely aggressive monetisation system, the kind rarely seen outside of the very worst kind of free-to-play mobile-social games.
The plot thickened when a Twitter account called “BiggSean66” that claimed to belong to an EA employee delivered a suspiciously familiar narrative: he had been the recipient of “death threats” and other abuse, all over a silly video game. Those awful gamers, eh?
Kotaku’s Jason Schreier found himself suspicious of BiggSean66’s narrative — one has to wonder if he would have found himself questioning the narrative quite so much had BiggSean66 been a woman, going on past experience, but that’s a discussion for another day — and, for once, did some actual investigative journalism on the situation instead of performing his usual day job of berating games for having large-breasted heroines in them. Schreier discovered that BiggSean66 may not have been an EA employee at all; there were a lot of contradictions in the things he said to other people, and there appeared to be no conclusive records that he had ever worked there.
Unfortunately, with the holier-than-thou nature of the current commercial games press, Patrick Klepek of Waypoint had already taken the opportunity to wag his finger at the gaming community for its supposed harassment of this poor “developer”. In his haste to berate the audience that he apparently despises so much, Klepek posted this article before the actual facts had come to light, leaving him looking a little foolish after the dust had settled, particularly as, at the time of writing, his article hasn’t been retracted; it’s simply had a note added saying that it “remains relevant” despite its entire premise being proven false.
EA responded twice more to the debacle, this time with actions, not words: first, they reduced the unlock costs of new characters in the game by 75% but also quietly reduced the reward you get for completing the single-player campaign by 75% too; the reasoning behind this was that said reward was supposed to be enough to get you a single character, and in order for this to remain “balanced” (for want of a better term) it needed to be adjusted.
Secondly, after further negative attention — this time from press and public alike, since after the BiggSean66 incident, the press couldn’t really push their usual anti-gamer narrative any longer, since it looked like they might actually be right this time — as well as some serious questions being asked on Wall Street, EA announced that it would be suspending all in-game microtransactions. Not permanently, mind you; the update left the rather sinister promise that they would be reintroduced at a later date after some internal review.
This isn’t a victory, then; it’s delaying the inevitable with a rather transparent motivation: EA is hoping that, seeing the main controversy has been neatly “solved” by their generosity, people will now buy the game and become invested enough in it to want to progress, at which point they will patch it to reintroduce premium real money currency and create the same problem all over again. Only by that point, they wager, they will have a much larger player base for the game, many of whom will already be hooked on the experience and want to find ways to get a leg up on the competition.
Why is this something we should care about here at MoeGamer, a site which eschews the triple-A for the most part? Well, despite obvious differences between the different market sectors’ approaches to game development, post-launch support and monetisation, nothing in the industry as a whole exists in a vacuum — and consequently the notion of full-price new games being rammed to the gills with never-ending opportunities to spend more money for in-game advantages is something everyone really needs to remain vigilant for, and avoid supporting wherever possible.
It’s also important to distinguish what EA has been doing with Battlefront II and the approach to monetisation that, say, Granblue Fantasy and Fate/Grand Order take. For starters, neither of the latter two cost you anything to get started with and indeed you can play through both of them in their entirety without paying a penny if you so desire. And that’s not just marketing-speak, either; both games are generous enough with their rewards that despite their use of typically play-throttling systems such as energy meters, it’s all but impossible to hit a paywall and be unable to progress, particularly in the all-important early hours of the game. Not only that, but they’re regularly updated that all players can enjoy for free, regardless of whether or not they’ve paid.
But it goes deeper than that, too. While both Granblue and Fate incorporate a system similar to Battlefront II’s lootboxes in that you can expend a premium currency to “draw” a random selection of items, characters and summons, there are a number of ways in which you can game the system to your advantage — fully endorsed by their respective development teams.
Granblue Fantasy, for example, frequently offers special “festivals” where rather than relying on random luck, you can simply spend premium currency you’ve saved up (and you can acquire it at a quite acceptable rate through normal gameplay, I might add) to purchase a favourite character outright. And both games feature regular events that not only have their own unique narrative content, they also provide means to acquire new characters, items and all manner of other goodies — if not for free, then with a significantly increased chance of getting what you want in the random draw process.
Likewise, we can distinguish Battlefront II’s monetisation from the downloadable content that some Japanese RPG developers provide for their games. Idea Factory games, for example, often provide downloadable weapons and items that allow you to make your characters very overpowered very easily, but there are no challenges in any of their games that cannot be overcome with the content that is included in the base game; those game-breaking options are there for those who want them, but they don’t interfere with the game balance for those who want nothing to do with them. Same for Bandai Namco offering the ability to purchase level-ups for Tales of games; it’s not exactly difficult to grind to the level cap in those games, but for those who can’t be bothered to, the option is there to spend money and be able to see high-level content they might otherwise be unable to complete.
Then, of course, there’s the cosmetic aspect. The Senran Kagura series is particularly rife with cosmetic downloadable content such as new costumes and accessories, as is Dead or Alive. These items do not impact gameplay in any way, however, and are primarily there for those who want to customise their experience — particularly important for Senran Kagura’s excellent “diorama” mode — or express themselves in a particular way in online battles.
Even new characters as DLC doesn’t have to be game-breaking; they just have to be balanced along with the rest of the cast, which is something titles like Senran Kagura and fighting games in general have been doing well for a good few years now. The issue with people being able to pay money to unlock characters in Battlefront II, meanwhile, is that some of those characters are simply better than the stock ones you begin the game with; the difference between paying for more options and paying for an actual advantage, in other words, the latter being especially unforgivable in a multiplayer-centric game.
Although Japan, on the whole, hasn’t forced horrendously aggressive monetisation down our throats with most of the titles we see localised, we should still be vigilant. There are a lot of mobile titles in particular that don’t get localised that are heavy on the monetisation, light on the gameplay; it’s important that we, the audience, don’t become complacent and allow that sort of thing to become acceptable or commonplace — and moreover, that we criticise it when it does rear its ugly head.
The situation with EA and Battlefront II is an opportunity for players all over the world to make their voices heard and point out what is not acceptable in our entertainment. And those voices, if loud enough, will be heard not only by the monolithic triple-A publishers like EA, but also by smaller outfits — indie developers, doujin circles, localisation teams, Mobage developers with designs on expanding into the Western market. And those smaller outfits — who are much more dependent on positive word of mouth and press attention than the big companies who can afford to take a loss — are more likely to listen.
The battle isn’t over. But it is, for once, progressing.
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