Loot box controversy of Star Wars Battlefront II (2017)
EA's Star Wars Battlefront II was given mixed reviews from critics and gamers due to its massive usage of Loot boxes. Criticisms included how hard it was to get free loot boxes, how it forces lots of grinding to unlock Heroes (i.e Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker), how it turned the game into a pay-to-win experience, and how heavily progression focuses around them. Despite the criticism, EA have tried to defend their actions, later resulting in massive backlash and various debates about the abhorred practise, now referred to as "The Battle Against Loot Boxes".
The October Beta - How Everything Started
From October 6 to 11, EA opened up the game for feedback with access to a beta version of the multiplayer. In the beta, players found that the loot boxes - which yield randomized materials and Star Cards for classes and hero characters - were one of the main pillars of player progression. A common complaint was that the beta's progression system felt designed to encourage players to purchase crates with real money to advance more quickly. EA's beta for Battlefront II would ultimately be a turning point for the game in the public eye, which had been getting a mixed-to-positive reception.
In Battlefront II, Star Cards are in larger abundance compared to the 2015 game, and some cards offer simple yet incredibly effective upgrades. For example, the Assault class' Survivalist Star Card can decrease health regeneration delays by up to 40%. One of the larger criticisms from the beta was that Epic-level Star Cards (the highest grade of Star Card in the game) could be acquired from loot crates, making it possible to reach high-level status early on by buying rather than grinding to earn loot crates. In other words, "paying to win". After the beta, the developers took steps to alter aspects of the game based on player feedback.
EA published a blog post about the state of the game. Citing player feedback, the developers adjusted areas of the progression system. In addition to increasing the rate at which credits are earned by a small amount, the biggest change EA applied to the game was removing Epic-level rewards from crates. Stating that it was done to "help keep everyone on a level playing field," the developers transitioned Epics to the in-game crafting system, which is currently the only way, aside from pre-order and Deluxe Edition bonuses, to acquire the highest-tier Star Cards. Still, concerns about player progression being dependent on the randomized element of loot boxes remained.
November - Raging Storm from Reddit
On November 10, EA released a trial version of Star Wars Battlefront II on Xbox One and PC for members of EA/Origin Access. With a ten-hour time limit, users could experience the first three levels of the campaign and the full multiplayer experience, and all progress would carry over into the final game upon release. This was the first opportunity for many to dive into the final game, which the developers said would always evolve with player feedback. Upon further play however, some fans felt that core mechanics of the game weren't effectively explained, leading many to feel frustration with the restrictions and requirements of the game's economy.
On the Battlefront II Reddit page, a user voiced frustration after taking advantage of one of the micro-transaction options, purchasing 12000 Crystals for $80 (with 10% EA Access discount). Unbeknownst to the player, the Crystals could not be used to purchase any of the hero characters, which are only available to buy in the form of Credits. This user wanted to purchase the Darth Vader hero, who at the time cost 60,000 credits.
Within this thread, an EA spokesperson responded to the post, stating the following:
"The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.
As for cost, we selected initial values based upon data from the Open Beta and other adjustments made to milestone rewards before launch. Among other things, we're looking at average per-player credit earn rates on a daily basis, and we'll be making constant adjustments to ensure that players have challenges that are compelling, rewarding, and of course attainable via gameplay.
We appreciate the candid feedback, and the passion the community has put forth around the current topics here on Reddit, our forums and across numerous social media outlets.
Our team will continue to make changes and monitor community feedback and update everyone as soon and as often as we can."
Unfortunately for EA, many gamers saw this as condemning damage control, so this comment later became the most downvoted comment in Reddit's history with over 675,000 downvotes as of December 2017 until that comment score was locked. In response, EA reduced the in-game cost of all locked Heroes by 75% in which they said it would "Feel like an achievement, but one that is still accessible to most" . However, gamers later found out that the amount of credits earned for clearing the campaign was also reduced by 75%. (It was intended that the campaign reward gave enough credits to unlock the Iden Versio hero. The cost reduction would explain the reduced reward.)
In September 2019, EA's excuse of providing "a sense of pride and accomplishment" Reddit post became immortalised by, of all sources, the Guinness Book of World Records. It was added to the 2020 edition of the book for "Most Down-voted Comment in Reddit History", sitting at a whopping 683,000 negative votes. For context, second place has almost 89,000 negative votes, a gap of nearly 600,000.
Critical Response from Game Journalists
On November 13, press reviews from gaming outlets went live. While many of the reviews praised the production values, claimed that the core gameplay was fun and that the game offered a diverse array of content to play through, the multiplayer progression system was met with widespread criticism. With the game's reliance on loot crates, numerous claimed that the gameplay loop of Battlefront II didn't value player time or investment in the game.
Gamespot and Shacknews gave this game a 6/10 while IGN gave it a 6.5/10. They stated that the gameplay of Battlefront II was impressive. However, they also criticized the loot boxes and micro-transactions that spoiled the fun of the actual game.
Also, famous Youtuber MatPat was originally going to accept a contract from EA for them to sponsor a Star Wars theory video. Due to the heavy backlash towards EA however, he declined the contract.
