Friday November 17, 2017

Inside the huge consumer backlash against Star Wars Battlefront II

Gamers voiced discontent about Star Wars Battlefront II when they learned that players could pay real money to gain a competitive advantage in the game.

Gamers voiced discontent about Star Wars Battlefront II when they learned that players could pay real money to gain a competitive advantage in the game. (DICE/Electronic Arts)

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Star Wars Battlefront II hit shelves across Canada on Friday, and while the game's release has been hotly anticipated for months, the backlash against has been equally heated.

This week, the video game's publisher faced a massive consumer revolt over accusations that Battlefront II encourages competitive players to "pay to win" — not to mention accusations that the game's monetization scheme amounts to gambling for kids.

"The animations that the developers use, the sound effects that they use, the flourish when you open them, the sense of satisfaction of taking a prize — it all very much rings towards gambling." -Andrea Rene, co-host of the podcast What's Good Games

The rebellion among the game's fanbase was ignited when people discovered they couldn't play as the game's most desirable characters right out of the box.

Instead, gamers who wanted to play as Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader had to play the game for hours on end — or spend real-life money to buy access. 

After a series of dramatic public relation backfires, the game's publisher, EA, said it would temporarily disable the controversial features. The move came on Thursday night, just hours before the game's release.

EA temporarily removed the ability to buy "crystals," an in-game currency that could be used indirectly to purchase access to the franchise's signature heroes and villains. 

"We hear you loud and clear, so we're turning off all in-game purchases," wrote Oskar Gabrielson, the general manager of DICE, an EA subsidiary that developed the new Star Wars game.

"We will now spend more time listening, adjusting, balancing and tuning."

Star Wars Battlefront II

Janina Gavankar stars in the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront II's story mode. (DICE/Electronic Arts)

            

Why are people so angry?

Battlefront II is not unique in including these in-game purchases, thanks in part to the rising cost of game development. Many other games released this year had a similar feature.

The trigger for this particular bout of outrage is that fans felt the game requires competitive players to "pay to win," gaming podcast host Andrea Rene tells Day 6's Brent Bambury.

"Players who are buying these extra transactions are getting a power advantage over players who don't buy them, which is really why people were very upset," says Rene, who co-hosts the What's Good Games podcast.

Crystals could be used to purchase "loot crates," collections of in-game items, some of which could be converted into credits that enabled players to purchase signature characters like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

Those characters, which could be used in the game's popular competitive multiplayer mode, were much more powerful than the characters available to most players.

Battlefront II

Star Wars Battlefront II was developed by DICE, a game studio based in Stockholm, with assistance from EA Motive, a design studio based in Montreal. (Electronic Arts)

Credits could be earned by playing through the game's story or by playing multiplayer matches, among other activities.

But these characters originally cost 60,000 credits each, which by one estimate would have taken players roughly 40 hours of play to attain.

Before backing off completely, EA reduced these costs by 75 per cent across the board on Monday after their initial response to the outrage became the most downvoted comment in the history of Reddit, a popular online social platform.

                   

Is this gambling?

Futher complicating the controversy around Battlefront II is the fact that its "loot crates" have attracted investigations from gambling authorities in Europe.

EA has denied that the loot crates, which randomly provide players with items of varying value and utility within the game, are a form of gambling.

Still, the experience of buying one of these crates does feel a bit like a slot machine, Rene says.

"The animations that the developers use, the sound effects that they use, the flourish when you open them, the sense of satisfaction of taking a prize — it all very much rings towards gambling."

But Rene notes that no U.S. authority has identified loot crates as a form of gambling.

"I'm still going to play this game, and I think millions of other fans of Star Wars are still going to play this game too." - Andrea Rene, co-host of the podcast What's Good Games

Loot crates have become a bigger part of gaming as development costs have skyrocketed for blockbuster games. Most tentpole releases cost hundreds of millions of dollars, with development teams spanning the globe.

The actual price of buying these games, however, has stayed relatively static.

In the U.S., games have been priced around $60 for at least a decade. In Canada, the price has fluctuated depending on the strength of the Canadian dollar. As of late, prices have increased to $80 CAD.

"I certainly think the cost of buying games needs to go up," says Rene. "Clearly these publishers and developers are looking for additional ways to finance their games."

Star Wars Battlefront 2

Actress Janina Gavankar introduces 'Star Wars Battlefront 2' during the Electronic Arts EA Play event in Los Angeles on June 10, 2017. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

              

Can the system be fixed?

For some fans, EA's decision to remove all microtransactions from the game doesn't go far enough. The company has stated it intends to reintroduce the in-game currency at a later date.

Heather Alexandra, a staff writer for the gaming news and review outlet Kotaku, argues the game still has the same structural issues it did before the removal. It still keeps players near loot boxes, and it's still designed to keep players on its progression treadmill. 

"It's a terrible system and I worry that, depending on the form any changes take, players will still make real money purchases to bypass the process. That's the point, after all," Alexandra, who reviewed the game, tells Day 6.

Whatever issues the game may have, Star Wars Battlefront II may be a success regardless.

The game's story mode has a female lead, a rarity of its own kind in action games.

Beyond that, the Star Wars brand and the series' popularity could be enough to carry the game to profit.

"I'm still going to play this game and I think millions of other fans of Star Wars are still going to play this game too," Rene says.


To hear the full interview with Andrea Rene, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.