Greed is good, or so the executives of Electronic Arts learned from the 1980s movie Wall Street. As such, they continually make decisions for their full retail release games based upon the business model of free-to-play mobile games.
The last several years have seen grotesque increases in the cost of games to gamers. EA would disagree with that, they would tell you that they have been doing gamers a favor by keeping their retail games at the same affordable $60 they have been since 2006. Except that isn't true. They invented the “online code” method of killing off game resale, placing a code on a piece of paper in a new release to allow online gameplay — so that any fool who purchases the game used will have to pay EA again for the same game they had already sold. But double charging for the same retail package wasn't enough. They started working with retailers to push pre-orders, in an effort to make money on a game before it was released, including assets with every single copy of a game and gating them based on A) whether it was pre-ordered and B) where it was pre-ordered from. These are typically cosmetic, but over the years they have become bigger and better, having a real impact on the gameplay or the player's effectiveness in online play.
As is the case with all corporations, profits are the goal. So, in an effort to ramp up the profits a bit more collectors editions of games were created, initially with physical tchotchkies for the gamer, but over time nothing more than digital bonuses. Thus began the era of the standard game (the one EA will gladly point out is the same price as 11 years ago), the silver edition, the gold edition, the platinum edition, the diamond edition, the collectors edition, the super collectors edition, the hand-over your paycheck edition, etc. ad nauseum. The best part of these splintered versions of the same game on the exact same disc with “bonus content”, especially when buying from EA, is that these unlocks require a connection to the Internet and if the publisher shuts off a server, your bonus content is gone, or worse, your game is gone.
This week Battlefront II is being released, a game that has been embroiled in controversy since the beta testing showed that it was clearly a pay-to-win game with all progression tied to random chance that could be accelerated with cash. All progression was tied to loot boxes — recently brought to the mainstream by Activision-Blizzard's Overwatch last year. While Overwatch's loot box system is dispicable, the actual game mechanics and progression are not tied to the loot boxes, unlike Battlefront II. EA made some adjustments, but ultimately left the system mostly untouched with all but the highest level of upgrades and perks still available via loot box gambling. Now, this is not exclusive to EA or even just EA and Activision-Blizzard, all of the major publishers (with the notable exception of Nintendo) have released games in 2017 with a loot box system to keep customers paying long after they've bought their $60 game, $40 in DLC, and $40 season pass.
Overwatch is 100% to blame for the insertion of loot boxes to games as a widespread business practice. Their success in milking their customers has led to the point where EA finds it to be acceptable to put a game's actual progression behind a paywall or burdensome grind. The defense EA gives themselves is that all of the items are available without paying 1 penny more, but that argument is worthless. Worthless, because the time sink required to grind out for a chance to gamble on a loot box to progress, the items available for direct unlock (via in game credits) require 10s of hours to unlock and the strength of gear is behind a grind of both in game credits and crafting materials. The industry's insidious practice is to insert multiple currencies in the game, with some available for purchase with real-life money. It is the real-life money currency that is most effective, and thus the most convenient way to progress. Which would be less evil of a business practice if it wasn't gambling to actually get things.
It is gambling. There is literally no argument that the ESRB or greedy publishers can make that changes the fact that it is gambling by putting content behind loot boxes. Their primary argument is that it's no different than buying Magic the Gathering or other card game packs. That means nothing. With those cards you get a physical item that can be resold — even if it is only for kindling. Digitally unlocked items that only hold value for a few weeks or months while a game is popular is nothing more than an abusive business practice by using the exact same psychology used by casinos to get people to keep throwing them money. It takes advantage of people with a gambling problem and gets children addicted to the rush of gambling nice and early. Without the benefit of getting comped a room or an actual chance at “winning” anything, because in the end every single digital item has a shelf-life of holding value. Once the game isn't popular anymore the items hold no intrinsic value. With EA's long and storied history of shutting off servers long before people stop playing them it makes it all the more abusive of a practice.
The game industry has a right to earn money. And with the success of GTA V's very popular online service with microtransactions bringing in $100s of millions per year, it's understandable for them to want to monetize their games long after they were purchased. But random number generators should not be the gate behind which objectively better items are hidden, even more so when you start charging people real money for it. Battlefront II is not EA's first foray into abusive loot boxes, they've been taking advantage of gamblers for years in their MMO SW:tOR, but for the most part those loot crates were cosmetic (with nearly all new cosmetics going to gamblers instead of the subscribing players). That game has since added random loot crates for gear progression — with options to get better gear through in game activities (and the crates themselves are earned through gameplay instead of cash).
The reason it is such a big deal for Battlefront II is because Battlefront was released 2 years ago to a furor over the fact that the game was $60 as well, but the goal was to sell the gamers an expensive season pass. The first Battlefront (of the new series) was initially released as only an online multiplayer game with a miserably small number of game modes and maps — in an attempt get players “invested” in the game so that they would buy additional map packs or the season pass to get the full experience. The idea was simple enough, get people to buy the game and then they would be pressured to buy additional maps and the season pass in order to be able to play with friends who have already purchased everything. It was controversial at the time because they released the game essentially half-finished, with no campaign and as a platform to sell DLC. When Battlefront II was announced a point was made to mention that there would be no season pass nonsense, which made people very happy — but cautious because of EA's long tradition of finding a way to screw over and abuse customers, which was proven to be well-founded with the beta testing making evident that the new game would be nothing more than a microtransaction slot machine.
EA doesn't owe me anything — but they do owe their customers a modicum of respect, which is thrown out the window when they add the random progression systems they have put into games in an effort to feed addicts of either videogames themselves or of gambling. EA doesn't owe people like me who are speaking out about this issue, but the flip-side of that coin is that we don't owe EA one friggin' cent to buy their expoitative games. If they want to go into a full blown pay-to-win mobile game mode on their games, they should not complain when people decide that paying $60 for what have become mobile games on a console/PC is too much. I'm not buying Battlefront II, I'm a huge fan of Star Wars but I won't be throwing money to a company that is callously abusing their customer base.
There has to be a balance between publishers and their need for greed. They have a right to turn a profit, but the cost of making games is not going up, contrary to the industry's protestations. The CEOs of these companies have a responsibility to more than their shareholders. Without customers, there are no shareholders. If a game is being sold with the intent to milk players for DLC, tiered product offerings, season passes, and microtransactions — than an addition of gambling should NOT be tolerated under any circumstances. $140 for the base game with all the bells and whistles followed by random loot boxes is immoral and rightly should be investigated for the anti-consumer practice that it is.