By Nick Cowen & Brendyn Lotz
Okay. Stop. Breathe.
At the end of a week in which EA and DICE were pounded to the point of submission over the inclusion of microtransactions in Star Wars: Battlefront 2, we admit the above headline looks more than a little like click-bait.
But read on. Hear us out. Because in this piece we’re not going to regurgitate a load of PR-speak about how unlocking a hero in Battlefront 2 is “an accomplishment” or how the costs of developing games justify gouging more money out of players who’ve purchased a game at retail at full price.
This piece is about the fact that microtransactions, when implemented fairly and responsibly, have a place in games. This week, you’d be forgiven for thinking such a thing amounts to heresy.
First, let’s address the elephant in the room that has prompted this discussion, Star Wars: Battlefront 2.
EA’s latest Star Wars game ignited the biggest fan backlash against any game released all year, and with good reason. Not content to demand full price at purchase point, Battlefront 2 was set to be released with a loot box system, in which players who were prepared to pay more money beyond their initial investment, would be gain substantial edges on their opponents in the multiplayer.
Star Wars: Battlefront 2, until EA walked back the loot box system entirely, was set to be a pay-to-win game sold at full price.
As brazen as this sounds, it’s hardly a massive deviation from the business model a ton of other publishers have adopted – or are in the process of adopting. Leaving aside EA’s other game released in this window in which loots boxed are a feature (we’re looking at you Need For Speed: Payback), Call Of Duty: WWII got in on the action and Shadow Of War‘s loot box system has been well documented ahead of its release.
A lot of pundits are pointing to Overwatch as the nexus for this loot box practice. It’s true that Blizzard’s asymmetrical shooter popularised the concept, but the loot players were (and are) paying for – and, let’s be honest, earning – has been entirely cosmetic up until now. To wit, if players want to deck their heroes out garish skins, they may have to pay for that. If they want an edge in the multiplayer shooter experience, they’re shit out of luck because Overwatch doesn’t work that way.
This runs counter to the loot box systems in EA’s most recent releases and here’s where players may want to take stock about microtransactions and the games they inhabit.
A game such as Dota 2 for instance uses microtransactions, and more than that, it uses loot boxes as well in the form of treasures.
What is important to note is that Dota 2 is 100% free to play and players need never hand over money to Valve to be able to jump into a game. Players can even unlock cosmetic items with a bit of grinding but at no point will a cosmetic item influence your ability to win in a game.
It’s possible to rack up 1900+ hours in Dota 2 and never spend a red cent. If one sees a treasure that excites them, one can open their wallet, but that’s a choice that’s down to every individual player. More than likely, they’re spending money because they’ve spent oodles of time enjoying a free game that they feel is worth the odd payment by way of treasure purchases now and then.
Another free to play game that that it’s possible to spend an inordinate amount of time in is Hearthstone and the differences between it and Dota 2 are astounding.
In Hearthstone players can achieve cards in three ways. Card packs are given to players by Blizzard though that is rather rather rare, players can purchase packs in-game using gold which is earned by winning matches and completing quests and the final method is using a credit card to buy packs.
Unlike with Dota 2, the enjoyment of Hearthstone hinges on how much you are willing to spend to get card packs. Don’t get us wrong you can play Hearthstone as a free to play game and in some instances you can do well but over the years it has become an unspoken rule that those looking to climb the Ranked ladder will have a hard time without opening up their wallets.
Those are two free-to-play games that have taken wildly different directions on how microtransactions are handled.
The fact is, however, is that they are free games.
Microtransactions have no place in full price, AAA titles. The notion that games are so expensive to make that folks like EA need constant cash injections is just as laughable.
Stop and think for a moment, if EA truly believed that Battlefront II was so expensive to make and there was a chance it would not make its money back, why would it make the game?
The same goes for Activision which churns out Call of Duty titles every single year. The industry must be in a really, really bad state if all games are looped into the conversation of, “so are you getting Battlefield or Call of Duty this year?”
The crux of the matter is that microtransactions have a place in this industry, but that place is in free-to-play games, not games developed by multi-national corporations looking to round off this year’s bonuses.
There are tons of games that contain microtransactions, but many of them are handled responsibly and fairly. If you’re asking for full retail price up front, you have no right to expect players to spend more money on top of that – especially if they can gain an edge by doing so. If a game is free-to-play, loot boxes make sense – how else will the developer make money?
But a game sold at full price that demands players fork out cash in order to enjoy it beyond retail purchase is just… well, scummy. Star Wars: Battlefront II, up until today was such a game. Blame the publishers for being exploitative, sure, but also blame those players who are prepared to buy into this business model.
If no one embraced it, this business model would be dust. Think about that.