Note: I am not in a position to receive copies of games for free, so as a result have not played Star Wars Battlefront II. I am uncomfortable giving money to this game in the state it currently is, so all information has been obtained second hand. Given the extensive reporting of the game, a huge amount of details on the working of the economy are available online.
When Star Wars Battlefront II was announced, EA promised big changes in response to criticism and complaints of the last instalment, and hype around the title began to climb. A single player story was announced, free DLC to expand the roster of maps without fragmenting the community, and a slew of other comments that made many believe that EA had listened to the concerns from the community that played Battlefront.
As time moved on it became apparent that this what not the case. Even before the review copies arrived, or those with Early Access got their hands on the game, the progression system reared it’s ugly, money-grubbing head.
Originally multiplayer games had everything unlocked from the start but heavily popularised by series like Call of Duty, the level or action based unlock system has grown to be accepted by many as a reasonable system. The motivation by developers and publishers for moving the progression to a series of weapons/skins/attachments/perks/etc.that are unlocked as you play the game, either generally or in specific ways to complete objectives, was to increase play time and engagement by users. People like to feel like they are making progress, and adding numbers and tickers to otherwise arbitrary actions ensures an investment by the player.
Seeing that a fancy new gun is unlocked at level 35 gives a reason to get to keep playing to the point where you reach this level. Finding out that a cool looking skin for your gun can be unlocked by getting 100 headshots with that gun encourages you to keep playing to get that reward. And tying a unique cosmetic appearance to gaining proficiency with a series of weapons sets a grander goal to go for, and artificially increases the appearance of longevity for the game.
When EA unveiled the beta for Battlefront II it became glaringly obvious to everyone playing that this was not how the game was going to work. Rather than having unlocks tied to using a class, or just playing the game, they were instead tied to things called ‘Star Cards’ which were attached to what would have otherwise been a normal unlock, and these Star Cards were obtained through an in-game currency or by opening loot boxes.
In-game currencies aren’t themselves if they are given out in a reasonable manner, if you still want the game’s progression to be tied to playing the game. In previous Call of Duty games, as an example, weapons and unlocks were tied firstly to a level gate, and then secondly to using that specific weapon. Sometimes this would produce annoyances or oddities, with a certain attachment being attached to using another specific attachment. Later games in the series, and other franchises, introduced a form of in-game currency where you could just ‘purchase’ the exact weapon or attachment you wanted. This seemed like a good move for player choice (an excuse touted constantly about the form of microtransactions used in games like Battlefront 2) as it meant you could get the stuff you would actually use without having to jump through a series of extra steps.
However, the in-game currency for buying/building cards in Battlefront 2, known as Crafting Parts, are finite, slowly deployed, and insufficient to fully upgrade all the Cards that a user may want to achieve. This means that banking on being able to use these Crafting Parts to get everything you want is not reasonable. The second way to get Star Cards is to buy them with Credits or Crystals. Crystals are a currency that is bought with real-world money, while Credits are earned through playing the game.
To those who have not been following the controversy closely, the exact exploitative nature of this system may still not be apparent. If you can buy these loot boxes with currency earned in game, then you should be able to get all the things you want eventually. That would mean that while we are not a fan of the games system, it is simply moving from the system of the early 2010s, and instead mimicking a collectable card game. One could imagine a world where this would be stomached, but for that to be the case the way it plays out would have to be fundamentally different from the current rates for earning credits.
There are three separate loot boxes, called Crates in game, for three separate areas of the game: Trooper, Starfighter, and Hero. With the crates containing Cards for their respective area of the game. The prices for these Crates, in the earned currency, are 4000, 2400, and 2200 Credits respectively. That number is meaningless until you know the rate at which this currency is earned. The answer: the boxes take a long time to unlock.
Calculations by a Reddit user called TheHotterPotato gave the average time to earn a single Trooper crate as around 3 hours. The rate you earn credits is more directly tied to the amount of time a game takes, rather than as a measure of how well one performed. The player coming 4th in the scores receives the exact same amount of credits as the player who spent the whole game getting murdered at spawn (the top three receive a small 30, 20, and 10 credit bonus). The others taking 60-90 minutes to earn, but this is 3 hours of in-game time, so not including time between rounds, meaning that the real end-user time is going to be larger by some factor.
This calculation also raised the biggest issue that began to raise the fury you can currently see among users. The price for the heroes was set at 60,000 credits initially, that lead to it taking around 40 hours to obtain a single hero, assuming you didn’t spend any other credits along the way.
All of this is sounding pretty dodgy and unfair, but there are further factors to include. Firstly, the Star Cards come in tiers where there is an increased benefit from having a higher level card. Secondly, the method for upgrading cards comes from Crafting Parts, which are most effectively obtained through the Crates. Thirdly, the power or effect of these cards increases with each level of the card significantly. Furthermore, these crafting parts are used to both obtain cards, and upgrade them, if you want a specific one, creating a sink for these points, and with three hours of in-game time to get a single crate, it is easy to see how people saw how this was a way for those that spend the most money to get the greatest advantage. Some of the rewards for fully upgraded cards were game-breaking to a point. They allowed huge damage reductions, a greater cooling of the weapon, or just straight out more damage from your weapons. Combining these together would make you more resilient, able to deal more damage, and able to deal damage for a longer sustained time. It was reported that the top tier of a Boba Fett card gave you complete immunity during their special action.
