Thursday, November 23, 2017

Inventory Management Vol IV – Boys with Toys: The Battlefront II Debacle

Star Wars Battlefront II was released by EA on November 17.

The past week in gaming was inundated with news about Star Wars Battlefront II, but stories about the game itself were in short supply. Instead, headlines were focused on the game’s internal economy, specifically the “loot boxes” that many modern games use to generate a revenue stream beyond the initial purchase price for the game disc. Battlefront publisher EA was in the crosshairs yet again for what the public has long considered predatory, consumer-hostile practices, but something was different this time. The “conversation” online – though I’m loath to ennoble the childish vitriol hurled at publisher and developer alike by calling it that – had reached a fever pitch. It felt like a dam had burst, despite the fact that we’d collectively chosen to ignore the spurts of water leaking through.

In case you’re not aware, video games are incredibly expensive to make. Rising market demand for high-fidelity, blockbuster-style games with tons of content, Hollywood-level narrative engagement, and hours upon hours of replay value has led to rising costs of development, but – here’s the kicker – games cost nearly the same to buy as they always have. This means that developers and publishers have had to seek out other ways to make their games profitable, and in many cases this means they use economies that leverage real-world money for in-game benefits: the now-infamous “microtransaction.” Paying hard-earned cash for a boost in power or some cool cosmetic enhancements sounds fine on its face, especially if it’s optional, but legitimate issues with this model have reared their heads in the past five years. What does it mean for the concepts of “fairness” and “balance” in a competitive online game if cash-solvent players can pay for a leg up against those who can’t? What checks and balances are in place to stop loot box economies from becoming exercises in gambling, since you don’t necessarily always know exactly what you’re getting for your money? Is it possible to include microtransactions in a game in humane, consumer-friendly ways, or are there better ways to address the rising cost of development and the need for continuous engagement? These are valid, important questions, and so naturally the internet community has no interest in tackling them in a mature and thoughtful way.

This is gamer culture we’re talking about, and therefore this controversy plunged towards a nadir of online toxicity that would almost beggar belief if it weren’t already so common. Multiple developers and publishers were sent death threats. (One such “developer” was himself the subject of media attention when it came to light that his story, and his position at EA, may have been fabricated – complicating this already unstable powder keg of an issue.) EA’s mea culpa on Reddit, and the subsequent Q&A they held, became the most downvoted posts in that site’s history. The petulant outrage was so loud that EA actually removed the in-game purchasing systems from Battlefront II, hours before the game was set to launch this past Friday. The internet then gathered in self-satisfied crows of victory against the giant, greedy corporate machine, and I couldn’t be more embarrassed about the whole ridiculous ordeal.

Emperor Palpatine in Battlefront II, probably ordering his lackeys to charge money for cosmetic items.

The simple, painfully obvious solution to these issues is to speak with your wallet. If you rail against EA and its practices, but you still buy Battlefront II, then you’re absolutely part of the problem you’re complaining about. EA doesn’t give a wet shit about your well-argued forum posts, in which you crunch the numbers on exactly how long you’d have to play their game to unlock content that you could pay $2 to get instantly. If you condemn loot boxes as an evil, bloodsucking practice, but then that annual event rolls around with the cool skins for your character and, well, you just have to grab that, then what conclusion is EA going to draw? Your money talks louder than you ever could – which is perhaps why people feel they have to talk so loudly and so harshly online. As consumers – and as a culture that is largely built around consumerism – we have proven, with our money, that we want this system to exist (or at least that we’re okay with it existing). The occasional calm, well-reasoned response is buried under an overwhelming majority of incensed griping that is, in the end, just so much hot air. And as someone connected to gamer culture, even by proxy, this debacle reflects so poorly on me, the things I enjoy, and the things I create for a living that my only reaction to it has been unmitigated disgust.

It saddens me that there’s no room in the press cycle to talk about the actual game, and whether it’s fun to play. Is Battlefront II’s new campaign story any good? Is the multiplayer as crunchy and satisfying as it looks in videos? Does the game realize the potential hinted at by its predecessor? I’ve played the game, and I have answers to these questions. But the fact that I can’t talk to anyone about these things, because they’re too busy complaining about something else, pushes me out of the conversation entirely. This week, EA learned that there is a limit to what their consumers will accept with in-game purchasing systems. Gamers, on the other hand, learned that if they scream loudly enough, they’ll get exactly what they want. The comparison to a spoiled child is too perfect to avoid, and I was raised to eschew and condemn that kind of behaviour. I believe consumers can and should make their voices heard, and that it will work if the response is vocal enough. But this can’t be the way we go about it.

My message to my peers is this: put down the pitchforks, now and forever. Stop feeling entitled to prettier, flashier, longer, more engrossing games without considering the cost – both financial and human – of making them (put more plainly: if you would do away with in-game payments, then prepare to pay more up front). Engage in discussion about the legitimate problems you have with industry practices without resorting to angry, venomous language. Learn to use your purchasing power to speak for you, and learn to accept that if you are taking a stance on principle, you might have to give up on playing the game you’re complaining about. And absolutely, without question, stop harassing developers, who work themselves to death making a fun toy for you to play with. There’s never been a better example of why gaming is still in its adolescent stage. It’s time for the culture to grow up.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.


  1. Appreciate a calm approach to the topic. I have purchased many loot boxes in my time, but purely for cosmetic items that have no impact on the game. What I do not want to see, is the mobile game business model creep into console and computer games. The loot boxes should never throttle content unless it is explicitly communicated, which in this case it was not (from my knowledge, feel free to prove me wrong). You're right that it was childish, but we are in a culture where you can hide behind your keyboard, be a dick, and sometimes get your way. Maybe this wasn't the best approach, but it did achieve results and may set a standard for better business practices and transparency going forward.

    Interesting note...the child actors in stranger things have been getting death threats because they kissed people in other movies/outside of the stranger things universe. One thing to remember in all of this is that people are crazy!

  2. People be crazy. This is known, Khaleesi.

    I'm pretty sure that EA DICE had spoken about their in-game economy prior to launch, but my impression was that the really dirty details - specifically the kind of content that would infuriate ravenous fanboys if it were locked away, like not being able to play as Yoda or Vader - didn't come to light until just before release. The whole thing is extremely scummy and I don't endorse it for a second. But the internet is already full of people screaming about how scummy it is, so I felt I should use my voice to speak to the effect that reaction can have.

    If anyone in this situation has a chance of learning the right lesson, it's EA, who we literally bullied into submission. They got the message loud and clear: quit jerking us around. It's the other side of the argument that I'm worried about. History has shown that nerd rage is a terrible, awful thing that never works out well for anyone.