Micro-transactions and Loot Boxes: What was EA Games Thinking?

By Eric Tran

I have to wait how many hours to harvest my onions? That’s understandable, it’s a free mobile game so it can’t be helped. Hold on, I need how many credits to unlock this character? Jeez, I’ve already played for ten hours already. Well it is a multiplayer game, so I guess the developers want us to keep coming back. Alright, it’s my day off and I can finally spend some quality time with a nice narrative driven, immersive world, single player rpg . . . and there are loot boxes. Well that’s okay I’m sure there was a perfectly reasonable explana- Wait a minute, loot boxes in a single player game? Alright, this is not okay.

Microtransactions and loot boxes have been around for a long time, but why are they a hot topic now? In the beginning, the thought of them didn’t seem like a big deal. Gamers didn’t mind tossing a few bucks to developers to get cool costumes or items in one of their favorite games. They didn’t seem to hinder the player’s gaming experience. Most of these items were cosmetic and had no effect on gameplay. Plus, microtransactions and loot boxes were mostly seen in mobile and online games. However, they have been bleeding through to the console space and triple-A games. Now, people are furious because these transactions are starting to affect the core mechanics of games in a negative way.

 

Back in November, EA’s (Electronic Arts) highly anticipated “Star Wars Battlefront II” was set to release. However, fans were not happy that player progression was tied to loot boxes. Opening a loot box grants players random emotes, weapons, character poses, and “Star Cards” which are items that a player equips to their characters. These Star Cards increase a player’s stats, like having a special ability to cool down faster, increasing damage, or granting them more health. To earn loot boxes, a player has to use “credits” which is the in game currency earned by just playing the game. However, there is another currency called “Crystals” that you can also use to obtain loot boxes. Players can earn Crystals by buying them with real money. So, being able to buy loot boxes, completely ruins the multiplayer experience and leads to a pay-to-win model. It isn’t fair for a player to invest so many hours to slowly upgrade their character, while another player can just easily spend money and have a huge advantage over those who don’t.

But it didn’t stop at star cards: EA even locked iconic characters like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker from the initial base game. Sure, you could use in game currency to unlock them without paying a dime. But, a player would have to grind for about 40 hours to gain the amount needed to unlock a single character. This is an egregious way for developers and publishers to nickel and dime their fans who bought their game. And video games aren’t cheap: it’s $60 plus tax for the base game and now they want their customers to pay more? So, if you were hoping to force choke some Rebel scum with Vader, you’re going to need a lot of free time or a fat wallet to unlock him.

As a result of implementing such terrible business practices into the game, there was  huge uproar in the gaming community. The millions of people who had bought Battlefront II got their pitchforks and torches and stormed to their computers to give EA a piece of their minds. Battlefront II received lukewarm reviews from many players, big Youtubers ranted on it, many gaming sites reported on the debacle, and others went to post about it on forums. EA’s community team went on  Reddit to try to explain their actions and said: “The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.” It was great that EA was being open to the public and at the time, it seemed like a great idea to address the fans’ concerns. However, this ultimately backfired on EA. Their post has now become the most downvoted comment in Reddit history, with over 600k downvotes.

With Star Wars Battlefront II’s microtransaction controversy trending everywhere, it even caught the attention of government officials in Hawaii and Belgium. They claimed that loot boxes were a form of gambling and were worried that they were preying on children. “Shame on you loot boxes, think of the children!” These representatives wanted to investigate these transactions and have them regulated or even out-right banned. Ultimately the ESA (Entertainment Software Association) decided that loot boxes are not gambling because of several factors: in some games they are voluntary, they can be earned or purchased, and they are not required to progress through a game. However, Reps. like Chris Lee from Hawaii, are still encouraging other states to look into this issue as well.

In response to the massive backlash from the fans and the media, EA “temporarily” pulled the plug on all microtransactions before the game hit store shelves. This meant that players couldn’t purchase anything with real money. They even cut the prices of heroes significantly. Now with the game’s recent update that came out on March 21, they have made major changes. Star Cards, loot crates, and any items that affect gameplay cannot be purchased with real money. Progression now relies on “Skill Points” which can be traded in for Star Cards. Loot boxes will also no longer include Star Cards. Starting in April, Crystals will be returning, but they can’t be used to buy loot boxes anymore. They can be only used to unlock new character appearances coming in April, which can also be bought with credits.

This whole Battlefront II microtransaction controversy really shows how we, as a gaming community, can come together to make change. It’s unfortunate that these transactions ruined an otherwise fun game. It’s disappointing for fans, and for developers as well. Game devs sometimes sacrifice countless hours away from family and friends. They try to make fun and exciting games that they are proud of, and want to share them with other gamers like themselves. But at the end of the day, these companies are running a business and they plan to make as much profit as possible. Hopefully, this serves as a learning opportunity for not just EA, but other developers and publishers out there. What video game franchises would you hate to see include microtransactions?