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Battlefront II’ loot box drama, explained


It’s not even out yet, and Star Wars: Battlefront II is already a bad video game. Or if nothing else, it’s the public relations equivalent of the Chernobyl disaster.

Blame the loot boxes. Everyone knew they were a problem coming out of the public beta last month. Even publisher Electronic Arts acknowledged it — “We’ve listened to your feedback,” a post-beta update from DICE, the game’s developer, read — and pledged to fix the situation.

Battlefront II, loot boxes, and you

So here’s the simple(-ish) explanation for how things work now: The online multiplayer mode in Battlefront II is filled with things for you to unlock, including weapons, abilities, and cosmetics like emotes and victory poses. Those can all be earned randomly from loot boxes, which you purchase using one of two different kinds of currency. They can then be upgraded using a third form of currency.

Heroes and ships — think Emperor Palpatine, or the Millennium Falcon from The Force Awakens — are also in the game, but you don’t get them in quite the same way. Many are unlocked at the outset, but roughly a quarter of all the heroes and ships are locked and need to be purchased using in-game currency.

Credits and crystals both pay for loot boxes. You earn credits — the only way to unlock heroes and ships — from completing online matches, in-game challenges, or from loot boxes themselves. Crystals also pay for loot boxes, but you can only buy them using IRL cash. Crafting parts, the third form of currency, drop when you open loot boxes, and they’re used to upgrade your existing unlocks.

There are four levels of quality for each unlockable thing: Common, Uncommon, Rare, and Epic. 

Those first three drop in loot boxes, but Epic items don’t drop at all and need to be crafted. Crafting parts pay for your upgrades, allowing you to evolve even a Common card (all the unlocks are called “cards”) up to Epic.

Remember, folks: That was the simple explanation. Upgrading individual soldiers, heroes, and ships doesn’t work quite the same way, and there are also three different types of loot boxes that you can buy. 

This GameSpot video offers one of the most detailed explanations available at this point, though it’s still tough to follow.

Battlefront II isn’t technically out until Nov. 17, but fans that subscribe to EA Access or Origin Acess — which give Xbox One and PC players, respectively, a five-day, 10-hour window to play EA games before they launch — are discovering how those changes feel. And it’s a bad scene, friends.

“At the current price of 60,000 credits it will take you 40 hours of gameplay time to earn the right to unlock one hero or villain [in Star Wars: Battlefront II],” Reddit user TheHotterPotato wrote in a post bearing the headline: “It Takes 40 hours to Unlock a Hero.” 

“That means 40 hours of saving each and every credit, no buying any crates at all, so no bonus credits from getting duplicates in crates.”

The pricing has since changed (more on that below), but not every hero is valued at 60,000 credits, only Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. Prior to the change, none of them cost less than 20,000 credits.

Most. Downvoted. Ever.

The Reddit post — which is worth a read, even though the stats are now outdated — produced such a mind-blowingly negative response that an agent of EA actually responded. Unfortunately, that response made things even worse.

When we first looked at the EACommunityTeam post this morning, it had a score of -253K points — that’s extremely bad in Reddit terms. The number is determined by adding up all the downvotes the comment received and then subtracting from that figure any upvotes.

At the time of this writing, more than 6 hours later, the score is at -442K points. A Reddit wiki page that tracks the most downvoted posts across the entire site lists the previous downvote “winner” as having -24,333 points.

Not only is EA’s response seemingly the most downvoted post in Reddit’s history, it’s also earned that dubious honor by an absurd (and apparently still rising) margin. Multiple other threads sprung up afterwards, suggesting that players respond with their wallets by skipping the game entirely, or even all EA games in general.

While that EACommunityTeam comment wasn’t so great, EA followed it up with a much smarter move on Monday afternoon, as the controversy continued to spread. 

A subsequent email from our EA spokesperson broke down the specifics:

We’re reducing the amount of credits needed to unlock the top heroes by 75%. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader will now be available for 15,000 credits, Emperor Palpatine, Chewbacca and Leia Organa for 10,000 credits and Iden at 5,000 credits. Based on what we’ve seen in the Trial, this amount will make earning these heroes an achievement, but one that will be accessible for all players. 

It was a necessary change. The earlier, much-maligned Reddit comment was a major misstep, but this tangible change does help to cut down on what was looking like Battlefront II‘s most laborious grind.

Now. What does all of this mean for EA? 

There’s a bigger problem with loot boxes

It’s hard to say at this point, before Battlefront II is even out. 

There’s no question that there’s a gross imbalance between the returns on your time investment versus the returns, via in-game purchases, on your money investment. It’s simply broken, and needs to be fixed. It is a fixable problem, though — as we saw to a limited extent on Monday afternoon.

How all of this looks, and what it means for the game just a few days before it launches, is another conversation entirely. Traditionally, the thinking here would tell you that Reddit, while it can feel very loud and pervasive online, is still a vocal minority.

Star Wars is a juggernaut of a franchise. The numbers weren’t officially reported for the first Battlefront, but estimates pointed to 12 million copies sold during the game’s first two months on shelves in late 2015. That game was dogged by controversy going in as well, largely due to the lack of a story mode and the small offering of multiplayer content, relative to other $60 games on the market at the time.

In other words, Star Wars has proven it can survive pre-release anxiety and go on to sell well right off the bat. Even if you assume the 400,000-plus downvotes on Reddit equals the number of fans who now won’t buy the game, that’s still a fraction of the original Battlefront‘s estimated 12 million in sales — a very successful start — across the game’s opening months.

That said, the controversy around loot boxes and in-game purchases sprawls far beyond Battlefront II and it’s been an ongoing conversation for some time. At the end of the day, loot boxes are a moneymaking mechanism that rely upon a simple premise: The big-spending “whales” provide the bulk of the post-release income, while the rest of the player community — for Battlefront II, the folks that don’t buy crystals — keeps the whales interested.

That turns you, the player who just wants to earn credits in-game and let unlocks flow naturally, into the product. Without you, there’s not enough of a community to keep the proportionally smaller crowd of whales interested in paying for loot boxes.

That’s the essence of free-to-play game design, and it’s been very lucrative for games like Candy Crush or Clash of Clans. Now we’re seeing that design philosophy pop up in an increasing number of blockbuster $60 games, largely because building those experiences has become so expensive that publishers need to mitigate their financial risk.

Crucially, that’s what could hurt Battlefront II, even after the hero pricing change. Video game fans are more tuned in now than they’ve ever been to the rising presence of free-to-play elements in their $60 games. The problem in this new Star Wars game specifically is the unlock system is so convoluted, it rips away the facade of natural progression that a more well-balanced game would deliver.

Loot boxes and their ilk aren’t going anywhere. That’s just the financial reality of the games industry in 2017. But to be successful, the games themselves need to do a good job of convincing you that you’re not wasting undue amounts of your time just because you don’t want to spend more than your initial $60 investment.

In its current form, with so many messy moving parts, Star Wars: Battlefront II still fails spectacularly at doing that. 

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