BIG BUDGET video games are being inflicted with a new scourge — microtransactions, a business model where customers can pay small amounts of money to buy digital in-game items or to skip whole parts of a game they already paid £50 for.
Assassin’s Creed Origins, For Honour, Fifa 18, Madden 18, Middle Earth: Shadow of War, Call of Duty: WWII and many more titles this year are all trying to squeeze as much money from their players as possible. But none has tried quite so brazenly as Star Wars Battlefront II (SWBII).
Released last week (November 17), SWBII is a first-person shooter set in the Star Wars universe in which players blast it out online in huge 40 vs 40 battles as general grunts and cannon fodder from either the Rebel Alliance or the Galactic Empire.
Players can also wreak havoc as well-known characters from the films, such as the light sabre-wielding Luke Skywalker, Yoda, Darth Vader etc or the laser gun-toting Han Solo, Princess Leia, Boba Fett etc.
In the first game, gamers could play these “hero” characters by collecting their icons which were randomly dropped on the digital battlefield. New weapons, equipment and abilities could also be unlocked via credits, an in-game digital currency that players earned after each online match depending on their performance.
With the sequel, however, developers Dice, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts (EA), must have been blinded by dollar signs when they decided to stash new weapons, equipment and abilities behind randomised loot boxes, which can also be bought via microtransactions, and boost the credits needed to unlock hero characters way up.
During beta trials of SWBII, gamers and journalists found that players who spent real-life money on loot boxes were substantially rewarded with better gear than those who bought them with in-game credits.
Other players found that they would need to play the game for roughly 40 hours before earning enough to pay for just one of the hero characters.
The randomised nature of the loot boxes also meant that people were paying real money for the chance to unlock the best gear. And seeing as the game has a teen rating, SWBII gained a reputation as a sort of gambling gateway drug for kids. Hawaii’s Democratic representative Chris Lee branded the game an “online casino designed to lure kids into spending money.”
The outrage over the game’s money-grabbing strategy eventually caused EA share prices to dip by 2.5 per cent on the day of the game’s release. In response, EA has temporarily disabled all of the game’s microtransactions and slashed the price of hero characters by 75 per cent.
In most games, microtransactions are only used for cosmetic items, like a new hat for a certain character or a lick of paint for your favourite gun. There are stories of people spending thousands of pounds on digital gear, which doesn’t fill one with much hope for humanity, but gamers rarely care because these items rarely, if ever, affect gameplay.
But since SWBII’s microtransactions effectively allowed players to pay to win and tried to get kids into gambling, it seems that Dice wanted to build a Star War game around them.
Big budget video games are more expensive to make than ever and there’s an argument that developers and publishers need microtransactions to offset this cost, but I don’t buy that. According to a report by market researchers Newzoo, 2017 has been “a landmark in the history of the games market, with revenues exceeding the $100 billion mark to total $109bn.”
The games industry is incredibly fickle and publishers close down development studios all the time. So another argument goes that developers need a constant stream of microtransactions to be able to stay in business, but I’m not convinced that predatory monetisation systems in video games is the answer. Proper workplace organisation would go a long way.
When you buy other forms of entertainment, you’re never prompted for more money to unlock characters or to skip certain parts. It wasn’t so long ago that, when you bought a video game, everything on that disc or cartridge was yours. Microtransactions represent the greed of our neoliberal age, making profit from things we never had to pay for before.