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Star Wars: Battlefront II debacle points the way forward

EA's approach to microtransactions has been a complete disaster, but it may have stumbled upon a model other publishers should consider emulating

The run-up to launch for Star Wars: Battlefront II has been, to put it bluntly, a fiasco. I would suggest that it has also provided a model for publishers to follow in the future.

When Electronic Arts announced at E3 that it was scrapping the Season Pass model for Battlefront II, the move was met warmly by players. After all, the Season Pass split the player base into people with the DLC and without, preventing them from enjoying new maps and game modes together. At the time, the understanding was that EA would introduce a system for unlocking content within the game, where progress could either be earned through gameplay or purchased through microtransactions. And for the most part, people were fine with that.

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Battlefront II got microtransactions so wrong it may have got them right

But as the company revealed exactly how the system would be implemented, details like how long it would take to unlock things without paying and what sort of advantages paying players could expect in multiplayer matches rankled players. EA's repeated insistence that it was taking the feedback seriously and changing the system in response did little to appease the angry fans. The uproar seemed to gain more traction as the game's release approached until, on the literal eve of launch day, EA announced that it was shutting off the game's microtransactions, reinstating them at a later date when the progression system had been properly fine-tuned.

By not having microtransactions turned on at launch, publishers know they have to provide an experience that is fun and engaging for non-payers

You could characterize it as a desperate move to salvage the launch of a massive publisher's holiday lynchpin release, or you could point to it as a new standard, a potential solution to a problem that has dogged the AAA industry since Oblivion's horse armor first debuted over a decade ago. Why don't more AAA games launch with a microtransaction-free grace period?

The benefits to the players are fairly clear. By not having microtransactions turned on at launch, publishers know they have to provide an experience that is fun and engaging for non-payers, and ensures that in-game systems won't be designed around an intolerable grind pushing people into spending more money. It dissuades developers from locking content that players would consider essential (like, say, playing as Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader in a Star Wars game) behind unreasonably high progression walls. In short, it "keeps them honest," while the early adopters who pay full price (or close to it) for a new release get to enjoy a premium, limited-time experience without the constant pressure to spend more money.

At the same time, it provides publishers with plenty of upside as well. For one, they get to monitor how paying customers are behaving in their game under real-world conditions for a length of time to help with balancing the microtransaction system. And assuming they design the game to be fun without the microtransactions, they'll almost certainly benefit from better word of mouth and review scores at launch.

Publishers who adopt a grace period before instituting microtransactions will be mitigating some of the harmful effects of the AAA marketing hype cycle

And most crucial of all, publishers who adopt a grace period before instituting microtransactions will be mitigating some of the harmful effects of the AAA marketing hype cycle. It's no coincidence that the backlash to Battlefront II's microtransactions has grown as the game has neared launch, even though EA has apologized and downgraded the aggressiveness of its approach multiple times in response.

The company's successful marketing campaign was designed to generate interest and excitement and passion in such a way that would crescendo at launch. And it did. But as we've seen too many times in recent years, "passion" in the player base is not an exclusively positive thing. Passion is a multiplier of other emotions. It makes those who love a game get tattoos, and those who hate it lob death threats online. Waiting until after the launch window to turn microtransactions on allows publishers to benefit from the passion they've spent so much time and money building, while putting off one obvious source of potential backlash until people have cooled down a bit and the monetization scheme of last holiday's big shooter release just doesn't seem like something worth grabbing a pitchfork over. This is especially true given how many members of the pitchfork mob will have purchased the game, played it, and traded it in or redirected their enthusiasm to the next big release in the meantime.

And what would it cost the publishers to do this? A couple months' worth of microtransaction revenues in games that are designed and intended to be live services. For a successful live service game, the first months of revenue are well worth sacrificing if it might buy you the traction you need for the long run. (Grand Theft Auto Online is four years old and just had its most lucrative quarter ever.)

Microtransactions are a powerful force for the games industry these days, opening up a slew of alternative business models and providing potential answers to many of the problems that have long dogged publishers. EA may have unwittingly showed us a way to finally bring balance to the Force.

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Latest comments (15)

Thomas Foster Games Programmer, Exient Ltd29 days ago
Why don't more AAA games launch with a microtransaction-free grace period?
EA already did that, they got greedy though. You can buy class packs in BF4 to unlock all the weapons for a class (not attachments, those still have to be ground out). Or at least you could.... I dont know if that is still true.