The response from the wider gaming community was pretty loud and vicious when this began to break. EA and DICE, to combat reports that this made the game Pay-to-Win made a few adjustments. The first was removing the highest tier cards from the rotation in the Crates, meaning that to obtain one you would have to upgrade the second highest tier using Crafting Parts (Parts that are easier to obtain if buying a large number of boxes…). The second was tying the ability to use certain cards and tiers to obtaining a specific level in whatever class that card is attached to. The third was a general promise to rework the numbers and system as the game evolved.
The first was a patch job that does very little to address the actual problem, the second is simply a formulation that allows EA and DICE say that it isn’t pay-to-win because you have to play the game for X amount of time, to reach a certain a level, before you can use these overpowered cards. The third is worth very little given the history of developers and publishers lying.
The game was soured in the minds of many people, but there was a few that held out hope that the game would somehow not be this bad when it launched. However, the launch did nothing to satiate these concerns, instead highlighting how bad they were. YouTubers and Critics who purchased loot boxes showed how that everything they unlocked gave them a distinct advantage over everyone else, and the time to otherwise earn those crates would be astronomical.
The highest in-game purchase for Crystals was the $99.99 (£79.99) version gives you 120,000 Crystals. This can be converted can into 600 Trooper crates (with their value at 200 Crystals), which would take around 75 days of in-game time to accumulate, obviously not accounting for any bonuses that exist, even though their earned rate is minimal after the initial experience of the game. This disproportionate power for those pay pushes the game into what is undoubtedly a pay-to-win experience.
But where are we now? The last 24 hours have been pretty rough for EA and DICE, as the anger and response has dominated social media and began to make its way into more mainstream reporting and emerging into political discussions about how such games should be legislated. Their Ask Me Anything on the Battlefront subreddit was a complete train wreck, both refusing to actually engage with the concerns of the community and angering more people with their non-answers. It looked like the only thing that one could do was just refuse to buy the game, and hope that EA took enough of a hit on the sales that they would be discouraged from repeating this in later games, and then there was a change.
EA turned off the ability to buy crystals for the launch of the game. Some people began to say that the criticism had worked, that the game had been saved, and we could all enjoy the game now. This analysis is unfortunately broken.
The broken progression system that requires loot boxes is still there. The values haven’t been adjusted significantly, so unlocking all of the game you paid a lot of money for already is still difficult. At its current state, the progression for many players will be slow and starved, effectively breeding an environment where for some people there will be a huge desire to pay to progress because it will have been painfully slow so far.
The assumption that microtransactions, that have already been stated to return by EA and DICE, will just be cosmetic is promised nowhere in the statement. The crate system still exists as the form of progression, so unless radical changes are made the pay-to-win elements will return once they are turned back on.
People have said that turning it off shows that they are listening because they are going to miss out on a lot of revenue over the game launch, which seems to misunderstand how this does benefit EA, and what they can show to their investors. The controversy had reached the point where it was leaking into the main discussion of the game, and the coordinated mass cancellation of pre-orders (don’t preorder games) was clearly beginning to worry someone. But by removing this feature, trying to outrun the outrage by moving the goalposts, and by extension making everyone still complaining look like an angry idiot, the hope is that sales will bounce back and it will produce a healthy install base. This install base is primed for when the in-game monetisation is turned back on, and it gives healthy numbers for EA to post to their investors to show them that this method will work.
The move is a callous and calculated attempt to escape the controversy long enough to get their sales in for Christmas.
The last comment is people saying that DICE and EA will change the progression system. There is no evidence that the fundamental progression system will change to remove the ability for exploitative pay-to-win mechanics to come back when the game is out of the launch window, and the user interest in the game has diminished (which leads to a reduced interest for those covering the industry as it won’t drive clicks). It is also incredibly irresponsible to purchase something on a promise (remember these companies lie), doubly so when the promise is not even explicitly stated, and thirdly when the game as it currently exists is broken. This is not an Early Access or Beta title, this is meant to be a AAA for a flagship developer at a huge multinational publisher.
EA and DICE are going to do everything they can to hang on to this model. To normalise it, to create a generation of gamers who accept it as the norm (looking at how they turned FIFA into an introduction to gambling for children) so they can run further with the games as service model, which mostly means games where you have to keep giving lots of money to engage long term with it.
It may, at this point, be impossible to save Battlefront from the pay-to-win mechanisms at its core. The game was built for these, and the game has launched with that progression system still in place. If EA and DICE fully rework the game to remove all of this I will alter my statement, but as of now, they show no interest in it. Keep talking about how corrupt their process is, keep refusing to purchase the game, and stop apologising for a billion dollar company that doesn’t care about you. EA has shown that you are nothing more than a money pot to be shaken empty. DICE have shown that monetisation is more important than enjoyable gameplay experiences. Both have shown themselves to be dismissive and deceptive, and both have been shown to happily deceive people on the nature of their games and intentions.
And millions of people are going to reward them for this, but hopefully, many who would have, won’t.