How And Why EA Lost Control Of The Message
The run up to the launch of Star Wars: Battlefront 2 has been a rough time for EA. Initial fan grumbling about the progression system and microtransactions came to a head with an EACommunityTeam Reddit account getting the most downvoted comment in Reddit history. Many of the account’s other comments also reside in the Top 10 Most Downvoted list. The people who frequent the Star Wars Battlefront subreddit turned against the game in a major way. EA reacted by reducing the cost of unlocking Heroes in the game, but it didn’t seem to stem the tide.
Yesterday, news stories began to break that various Gaming Commissions would be investigating loot boxes to see if they constitute a form of gambling. CNN ran a story, reaching out to Disney for comment. That may well have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, as a few hours later EA announced that they were removing Crystals, a paid currency within the game, on a temporary basis until they figure out the best way to implement a micotransaction system.
For the optimists this is a win, for the pessimists it is simply a delay in what they perceive as an unfair system designed to coax more money out of their pockets. The reality of it may be a little more complicated than either scenario. For EA, it was an attempt to generate headlines that read “EA Removes Microtransactions” and change the tone of the conversation.
Bad Gets Badder
The absolute worst scenario for EA was that this would become as big a story as it turned into, and anyone with experience in PR work will recognize a situation where a company has lost control of the message. PR and Marketing are very different worlds than they used to be, social media and the internet have slowly eroded people’s ability to control their brand message. A witty comment or a meme can go viral in an hour, reaching millions of people. These will then inform public opinion as much as the most detailed and researched articles, and will have as much impact as the most fine tuned and market researched advertisements.
The surprising thing here is that EA have arguably been in worse situations than this, from a PR point of view. They were voted the Worst Company In America. They have suffered through some bad game launches in recent years in the form of Sim City and Battlefield 4, which were both beset by their own issues and instabilities. Things never seemed to get as bad for them as they have this time though, the message quickly spinning out of control until eventually, untruths were reported as fact. One such story was about EA removing the Refund button from Origin in an attempt to stem any cancellations of preorders. The story turned out to be untrue, but a lie can be half way around the world before the truth can get its pants on.
Add to this the story of an EA dev making claims of death threats and harassment who would turn out to be a fake, just a guy on Twitter who had spent years pretending to work for EA, and at times the entire story took on the most surreal of appearances.
As I said earlier, the reality of the situation is arguably more complex, but the real clue comes in the form of EA’s inability to get control of the story. To get to the bottom of this, we need to consider what is different about this game and other games they have published. The obvious factor here is Disney. Star Wars is not an IP that EA own, it is something that they work with at the behest of a larger corporate entity. EA are not the boss in this scenario, they are more of a contractor who needs to meet the agreed upon requirements with Disney, and who more than likely have limited power over what they can and cannot do with the license, and the message. With these games coming out within the same windows as Star Wars movies, it is a tense scenario for EA. The value of their relationship with Disney is not that they are making Star War: Battlefront 2, it is that they are making multiple games with a popular license across various developers. It is a relationship that needs to be protected.
As such, there has been a lack of decisiveness in dealing with the negative spin, driven by a need to do the right thing for outside forces, rather than just for EA itself. There could be multiple reasons for this, but we know that EA need to keep Disney happy, and with Disney comes other pressures. We still have a report from CNBC about investors being aware that a licensed game such as Star Wars: Battlefront 2 will result in lower profits directly for EA, due to Disney holding the IP and netting some of those profits. The message was clear, they expected microtransactions to be pushed within the game in an effort to improve its profitability.
Turning The Tide
The removal of microtransactions, even temporarily, needs to be seen for what it is, a last ditch effort to take back control of the message, prompted by the involvement of a powerful and cautious IP holder in the story by a major news corporation. Fan backlash may have started the ball rolling, but it was the prodding of major news entities that really got it up to speed.
EA cannot simply strip microtransactions out of the game, the implication is there that this would shake investor confidence, investors who are waiting on the application of microtransactions to increase their dividends and improve their return on investment. They also cannot simply wait a month or two then return to the system that has been denounced by fans. Contrary to popular theories currently doing the rounds, this would result in a massive negative impact, one that Disney as the IP holder may not be willing to tolerate.
There is also the fact that the game was developed with a synergy between progression and microtransactions in mind, but this synergy is now gone. What is left is a progression system which, in an of itself, is not winning the game any favors either, with changes to it already being forced by the same backlash that had microtransactions removed.
At this point it is also important to note that the way microtransactions were used within the game did not just draw ire from fans and games media, but also from people within the developer community. It was pointed out by people experienced in introducing these systems to games that DICE’s effort to do so was flawed.
One of the most accepted forms of microtransactions in games is the “cosmetics only” model, and many people wondered why the game did not implement such a system. Some people claimed that it was a licensing issue and that Disney were tightly controlling how things in the game looked. This argument was then undermined by an AMA that DICE/EA did on Reddit where they stated that they were in fact working on and hoping to implement cosmetics within the game.
This is also indicative of a problem which now dogs both EA and DICE on social media, these conversations are happening outside of areas that they control. In the wilds of social media, theories can be offered or disputed for any number of reasons, and we have had a harsh lesson this week in not trusting someone simply because they claim to work for a company. Various social programs have also led to a small population of people who feel not just the need, but also the qualification, to defend and explain things for DICE and EA at every turn. These are not PR trained, marketing briefed spokespeople. They are simply gamers, sometimes mods for forums or Youtubers, who feel a connection to the companies through their products and marketing, driven by a need to defend what they enjoy.
I would assume that EA and DICE will take the next couple of months to come up with a means of doing microtransactions that they can be confident in, and decisive when discussing. The idea of a fluid system that they floated when making the changes to Hero prices sounds nice, but it leaves people unsure if the price they will be charged for something today will be the same as the price next week. It undercuts both consumer and investor confidence in product stability while seeming to do little to assuage the fears of those who are already on the verge of being pushed out of the brands ecosystem. When EA come to market with their new microtransaction system it needs to be clearly and concisely explained, with no room for errors. The message cannot be allowed to be taken over by small groups who wish to either trash or defend the game.
For now, removing microtransactions might be enough to get them a reasonably smooth launch, but I don’t see the people who have already canceled their pre-orders being inspired to jump back onto the bandwagon. EA still need to do more to take control of the message that slipped away from them this week, but I still think that this will be tougher than people realize because the simple fact is that this time, EA are in uncharted waters. They are not the final say in this scenario, and the specter of Disney will always be hovering above Star War: Battlefront 2.