Opinion: Star Wars Battlefront II‘s microtransactions aren’t a debacle, they’re an experiment

It’s been a crazy couple of months for Star Wars Battlefront II, and the game hasn’t even technically launched yet. After an open beta that ended in community uproar over pervasive multiplayer microtransactions, a new controversy has erupted over the amount of in-game currency required to unlock major characters. Gamer forums and subreddits have been rife this week with cries of “why would they think they could get away with this?” but everyone seems to be missing a crucial point. EA knew you were going to be mad about this stuff. What they wanted to know was exactly how mad.

From the moment the Battlefront II beta began, players expressed concern that the game was leaning far too openly into a pay-to-win model, offering substantial combat buffs to anyone that spent real money on loot boxes. As the tide of public opinion turned against them, EA appeared to retreat for a while, letting the criticism run its course from a boil to a simmer before announcing they had rebalanced the game’s entire approach to microtransactions and progression. The news was met with comparitively little resistance from the community.

Yesterday saw an EA representative on the official Star Wars Battlefront subreddit attempt to allay concerns that in-game characters, specifically Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, could only be unlocked by paying a steep amount of in-game currency. This currency could be purchased with microtransactions or ground out through the normal course of play. Some Reddit users began to do the math on how long it would take them to grind out that much coin (40 hours a week for several weeks). EA’s attempt to soothe the tide of anger in the subreddit, a comment stating that the “intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes” became the most downvoted comment in Reddit history within a matter of hours, and as of this writing is still accumulating downvotes as people board the negativity bandwagon for fun rather than to articulate a point.

This morning, EA announced they were cutting the amounts required to unlock heroes by 75% in response to player feedback.

It all feels a bit stage-managed to me, like the plan was always to test the waters, see how churned up they got and adjust revenue stream systems accordingly. “Let’s start with the over-the-top Tier 1 pay-to-win strategy we know isn’t going to fly. Okay, that made them pretty mad but not super mad. Let them sit with it for a few weeks and then take it down to Tier 3, see how they react.”

“WOAH, they’re really mad about the unlock costs. Let’s take that all the way back to Tier 5. Roll that out immediately and see how they respond.”

The question isn’t “What can we do to make the experience better for the player?” They don’t care about that. EA have to pay for this monster of a game and the price of admission isn’t going to cover the marketing budget, much less production. The question is “What are you happy to pay for?” And with every angry post and trolling comment, you’re telling them. You’re giving them everything they want.

They may have ended up with the all-time downvote record on Reddit yesterday, but EA really couldn’t have worked the situation better. The secret to winning at Reddit is to make Reddit feel smart. There’s nothing Reddit gets off on more than its own sense of smug superiority. Give Reddit an opening for a “We’re Right” circle jerk and watch how quickly they take you up on it. How many more people are paying attention to the Battlefront story now that they’ve obliterated the downvote record? How many more people are going to see the response, the response EA always had up their sleeve, and feel as though they affected some kind of change or positive outcome? 15,000 gold is still a lot to unlock a high-tier character, but you’re provably less mad about the new prices and that’s all they wanted to know. Normally, EA would have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on market research for that kind of feedback. Reddit gave them everything they wanted for free.

In a blog post this morning addressing player feedback from the Reddit meltdown, Battlefront II developer DICE’s John Wasilczyk explained that they’d heard player feedback and updated the game to better reflect player expectations, claiming that “Change will be a constant in Star Wars Battlefront II.” One feels like that headline should be appended with an asterisk and a footnote reading “*and that was always the plan.”