Over the last couple of days, the Internet has collectively retaliated against EA for perceived predatory practices when it comes to micro-transactions. The exorbitantly high cost of unlockable characters using in-game currency in Star Wars Battlefront II, combined with trooper crates (not even thinly veiled loot crates) that can be bought with real world currency, caused EA to respond to complaints on Reddit. Within a short period, they reacted to the backlash and reduced the in-game cost of characters like Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and more prior to the game’s release on Friday. If this were an isolated incident, EA might actually be commended for listening and responding to gamers so swiftly. But it’s not an isolated incident.
Between Battlefront II’s messy and exploitative unlock system, to all-but canceling Visceral’s Star Wars game and shutting down the studio, to completely mishandling the development of Mass Effect Andromeda, EA has been dropping the ball in the eyes of many fans lately. Though public opinion of the company has improved significantly over the last few years, they’ve taken major steps back in the last handful of months alone. What’s worse, it doesn’t appear that they’re actively predicting whether or not their decisions will negatively impact their customers, but rather they’re just reacting to negative press and making changes accordingly. That sort of behavior can only work for so long and they’ve got a lot of work to do if they want to regain goodwill from fans.
Reviews for Star Wars Battlefront II began to roll out yesterday afternoon, and though they indicate the sequel is a definite improvement over 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront, those improvements were largely implemented as a reaction to the negative press the original game received. When Star Wars Battlefront came out, reviewers criticized how little content there was at launch. There were only four primary maps, a scant offering of weapons and heroes, and no single-player campaign in sight. Well, EA and DICE listened, and in Battlefront II there are eleven multiplayer maps that span all three Star Wars eras, nineteen heroes at launch, a bevy of weapons and abilities, and a complete (albeit short) single-player campaign. There are a slew of new complaints, however, that have been raised this time: six of those heroes are locked behind a high paywall of in-game credits, trooper crates seem unfair in their random doling out of heroes and the progression system is convoluted. Nearly every review published so far address these concerns and it appears that review scores have been lowered because of them.
It’s clear that EA is reacting because of the negative press. This comment from EA about Battlefront II’s time-consuming hero unlocks quickly became the most downvoted comment in Reddit history. Later that day, they announced that they would lower the cost of the unlocks substantially — though they remain remarkably high. EA and DICE are still constantly rejiggering the cost of heroes and other unlocks before launch in hopes of avoiding further backlash. What’s unfortunate is these progression practices that can result in micro-transactions from less patient gamers aren’t the fault of the developers. It’s highly unlikely that the people directly programming, writing and designing the game wanted players to spend upwards of forty hours to unlock the biggest characters in Star Wars. Money-making decisions like that rest with the publisher, and this isn’t EA’s first encounter with fans and critics reacting negatively to micro-transactions and it probably won’t be the last. Video games cost a lot of money to make, and most fans accept that there will often be in-game purchases and paid DLC. What they’re accepting less and less is the predatory nature EA is showing with Battlefront II.
Star Woes Episode II: Attack of the Publisher
EA made headlines last month when they announced the closure of Visceral Games. They were working on a single-player Star Wars game led by Amy Hennig, known for her work on the Uncharted series. The game hasn’t officially been scrapped, but rather reworked into an entirely different kind of game by other EA studios. Many interpreted the official wording EA Executive Vice President Patrick Söderlund gave in the announcement as EA no longer supporting single-player games in favor of multiplayer games that can thrive on micro-transactions. Though this sentiment is understandable, it’s not the only factor that went into Visceral’s closure.
It’s become clear that the game has been in trouble for a while, but much of that trouble has been blamed on EA rather than Visceral. There were reports of friction between the team and EA, and on EA forcing Visceral to make Battlefield: Hardline instead of games they were passionate about. The team was reportedly far too small to accomplish what it hoped to, and the whole thing collapsed. The thing is, this collapse came as a late response to the development struggles Visceral were going through, rather than the result of a proactive publisher giving up on a team that they fully supported all along. We’ll never know the whole story behind Visceral’s closure, and it’s clear EA isn’t solely to blame for the rough development of the game, but the negativity it generated towards the publisher is undeniable.
Mass Effect is Put on the Back Burner
Mass Effect: Andromeda wasn’t an outright horrible game, but it disappointed many when it fell below the quality of the original Mass Effect trilogy. It was buggy, the animations were bizarre and the game still performed poorly after a large day one patch. EA and BioWare continued to patch the game following release, but after the game sold under expectations, EA pulled the life support, canceled planned DLC and scrapped a follow-up game.
Mass Effect, one of the biggest IP from the last generation, is in complete stasis. It only took one disappointing game for EA to give up on the franchise for the foreseeable future. They’ve officially stated that the series isn’t dead, but they don’t appear to have plans to bring it back any time soon. It’s true that the team working on the game wasn’t primarily made up of the folks who worked on the original trilogy and that most of that team have been hard at work on their new game Anthem. After some high profile members of that development team left the project, fans of BioWare became worried that the game is also in development trouble. It’s important not to rush to conclusions, though — there’s no solid proof that Anthem is in danger and development staff shifts all the time. Of course, knowing Visceral’s fate, it’s easy to assume the same thing could happen to any team owned by EA, but until there’s more than rumor and speculation, hope for future entries of EA properties shouldn’t be lost.
What’s most important for EA now is to reevaluate how they operate, change many of the micro-transaction policies they’ve put in place, and allow their studios the freedom necessary to make the games they want to make and give them the resources they need to do so. This whole year they’ve been reacting to their perceived mistakes, but now they must be proactive. Gamers have made it clear that they don’t want invasive micro-transactions in full-priced games. They still want linear, single-player games that coexist alongside open world and multiplayer experiences. They want franchises like Star Wars and Mass Effect to be great, and they don’t want to see EA getting in the way of their greatness. Making games is hard and expensive, but with the right mindset, EA can avoid becoming The Worst Company In America again. And gamers, likewise, need to give them the benefit of the doubt to do so. After all, they care enough about their games to react in the first place.