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‘Star Wars’ Video Game Microtransactions Ignite Controversy

With the excitement already building for the year-end release of the latest “Star Wars” film, the new video game “Star Wars: Battlefront II” was poised to capitalize on all the excitement for the vaunted Disney franchise.

Unfortunately for Electronic Arts, the video game studio behind “Battlefront II,” controversy and fan anger over the game’s microtransactions greatly decreased enthusiasm for its November launch, illustrating increasing consumer discontent with some current trends in the gaming industry.

Microtransactions refer to a business model where virtual goods, such as characters, costumes, or weapons, can be purchased online for small sums of real currency. One form of microtransactions are loot boxes, a type of unlockable in-game content that contains a randomized selection of items. These loot boxes can either be earned through normal gameplay or can also often be purchased for real money.

The purchasable items in “Battlefront II” are being roundly criticized for providing a dramatically different gameplay experience and provide an unfair advantage over players who do not purchase them.

In the week before the game’s wide release, “Battlefront II” was made available to play for subscribers to the EA Access service. But in order to unlock iconic character Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader, estimates had gamers needing to spend 60,000 in-game credits which could be earned after an estimated 40 hours of gameplay.

While characters like Vader could not be purchased for money, players not willing to invest that amount of time could instead purchase crystals, a separate type of in-game currency than the credits, which could be used to buy loot boxes in the hopes that the boxes would contain the items they want. Crystals ranged in price from $5 for 500 to $100 for 12,000 crystals.

Word quickly spread around the internet and upset many people who were anticipating the game’s release. EA responded to the situation on Reddit, saying that the high unlock requirements were meant to give players a “sense of accomplishment”; the comment quickly became the most downvoted comment in the website’s history.

By one estimate on the fan website SWTOR Strategies, it would take 4,528 hours of gameplay or spending $2,100 to unlock all of the game’s content. EA then cut the unlock prices by 75%, so a top-tier character like Darth Vader now cost 15,000 credits as opposed to 60,000.

Other gaming companies quickly got in on the joke. The Starcraft II Twitter account took aim at EA, tweeting “Number of pay-to-win mechanics in StarCraft II: 0.” Game developer CD Projekt Red tweeted that their upcoming game “Cyberpunk 2077” would have “no hidden catch, you get what you pay for — no bullshit, just honest gaming…. We leave greed to others.”

The day before the game’s wide release, EA announced that while the loot boxes would remain in the game, microtransactions would temporarily be suspended. However, reports that Walt Disney consumer products and interactive media chairman Jimmy Pitaro contacted EA CEO Andrew Wilson hours before the announcement suggested the possibility that Disney strong-armed EA into suspending microtransactions in order to protect the “Star Wars” brand image.

But EA also signaled that microtransactions will be returned to the game after changes are made, a reflection of how crucial they are to “Battlefront II” achieving profitability.

EA’s big fumble illustrates the delicacy with which companies will have to approach microtransactions in the future. When it comes to popular intellectual property, the companies that own those rights will likely become more involved earlier on to ensure that fan engagement with the property remains positive, according to Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter.

“I do think for the next version of ‘Star Wars,’ Disney is going to get involved earlier before EA springs it on an unsuspecting consumer,” he said.

Following the announcement, EA released a statement to investors that the “change is not expected to have a material impact on EA’s fiscal year.” Pachter agrees, stating that most people who purchase “Star Wars” games are gift-givers who would be unaware of the controversy and doubts that after the changes, more than three percent of prospective buyers will still be angry enough not to buy the game.

CNBC reported that Evan Wingren, an analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets called the negativity surrounding “Battlefront II” an “overreaction,” claimed that gamers were being undercharged for games, and even that it would be a good time to purchase stock in EA.

However, according to Eurogamer, physical sales of the game have dropped 60% compared to EA’s previous “Battlefront” game, although this does not account for digital purchases of the game, which could have been much higher. According to CNBC, EA shares have declined 10 percent month to date through Monday.

This is not the first time that EA has met the ire of gamers and “Star Wars” fans. When the first game of the “Battlefront” series reboot and the third title in the franchise was released, EA also sold a $50 season pass of extra downloadable content (DLC), causing consumers to accuse EA of selling an unfinished game and finding an excuse to raise the price tag to $110. Following the fan outrage, the company announced that the DLC for “Battlefront II” would all be free.

A recent trend in gaming has seen game developers shift away from paid DLC content to providing free DLC but incorporating microtransactions and loot boxes into their games. While loot boxes and microtransactions initially began with cosmetic items, like outfits or character “skins” that do not affect gameplay, fans have complained that more recent titles like “Battlefront II” and Warner Bros.’s “Middle Earth: Shadow of War” have demonstrated a tendency toward a pay-to-win model, where powerful weapons, characters, or other game-changing content are available for purchase, thus making the game unfair for players who are unwilling to spend extra money.

Though “Shadow of War,” which is tied to the universe of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” initially drew the anger of consumers for its microtransactions and loot boxes, the controversy died down as players discovered that the game-changing items provided were not necessary to complete the game nor did they provide too much of an advantage.

Belgian and Dutch authorities are looking to regulate loot boxes, arguing that by putting loot boxes in games marketed towards children and making them available for purchase with real money without knowing what they will contain in return, games encourage gambling in children. On Tuesday, the Belgian gambling commission declared loot boxes a form of gambling and are now looking to have them banned across Europe.

Pachter, who is a lawyer, said that while he is unfamiliar with Dutch or Belgian law, such a suit should not have any legal basis under U.S. law since items received do not have a tangible monetary value attached.

However, that sentiment is not shared by Hawaiian politicians, who are making efforts to have loot boxes classified as gambling; have games containing loot boxes restricted from purchase by anyone under age 21; and restricting those types of mechanisms in games.

“This game is a Star Wars-themed online casino designed to lure kids into spending money. It’s a trap,” said Hawaiian state representative Chris Lee. “This is something we need to address to ensure that particularly kids who are underage, who are not psychologically and emotionally mature enough to gamble — which is why gambling is prohibited under [the age of] 21 — are protected from being trapped into these cycles which have compelled many folks to spend thousands of dollars in gaming fees online.”

While this new legislative effort may have an uncertain future, industry analysts and veterans believe that microtransactions and loot boxes are not going anywhere. While the industry transitions away from paid DLC, Pachter believes that companies will follow the models of Blizzard’s “Overwatch,” whose loot box and microtransaction items are all cosmetic, and Bungie’s “Destiny 2,” which rolled out its microtransaction content in a more controlled manner and wasn’t tied to massive IP and fan expectations.

“You didn’t hear anybody complain about ‘Destiny’ or ‘Overwatch,’ which is ongoing and doing $100 million a quarter in microtransactions,” he said. “I think there’ll be a tilt back towards cosmetic stuff. People like to dress their characters in outfits. People will buy them.”

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