Accusations of Gambling
After the reviews were out and more players began to dive into the game, Battlefront II found itself under greater scrutiny from the community and press alike. Eventually, mainstream press sites such as CNN and The Huffington Post began to cover the game's focus on micro-transactions and loot crates. Even the BBC published news stories about this entire controversy! This increased attention, along with consumer complaints, led to the Belgian Gaming Commision launching an investigation into the game (in addition to Overwatch) for possible gambling practices. EA released a statement to GameSpot strongly denying such connections to gambling:
"Creating a fair and fun game experience is of critical importance to EA. The crate mechanics of Star Wars Battlefront II are not gambling. A player’s ability to succeed in the game is not dependent on purchasing crates. Players can also earn crates through playing the game and not spending any money at all. Once obtained, players are always guaranteed to receive content that can be used in game."
Further studies have concluded that even if loot boxes aren't gambling by the legal definition, they are still designed to psychologically manipulate players into spending more money the same way slot machines do, and there's evidence that loot boxes do indeed cause addiction in people.
EA's Damage Control Attempt
Hours after the Reddit AMA with DICE developers, and shortly before the game's official launch, players suddenly found that micro-transactions were removed from the game. EA then released a statement from DICE General Manager Oskar Gabrielson announcing that all micro-transactions would be pulled from the game until further notice. He also expressed that the game will continue to evolve, and offer a progression system that would be entirely focused on offering rewards from organically playing the game.
In reality, Disney forced EA to remove the micro-transactions, worrying that the massive backlash could affect the then-upcoming film The Last Jedi. None of EA's statements made any mention of this and instead they painted themselves as "listening to the audience", even though the statement claims that they have full intent to put back the micro-transactions. On March 17 2018, EA announced that micro-transactions will return on April, focused entirely on cosmetic items, which will also be available via in-game credits.
Not only that, EA also told their investors that Micro-transactions don't have any impact on profitability. For years, big publishers have used "Games are too expensive to develop so we need Micro-transactions to make back our costs" as an excuse to flood games with Micro-transactions. With that statement EA confirmed that the "too expensive" excuse was empty PR garbage.
Sometime later EA stated that the reason they used loot boxes for Pay-to-Win progression rather than cosmetic-only items was because "they didn't want to affect Star Wars canon." This was quickly disproved as more PR excuses when data miners found cosmetic loot box items within the game's data.
After EA temporarily removed all micro-transactions from the game, their share price dropped dramatically by more than 8%, losing over $6 billion of shareholder values due to concern from shareholders about EA's future. Despite all this controversy, EA has shown no interest in changing their ways as seen by how EA Sports UFC 3 is also planned to be filled with Pay-to-Win loot boxes for everything. In fact, according to Beta testers, the Pay-to-Win in EA Sports UFC 3 seems to be even worse than in Star Wars Battlefront II.
On March 21 2018, EA released an update for the game that removed all Star Cards from loot boxes, which now drop only credits and cosmetic items. Recent leaks suggest that EA plans to abandon Battlefront II because it failed to become the loot box cash-cow they wanted it to be.
Even after the controversy and massive backlash, EA continues to defend loot boxes and make very questionable claims in their attempts to damage control loot boxes, such as claiming that "loot box regulations affects the ability to innovate" which keeps resulting in them getting more and more backlash.
In January 2021, Disney announced that they would not renew EA's exclusive license to make Star Wars games.
Legalisation against Loot Boxes
In the wake of the controversy, several governments from around the world have begun proposing laws against loot boxes in a very similar vein to how Mortal Kombat caused government action against violent games prior to the ESRB's creation. In particular, Hawaii representative Chris Lee proposed two pairs of bills that where designed to regulate loot boxes in the state, including a ban on selling games with loot boxes to anyone under the age of 21, and another that prevented publishers from adding gambling mechanics post-launch. At least 5 more states have also joined Chris Lee's cause at time of writing.
In theory, if this law is approved games with loot boxes would be forced to have an ESRB rating of AO (Adults Only). It should be noted that AO games are strictly banned from all major consoles, and many retailers refuse to carry games with that rating, meaning loot boxes would only be allowed digitally on PC.
On the other hand, this turn of events has raised many concerns that government regulation could lead to over-reach from their part. Chris Lee has stated that he intends to avoid that and many supporters of anti-Loot Box legislation have pointed out that the only reason governments are getting involved in the first place is because the Gaming Industry has refused to regulate itself for far too long now and still shows no interest in doing so. It has also been discovered that the ESRB and it's parent company, the ones who should be in charge of regulation, are owned and controlled by the companies who want loot boxes to go unchecked.
Loot Boxes in video games were officially declared illegal under Belgium's gambling laws on April 26 2018. This meant that all companies could now be subject to criminal law and that Loot Boxes that can be bought with real life money will now have to be removed from all video games in Belgium.
Ironically, Star Wars Battlefront II, the very game that sparked the entire legislation attempts, is no longer affected by them because EA was forced to remove the Loot Boxes from it.