When points of view collide, conflict inevitably erupts. Gamers and publishers have fundamentally differing views on what video games are. Gamers see them as one sees their favorite hobby; a passion that’s as much a part of themselves as any other aspect of their life. The people actually running the businesses responsible for making games see them as one would see a product; an item to be sold for the greatest possible gain. While these views aren’t wholly incompatible, they are destined to clash from time to time. The video game industry has seen quite a few of these clashes over the past few years, but the firestorm surrounding EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II could very well be the biggest one yet. At the time of this writing, gamers have achieved a small victory in EA’s decision to temporarily turn off the game’s microtransactions. That’s great. It truly is. The community worked hard to earn it and should celebrate their achievement. This could all very easily amount to nothing, however, if those involved with this incident fail to learn from it. There are important lessons both gamers and publishers alike must take away from this if gaming is to continue in a positive direction.
The first lesson EA needs to learn from this is the same one that any company in any industry should learn: consumers really, really, don’t like being taken advantage of, especially when it’s their very own passion that’s being used against them. Battlefront II is a game that’s practically guaranteed to make money. As the bigger and better sequel to the already successful 2015 reboot of the Battlefront series, it was guaranteed to win over the hardcore crowd. Many of us were looking forward to it, excited even. This was going to be the real and true return to glory for Battlefront. Sorely missed space battles were finally going to come back. There was going to be a proper single-player campaign told from a perspective we had never seen before. It was going to have new heroes, new weapons and a better class system, it was going to be great! For the more casual audience out there, it was a brand-new and drop-dead-gorgeous-looking Star Wars game to dig into. EA was going to make a boatload of money from this game no matter what; there was absolutely no need for any of these additional monetization tactics. Yet, EA not only included them anyway, but even went full-boar and made them a fundamental part of the game. This is one of the key reasons why the gaming populace is lashing out so very hard against it. It’s not just the fact that Battlefront II is designed the way it is, it’s also that this was a bare-faced, naked and ugly attempt to take the game’s player-base for all it was worth. Fiery backlash is inevitable when a promising product is turned into a borderline insult to its supporters.
The second lesson that EA and all other major publishers need to learn is that they need to actually listen when their consumers have a serious and legitimate issue with their business practices. EA received a major hint when just about everybody who participated in the beta slammed them for their loot box-based progression and borderline pay-to-win structure. Well “hint” isn’t really the right word in this case. It was more like a megaphone being sounded-off in EA’s face with players screaming “HEY, WE THINK THIS SUCKS!!!” into it. EA’s response: walk the worst elements back a little bit, but still keeping the pay-to-win structure intact. They didn’t listen. The same thing happened once it was discovered that quite a few hours or dollars were required to unlock both Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Once again, fans made a huge outcry and EA once again did not take the opportunity to listen. Instead, they did their best to tell the outraged community that they were either wrong or just didn’t understand the system, all while only making surface-level changes that did nothing to address the root of the problem. They’ve finally appeared to at least acknowledge the pay-to-win problem by temporarily turning microtransactions off, but their motivations for doing so are known only to EA. Ideally, the motivation behind the change was a realization that they went too far this time. Realistically, it’s probably a move made in an effort to turn the story around and salvage the game’s launch week. Hopefully EA truly has listened this time and will change the game accordingly when microtransactions are eventually turned back on. If they haven’t, then they’ll likely have to weather an even greater blowback the next time around.
Gamers have a lesson or two to take away from this incident as well. The first is that while hardcore gamers are not the audience publishers like EA are trying to court anymore, they’re still too large and loud to be safely ignored. Major news organizations like BBC and CNN picking up the Battlefront story is proof of that. Serious gamers really do still have a measure of power to can wield against scummy business practices. However, it’s also important that we understand the limits of that power. It’s true that EA was forced to rollback some of the game’s worst elements, but it’s also true that the game is still going to sell well despite that. We have some power, but not enough to completely stop loot boxes in their tracks. We might not even have enough to stop pay-to-win multiplayer now that it’s shown up in a major release. What we can do though is influence the direction these trends take. Doing so is what we need to focus our energy and effort on.
There are several lessons for all sides to take away from Star Wars Battlefront II. Publishers need to learn to listen and not be so gung-ho about doing things designed to exploit their consumer base. Yes they need to make a profit, but what good are absurd profits if one destroys their relationship with their consumers? It’s far better to make an honest profit from a well-crafted product than a short-term crazy profit from a compromised one. After all, it’s much easier to sell to loyal fans than it is to sell to jaded enemies. Gamers as a group need to realize that they do still have a measure of power. Change is possible when the community bands together. That power is not unlimited, though. It needs to be wielded in a way that brings us an acceptable compromise as the major publishers continue to find (and exploit) new methods to continuously monetize their products. If everyone learns these important lessons, gaming can still enjoy a bright and entertaining future. If they don’t, then perhaps Battlefront II will serve as the beginning of the end rather than a positive turning point.