The lead up to Star Wars Battlefront II was full of excitement. The original game, itself a reboot of the beloved LucasArts series, proved that EA-owned developer DICE was capable of fusing the world of Star Wars with a competitive shooter. But it was also a relatively light experience that players burned out on quickly. The sequel promised not only a bigger, more complex multiplayer mode, but also the much-requested addition of a story campaign. However, when the game finally came out, the conversation wasn’t about how it played or whether it was a significant improvement over the original.
Instead, Battlefront II was embroiled in controversy, thanks to what many saw as an overly aggressive use of loot boxes and microtransactions, tied to a progression system that incentivized spending real money. The response was so severe that EA pulled all in-game purchases before the game even launched, and recently introduced a patch that revamped how progression works.
According to Patrick Söderlund, a long-time EA executive who just yesterday was made the company’s chief design officer, the last six months post-release have been an important learning experience for the company. And it’s been an experience that will help shape how EA operates moving forward. “I’d be lying to you if I said that what’s happened with Battlefront and what’s happened with everything surrounding loot boxes and these things haven’t had an effect on EA as a company and an effect on us as management,” he explains. “We can shy away from it and pretend like it didn’t happen, or we can act responsibly and realize that we made some mistakes, and try to rectify those mistakes and learn from them.”
Battlefront II isn’t the only high-profile game to experience this kind of backlash, of course. Other blockbuster titles like Destiny 2 and Middle-earth: Shadow of War were subject to similar, if less vitriolic, controversies for their inclusion of loot boxes and various microtransactions. (Last month Shadow of War removed microtransactions, while Destiny 2 continues to deal with a disgruntled community six months from launch.) As the business model and player expectations have changed for large-scale games, many developers have struggled to figure out how to balance creating a massive, ongoing experience with earning ongoing revenue to support that.
Some games get around this by offering mostly cosmetic upgrades, like Blizzard’s consistently popular shooter Overwatch, or the hottest game of the moment, Fortnite: Battle Royale. But things get murkier when real-money upgrades impact the way the game actually plays, especially for multiplayer experiences, as was the initial structure of Battlefront II. Many players saw the game’s loot boxes — where you could spend real money for a randomized item that could directly impact multiplayer competition — as a way of encouraging spending cash on in-game success.
“We had the intent that was designed for us to have more people play it over a longer period of time,” explains Söderlund of the decision to include loot boxes. “And like a lot of other games on the market, to be able to afford to do that we had an idea of getting returns from that. But at the same time, we got it wrong. And as a result, we had to take very quick and drastic actions to turn everything off, and we’ve since worked and redesigned the progression system. People seem to appreciate what we’ve done, players are coming back, and we’re seeing stronger engagement numbers. People seem to think that for the most part, we got it right. It doesn’t mean we will stop. We’ll continue to improve the game, we’ll continue to push on these things, and we’ll have to be very cautious with what this means for future products.”
Söderlund says he’s hopeful that Battlefront II can still be saved; early in the year, the company announced that the game missed its sales targets, which EA blamed on the loot box controversy. But a bigger question might be how the experience will impact future EA games. The most pressing concern is Anthem, the next release from EA studio BioWare, which is set to release next year. Similar to Destiny, the game is set in a shared online sci-fi world, where players can team up to complete missions together. As a persistent online game, Anthem will likely have some kind of in-game purchases, and Söderlund says that, following Battlefront II, EA is looking at this area with more scrutiny than ever.
“We have taken significant steps as a company to review and understand the mechanics around monetization, loot boxes, and other things in our games before they go to market,” he says. “For games that come next, for Battlefield or for Anthem, [players have] made it very clear that we can’t afford to make similar mistakes. And we won’t.” Microtransactions will be added back to Battlefront II starting next week, but will only include cosmetic items.
Of course, Battlefront is just one of many games to come out of a massive publisher like EA, and aside from it, the company has seen a lot of success of late. EA Sports titles like FIFA and Madden continue to do very well thanks in part to microtransactions, and the company’s new EA Originals indie publishing label is off to a great start. The recently released A Way Out, a co-operative crime caper, has sold more than 1 million copies in its first three weeks. (As Söderlund points out, this means that more than 2 million people have played it, since co-op is a requirement and players can share the full game with friends.) And because EA doesn’t actually make a profit on Originals games — once development costs are covered, all sales go back to the developer — this means that creator Hazelight Studios is primed for a windfall. “It’s something that we should be doing,” Söderlund says of supporting smaller game studios.
This more philanthropic side of EA can seem at odds with the public perception of the company. Earlier this decade, the publisher was voted the “worst company in America” by Consumerist readers two years in a row, thanks to things like Mass Effect 3’s controversial ending, and the decision to make the hotly anticipated SimCity 5 an always-online experience. EA tried to perform some corporate soul-searching to address these complaints, including installing Andrew Wilson as its new CEO in 2013. Yesterday, Wilson shuffled the company’s executive team, which he said would “sharpen focus on the creative core of EA.”
Yet for every beloved game the company releases, another controversy always seems to arrive. Battlefront II’s loot boxes are just the latest example. Söderlund started his career as a developer at Battlefield studio DICE before it was acquired by EA, and when speaking to him it’s very clear he’s passionate about the games the company makes, Battlefront II included. And he sees the process of changing that public perception as something of a personal mission.
“It’s clear to us that players see the company differently than we do,” he says. “And in that situation, as a member of the executive team, as the guy who runs all of the studios, I have to take that seriously. And we have to continue to listen and understand what’s triggering that. We have to be very cautious of what we do.” But Söderlund acknowledges that only the company’s actions, not its words, will make a true difference.
“We have to take action and show people that we’re serious about building the best possible products, that we’re serious about treating the players fair, and we’re here to make the best possible entertainment that we can,” he says. “And in the cases where we don’t get it right, we just have to listen and learn from it and be better.”