The downvotes are in, and the launch of Star Wars Battlefront II looks like the biggest screw-up since engineers on the Death Star decided it needed an exhaust port.
Following yesterday's attempt to set a record for the most hated comment on Reddit, EA has performed a massive 180 and cut the price of heroes like Darth Vader by 75% in-game so that they can be unlocked after 10 hours of play rather than 40. The loot boxes remain, however, and still seem unavoidably entwined with progression to an extent that goes beyond even EA's original goose-that-laid-the-golden-packs, FIFA Ultimate Team, where at least you can buy well-known players with gameplay-earned coins fairly quickly.
A long time ago...
It seems almost quaint to think back to E3, when our scepticism about Battlefront II was mostly about whether it would have the depth to justify a premium price tag - a criticism that definitely applied to its predecessor. As Battlefront II hits store shelves this week, barely anyone is talking about the game itself, although early reviews suggest it's more fun and substantial, albeit not without its own flaws.
Schadenfreude aside, this is a pretty sad state of affairs. We were hyped about Star Wars Battlefront II, which features amazing space battles designed by Criterion, revamped objective-based multiplayer modes, and even a much-requested single-player campaign. Now we're kind of lukewarm about it. Less The Last Jedi, more the final straw.
The really irritating thing is that it didn't have to be this way. We play a bunch of free-to-play games and premium games with F2P elements, and some of them have really good ideas about how to generate extra revenue to sustain development without depriving players of fun or making them feel cheated out of extra money.
So in the interests of trying to find some positivity in this Battlefront II mess, let's take a look at other games that use loot boxes and F2P aftermarket gameplay items in a good way, and think about how EA DICE might improve things in the future, whether through patches or in a theoretical sequel.
Loot boxes done well
The first and most important thing we'd say after years playing FIFA Ultimate Team, League of Legends and Overwatch, among other games that use loot boxes and free-to-play mechanics, is that players are happiest - and still spend loads of money - if you focus on cosmetics rather than items that alter gameplay.
League of Legends and Overwatch (disclosure: this writer used to work at Riot Games) both make money by selling skins. LoL sells them directly (and recently added crafting and loot boxes as another means to obtain them), and Overwatch sells them through loot boxes. Both games also give you avenues to earn these items (albeit often randomly) through gameplay. The items are desirable, but both systems are entirely optional.
FIFA Ultimate Team is a bit more pay-to-win in that soccer players are given out through packs (the game's equivalent of loot boxes), which you can either buy with real money or with coins earned by playing or trading players. Buying packs using coins is terribly inefficient though, and unlikely to net you anything all that desirable. You can at least buy and sell players through the in-game "Transfer Market", so in theory it's possible to buy anyone you want, but the prices for elite players like Cristiano Ronaldo are stratospheric.
It seems fair to say that most players enjoy Ultimate Team, but feel that it is at best ungenerous about how it handles packs and high-level rewards. (We certainly do.) Next to Star Wars Battlefront II, though, it looks like Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
It's also important to remember that Ultimate Team is an optional game mode - FIFA lets you play tournaments, local and online multiplayer, and an increasingly good story mode featuring pretty much all the super-expensive elite players you like. If you want to play with Ronaldo the first time you fire up the game, you can. (In fact, the game makes you play with Ronaldo in a friendly match while it's installing files.)
Such rich potential
The strange thing about all this when we go back to Battlefront II is that the Star Wars universe is absolutely heaving with things that could have been used to build a cosmetics-only loot crate system that would have been like catnip to fans.
Colored lightsabers, famous ships, custom skins and decals for walkers and droids, endless outfits for characters like Luke and Leia. The possibilities for Halloween, Chinese New Year and other popular F2P seasonal event staples seem enormous.
Imagine heading into a multiplayer match and staring across the Death Star hangar - or wherever - at Darth Vader wearing a rainbow-colored cape to mark Pride, or squaring up to a rival Jedi across the canteen in Mos Eisley only to see him or her unveil a dazzling double-ended lightsaber with different colors for each laser blade.
The temptation to save up for those cosmetics or dump some leftover beer money into loot boxes would be pretty tantalizing, and it wouldn't feel like half the swindle it does being told you can't play as Darth Vader for the next 10 hours, while that pre-order dude over there can have him whenever.
We know that the licensing situation around Star Wars is complicated and there would have been headaches and a learning curve finding a workable balance with licence-holder Disney. But let's face it: Disney likes money too, so we're sure they would have gotten on board once they saw the graphs.
Don't hassle the Hoth
Ultimately, loot boxes are like anything in game design: you can use them in a way that's fun and engaging for players, or you can use them irresponsibly. The line really shouldn't be that hard to find. And the fact EA is staring down the barrel of one of the biggest PR disasters in its recent history - during what should be one of its most triumphant launches of 2017 - just goes to show that the company's new "Players First" mantra is, for now at least, just words. With any luck, it will be the last time EA makes this sort of mistake. In the meantime, there's still a lot of making up to do, and we hope to see it soon.