I'll put my hand up and say that I bought one, came back after a year to find the majority of people using the weapons at the top end of the unlock graph, some seemed better to me after picking up packs with them in off the ground. So I stumped up £12 more (I think) and unlocked them.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 29 days ago
Nice article, but hold up a sec. Betsoft's horse armor was no mandated purchase that gave any real advantage. It was an optional cosmetic buy for an offline single player game that didn't do much other than give you the equivalent of a pair of spinning rims on a car in a racing game.

That and the content being added for free later in the GOTY editions has made it a heck of a lot less of an issue over time. I was never personally put off by the armor as some writers and gamers who made a massive issue of it were, but that's because it was understood (by me, at least) that it didn't alter the overall experience other than visually.
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George Williams Owner 29 days ago
Grace period or not - people won't fall for these dirty tricks. Gamers do not have a problem with Micro transactions, providing that experience does NOT impact gameplay. Yet again, EA crossed the line. Cast your mind back to 2008 when they tried with Bad Company on the Xbox. They will never learn.
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Show all comments (15)
Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext29 days ago
The reason that they are targeting micro-transactions at launch is because they have such a huge drop off in playerbase in the first 3 months. It is not unusual to lose 70-80% of the players that purchased the game in that timeframe.

They are working under the (false) premise that they can make more money by tapping into micro-transactions from this larger pool (even with some loss from those upset about the approach) than if they phase in transactions later.

The reason for this misunderstanding is that they are launching a 'product' and consider micro-transactions as part of that 'product'. The team that makes products has a much different approach/mindset than the team that makes services. After launch (+3 months) the game is totally run by the service team, which sees things very differently.
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Richard Browne Partner & Head of Interactive, Many Rivers Productions29 days ago
This is what beta testing is all about ; you don't need a "grace period" at launch. There's simply a design fault here in how the microtransactions affect gameplay in a P2W way ; it's appealing to a system of "more time than money or more money than time" philosophy which works in some places but not in competitive shooter. It'll be interesting to see if DICE substantially alters the microtransactional part of the game or just waits for Disney to give them the greenlight to turn it on again once the usual bro-hah-hah has died down.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 28 days ago
One only needs to look at Halo 5 Guardians(from two years ago) to see how micro transactions in games can be implemented correctly.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 28 days ago
This is not something which is fixed by disabling microtransactions. That is just the emergency button Disney was able to push the fastest. They are still stranded with a game where it takes longer to unlock the iconic Star Wars characters than most people play. Disney cannot be happy with that. The brand is built on people recognizing and imagining to be the big lead characters, not the faceless troopers.

On top of that, Disney will also realize that EA cancelled a single player game in favor of one that monetizes better and was very up front about it two weeks before this disaster. So the next shitstorm is already on the map. It will hit the day EA reveals the next Star Wars game. Disney cannot like that prospect.

There is a lot of fallout and damage control to come.
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Dariusz G. Jagielski Game Developer 28 days ago
There's no need for microtransactions or even $60 price tag. AAA games are NOT too expensive to make. Ninja Theory with Hellblade and CD Projekt RED with Witcher 3 proved this to be true. EA, Ubisoft, Activision and other publishers who claim it otherwise are full of shit. They're just greedy a-holes.

And Eternal A-holes like that are prone to losing their SW license quickly. You shouldn't have done that, EA. You'd lose in the long term anyway, but you might've just make it a little bit faster. I hope EA executives will enjoy being jobless without any sort of "golden parachute". Because EA will soon be bankrupt.
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Joshua Hughes Programming 28 days ago
It says in the article about Non-Payers. Excuse me...EVERYONE who is playing Battlefront 2 is a PAYER. I find it utterly disgusting (as a developer + gamer myself) that publishers not only expect players to spend £60 to buy the game. But then they expect you to KEEP paying to become competitive, or unlock content within a reasonable time frame that is otherwise locked behind some arbitrary wall designed specifically to get players to pay more into the game. Its disgusting.

