Ahead of Star Wars: Battlefront II‘s launch in a few weeks, its publisher EA posted an announcement on Tuesday. “We’ve listened to your feedback,” the post begins, and the rest of the update about this online multiplayer game focuses on one issue revealed during the game’s October beta test: loot boxes.
“The beta gave us a welcome chance to test all of our systems in action and tune things up for better balance,” the post states. “A few weeks back, we mentioned we were going to take another look at how the progression system works.”
The resulting changes and tweaks, on their face, look like a positive step away from the most poisonous aspects of loot boxes, particularly in paid retail games. But what do the changes really mean for the game, and has EA undone enough loot-box damage with this announcement?
Altered the deal further
Over the past month, I’ve written at length about the rapid loot boxening of the games industry, a practice that has admittedly been part of PC and mobile games far longer than this year. The practice bakes a random-item giveaway gimmick into video games. You can earn these random in-game items through normal gameplay, but more often than not, games intentionally make this a slow grind that—wouldn’tcha know—can be sped up with a flash of real-world cash.
This is already an obnoxious practice when it comes to “non-essential” items like outfits, “graffiti tags,” and other “non-gameplay” accoutrements, especially since this turns a slot machine-like endorphin hit into a default gameplay incentive. But 2017 saw publishers take the troubling step of attaching hard gameplay modifiers to loot boxes. Forza Motorsport 7 and Middle-earth: Shadow of War both tied gameplay-changing elements to the randomly generated contents of their loot boxes, meaning in certain cases, you could only play parts of the game a certain way if you lucked into the right thing inside a loot box (or could, you know, keep buying loot boxes until you got that right modifier or soldier).
Star Wars: Battlefront II appeared to alter the deal further. The game’s beta test revealed a loot box system, dubbed “crates,” which, at the time, looked pretty bad. Every additional SWBF2 weapon and ability—meaning, every in-game addition to your standard control suite—was locked behind a “star card” system, and you could only get star cards out of crates. To be fair, default crates were given out for every first time you played a certain clbad, which meant that players already had that stuff (and were simply given a “doesn’t that feel good?” tease of opening a SWBF2 crate, which is kind of grody).
Otherwise, that left pretty much all of the game’s updates locked behind crates, including those that apply to the game’s four soldier clbades, three spaceship clbades, and all additional perks for the game’s big-ticket, capital-letter Hero and Villain characters (Darth Maul, Han Solo, etc.). That says nothing for the fact that additional star cards are required to level up each of these clbades’ various aspects from bronze to silver and gold tiers. Should your crate-opening process lead to junk (and it inevitably will, thanks to cosmetic and duplicate stuff landing in the same crates), your alternative is to break down existing star cards into “scrap” and spend that on things you actually want to upgrade. In the beta, scrap appeared to be very slow to accumulate.
Changes since the beta?
EA’s announcement says that some of this is changing. First off, the game’s “epic” star cards will no longer be earned randomly via crates. instead, you can either craft them, get them by default in “starter packs,” or, geez, buy them outright via pre-order and deluxe packs. (We don’t yet know the exact breakdown of which epic star cards will be relegated in particular packs.) Additionally, that crafting option won’t be available until players have reached a certain level in the game, which means players can’t just jump in and immediately buy their way into crafting those epic cards (though once you’ve reached a high enough level, you apparently can spend your way to those epic cards).
Importantly, most of the game’s weapons have been removed from the crate-unlock systems, though exactly how many will remain crate-exclusive is unclear. (At least a few, from what EA said on Tuesday.) Clbad-specific weapons will be locked behind each clbad’s milestones—meaning, if you want a certain Specialist gun, keep playing as the Specialist clbad to earn it. (That’s how weapon-unlock progression works in most modern online shooters.)
And the last change is a little vague, suggesting that the game will dole out additional crates based on clbad-specific performance. “As you progress through your favorite clbad, you’ll hit milestones granting you clbad-specific crates,” EA’s blog post reads. “These will include a mix of star cards and crafting parts to benefit your clbad’s development.”
What remains entirely unknown is how the crafting economy will work in practice. This mostly boils down to the amount of real gameplay time it will take to earn crates, star cards, “battle points” (which are only earned via gameplay), and any other economies, and how that relates to the in-game cost of various upgrades.
Admitting a bias
Had EA left the system exactly as it looked in the beta, I would have argued that the game would be entirely unplayable. The fact that EA and developer DICE had to go to the lengths listed above as a “reaction” to feedback already makes me uneasy about the company’s perception of its player community.
It’s a start, and we may come to learn that the speed of unlocks via normal gameplay is so swift that this loot box system is rendered moot. But EA could have gone in another direction, of course, and removed gameplay-related loot boxes entirely.
EA’s update makes clear that gameplay-impacting loot boxes will still figure in the final experience. Even as changed above, the typical “upgrade a clbad by playing as that clbad” path has at least been restored, but in this updated state, it’s still a glittering advertisement for the loot boxes that fill out the rest of the experience. “Great job as a Heavy!” the game will figuratively scream as it flashes a few overlong, shiny explosions of random loot when you hit a Heavy-specific milestone. “You’re so close to filling out your Heavy catalog of weapons, gear, and perks. Keep on popping these crates open to finish the job! Who knows how long that’ll take?”
I already talked at length about why I think loot boxes make video games worse from a design perspective. (In short: If a game isn’t fun enough on its own, adding the endorphin-hunt aspect of loot boxes isn’t a suitable fix.) I shouldn’t have to say more—and I think the ESRB should be condemned for not stepping up and addressing the poisonous growth of loot boxes in retail-priced games. (Funny how industry self-regulation stalls out when it’s perhaps needed the most.)
But in the case of Star Wars: Battlefront II, allow me to admit an additional bias.
I know some young Star Wars freaks who are bordering on that golden age in which shooting lasers either at AI enemies or other kids on the Internet becomes a parent-approved activity. I think about what it was like to be a Star Wars fan when I was a teen, and how much I hungered to hunt down every Jedi Knight secret and every Shadows of the Empire challenge point. There’s no half-bading such a journey when the Rebellion is on the line.
I think it is vile to prey upon young, easily manipulated fandom with virtual loot boxes that are needed to unlock the full potential of, say, Boba Fett or Chewbacca. This isn’t a matter of funny outfits. So long as a game makes any gameplay-impacting content play out like a slot machine, as opposed to an obvious “hard work is your only path to mastery” procession, EA and DICE are officially applying some Dark Side forces—particularly the luster and supposed fun of slot machines and gambling—to children’s Star Wars gaming glee.
Parents share Star Wars with their kids because it’s a virtuous story of good versus evil and morals over the easy, dark path. EA, don’t let your latest foray to a galaxy far, far away take that away.