Playing the Short Game: Why EA Showed Little Faith in ‘Battlefront II’

Jeremy Ray
Games PlayStation
Games PlayStation PC Gaming Xbox Star Wars

We’re now on the third iteration of backpedalling from EA on Battlefront II‘s loot boxes, as microtransactions have temporarily been removed from the game altogether.

It’s not an easy fix, because these microtransactions don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re part of a larger design. Given the original blueprint, I’m struggling to think of an explanation that reconciles the most odious brand of loot boxes with any kind of long-term strategy.

It seems like any chance of a longer lifespan wasn’t even considered, and I find EA’s lack of faith disturbing.

According to DICE general manager Oskar Gabrielson:

We hear you loud and clear, so we’re turning off all in-game purchases. We will now spend more time listening, adjusting, balancing and tuning. This means that the option to purchase crystals in the game is now offline, and all progression will be earned through gameplay. The ability to purchase crystals in-game will become available at a later date, only after we’ve made changes to the game. We’ll share more details as we work through this.

What a shambles.

The cynical monetisation scheme offered the ability to pay money for random Star Cards, the rarest of which bestow upgrades such as a 30 percent increase in health. It managed to capture everything wrong with loot boxes on both the pay-to-win side, and the ethically dubious gambling side.

After the multiplayer beta, EA issued a statement saying it would be making the top tier of Star Cards only accessible by play. It also quartered the amount of points needed to unlock heroes after it was shown how many dozens of hours it would take to unlock just one them.

Yet up until now, the loot crates (and Star Cards inside them) had always given a gameplay advantage. It seems that EA hadn’t truly gotten the memo that paying for winning was never a good idea — no matter how dialed down — and is now frantically searching for a way to fix its design so it can monetise a level playing field.

Mind you, the system we’re left with still isn’t great, or even fair. Those with a ridiculous amount of hours now hold the cards. Those who bought in early can keep their rare bonuses, making them even more valuable.

The whole thing could have been avoided if these numerical increases were easy to obtain and had strategic value. Or if rewards were kept cosmetic.

There’s been a fair amount of negative press about this — including the most downvoted Reddit post of all time — and it’s possible that this, plus pressure from Disney, prompted EA to nix its microtransactions.

But looking at EA’s recent history with shooters, it’s not too far-fetched to wonder if it never envisioned Battlefront II lasting more than a few months, and aimed to squeeze as much out of that time as possible.

Shoot For The Stars

I spent 20 minutes with Battlefront in 2015 at a trade show, and walked out of that pre-release session very worried about the game. And with good reason.

Since 2015’s Battlefront, this franchise has been aiming low. The developers were quite open about the fact that they were targeting casual Star Wars fans. They wanted to get the sights and sounds of Star Wars right, to put you into the moment, to let you relive the cinematic experience — nevermind all that hardcore FPS stuff like “balance,” “points of interest” or “objectives.”

Here’s the thing: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with pleasing casual franchise fans, but that doesn’t equate to targeting a lack of depth. Somewhere along the line, Battlefront confused “accessible” with “simple,” and we were left with nothing but aesthetics.

It’s completely possible to design for accessibility while retaining a deep experience worthy of hundreds of hours. Just ask Divekick. Or Fantasy Strike.

Star Wars Battlefront II loot box multiplayer

It doesn’t take long for FPS veterans to sniff out a shallow shooter, especially after a multiplayer beta. But for someone who occasionally dips into gaming and loves Star Wars, this might be a harder problem to spot.

That’s the gamer I’m worried about. That’s the gamer who might buy randomised Star Cards after seeing exorbitant unlock costs, only to log on a month later to an empty server. But most of all, I’m worried that EA’s focus on that gamer means this entire thing is a short-term play.

As we’ve noted, Battlefront II has learned a lot about objective-based play since the last game. But it’s relying heavily on its singleplayer offering to sell the game, and its multiplayer is still eschewing any kind of serious competitive play. So why are its unlocks and challenges built for a two year slog?

As early as Battlefront II announcing its singleplayer campaign, I became worried. Just like those 20 minutes with the first game, my Spidey sense was tingling — because we’ve seen this before.

Singleplayer Isn’t the Answer

Much noise was made after the failure of 2015’s Battlefront about how the lack of a singleplayer campaign hurt it. This is absolute nonsense. The game was disappointing squarely because of its simplistic multiplayer and nothing else. The solution to a longevity problem isn’t injecting a six hour campaign.

In very recent memory, there’s another EA game that made an identical mistake. When Titanfall‘s multiplayer didn’t go the distance, EA invested in a singleplayer campaign in Titanfall 2. It even did a good job with it. Better than Battlefront II.

It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now — because singleplayer was never the problem. Titanfall‘s multiplayer had its own issues that needed to be sorted out, mostly stemming from Respawn holding the reins too tightly. It was a game about parkour in which you couldn’t privately learn parkour routes. As a result, several Youtube videos titled “Titanfall parkour guide: Part 1″ sprung up.

Part 2 never came. The game didn’t let us go that deep.

After a few months, Titanfall‘s server populations dwindled. The same happened for Battlefront, dipping to just 9,000 players on PC two months after release. The same then happened for Titanfall 2, despite its impressive singleplayer campaign. Now, we’re about to see it happen with Battlefront II.

Monetising Longevity

The worst part about the hero unlock costs, to me, wasn’t the time required. It was the time required relative to how long the game will be around.

Hanlon’s Razor says to never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity, but I find it unlikely no one at EA had crunched the numbers here. Battlefield games aside, there’s a trend of EA shooters fizzling after a few months. Yet the heroes were priced as though we were going to spend the whole holiday period unlocking force users.

So what gives? Why implement a long-term progression scheme in a short-term game, only to offer a progression shortcut for money?

Has the server population dropoff become so normal at EA it’s planning microtransactions around them? Was all of this just a move to monetise the first three months?

Star Wars Battlefront II multiplayer

All its microtransactions are temporarily dead now, but this still displays a gross lack of confidence in its own game. If EA believed this game was going to be populated for two years, it would have planned for a much steadier, more palatable monetisation structure. It would have made a two year game.

I don’t think I’m privy to any secret information here. I think every DICE developer, from general manager to playtester, is aware of the longevity problem. If 2015’s Battlefront was a game you get tired of after one evening, Battlefront II is a game you get tired of after a week or two. It’s better — but it ain’t running the marathon.

The cringey question that follows is whether or not EA put its money on monetising the short game instead of investing in the long game. It’s the difference between a game designed simply and a game designed cynically, and while it’s good to see DICE responding to feedback hours before launch, it’s far too late to redesign the game.

You can rip out the microtransactions. But you can’t rip out the lack of faith that’s irreversibly baked into Battlefront II‘s design.

Jeremy Ray
Managing Editor at FANDOM. Decade-long games critic and esports aficionado. Started in competitive Counter-Strike, then moved into broadcast, online, print and interpretative pantomime. You merely adopted the lag. I was born in it.
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