Free to play games + microtransactions? Sure fine. Even if its done poorly (IE Pay to win culture) the community will likely balance itself out (those who don't want to pay, leave, those who do stay, those who left lose nothing because its free). But any developer or publisher that expects customers to pay more than £15-£20 for the game AND on top of that continue paying more in the form of microtransactions should think long and hard about their business practices.
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Jan Almqvist Senior Level Artist, Ubisoft Quebec City28 days ago
yeah, I agree with most people here. Normally I wouldn't care so much about loot crates but when the overall balance and progression of a $60 game is designed to encourage people to pay more, then that is problematic. (It's apparently the same way in NFS Payback, which is being slaughtered by reviewers. And it will be interesting to see what Anthem is like, haha)

I do understand the need for a (multiplayer) game to generate more consistent revenue in order to justify growing server costs, support (DLC, patches, etc). And I think what many people miss here in this context (BFII) is that all future DLC content will be free (well maybe not anymore). So the value proposition is that you don't have to pay for DLC, and instead you can spend that money on other things in the game, if you want. (But EA has allegedly broken the balance of the game, in order to highly encourage people to pay.)

Having free DLC is very good for the game's longevity and community, as players will regularly be "lured" back to the game and there will be a large, non-segregated pool of players for matchmaking. That in turn will lessen the negative effects of P2W, since it is more likely that players that have progressed far will play with each other. But there will always be many many players who don't pay and most of them will never have any bad experiences caused by the micro-transaction system. They are much more likely to get bored and stop playing because the progression system is poorly balanced, contrived, and ill-conceived.

Why not just lower the price of the game (depending on single-player content), go with a subscription model for multiplayer, and keep the integrity of the game design intact?
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MTX/loot boxes are not necessarily a problem per se.

Ultimately it is about the implementation whereby such game mechanics break a game, in this instance by integrating an unholy triad of monetisation elements, F2P and P2W so closely , the larger ecology of base install players are not compelled to be drawn in by the "mechanics of envy"

And without a sufficient player base for competitive play, there is no aspect of fun to be had

MTX/Loot boxes/gotcha/time locked elements are not suitable for action/multiplayer based experiences - it unbalances and breaks the sense of achievement or immesriveness
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Iain McNulty Software / Game Developer, Yanxen26 days ago
The company's successful marketing campaign was designed to generate interest and excitement and passion in such a way that would crescendo at launch. And it did. But as we've seen too many times in recent years, "passion" in the player base is not an exclusively positive thing.
Indeed, because in this case what you are trying to spin as "passion" was actually the rightful consumer negative backlash against when companies well and truly take the piss (which the likes of EA have been doing for years), seeing how far they can push the consumer base with attempts to generate further profit from them.

I guess I should remind everyone that the only reason these are probably in the game are that they saw them as more profitable than season passes, and given how much they typically retail for ... That speaks volumes about the motivation behind their behaviour.

It is just a shame that the consumer base will probably forget about this just as quickly as it happened, instead of stepping up the pressure to drop loot boxes from video games entirely.
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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University26 days ago
nothing wrong with encouraging players to pay some extra money in lieu of having paid DLC.

Seems reasonable.

The issue here is it is new and gamers are prone to outrage at new things that replace old things.

Same thing happened when paid DLC first hit. Lots of outrage.

Outrage will subside. And gamers will get used to it. And EA will tweak it. But my take is the outrage was overdone to begin with.

Oh and the pt of going this route as opposed to paid DLC is putting extra maps behind the DLC paywall sucks for an online multiplayer game. IT splits the community. You get into a weird situation where every mode has to have separate servers for DLC maps. And then you often find that you can't even play the maps in some modes once the new and shiny wears off. And no DLC map ever becomes a "classic." Not in my experience in Battlefield.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bob Johnson on 20th November 2017 3:24pm

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Richard Browne Partner & Head of Interactive, Many Rivers Productions26 days ago
IAP are a way of monetizing without splitting the player base and allowing for a potentially multi-year support and update system. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it at all, unfortunately for some responders above EA/DICE have to run a business that’s responsible to its shareholders and not a charity. This is just a case where its been implemented in a poor way. We’re bound to see misfires as designers find their way in new territories and business balance revenue, spending and greed!
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Iain McNulty Software / Game Developer, Yanxen22 days ago
Outrage will subside. And gamers will get used to it. And EA will tweak it. But my take is the outrage was overdone to begin with.
You clearly know nothing about this situation, nor why it was controversial. The in-game purchases give the person who paid for them a distinct advantage over those who did not pay for them, that is a fact. At which point it is not a game of skill, it is a game of wealth. Not to mention that it is via a lottery system, hence the gambling factor (a predatory practise, especially given comments in recent days from Hawaii's and Belgium's respective governments).

I would ask all consumers to actively push against this, because when a competitive game is no longer about skill and no longer balanced, both as a result of companies wanting more of their money, then what is the point in playing it?
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