EA’s E3 2018 showcase might not have had a whole lot of surprise reveals, but it certainly had a very important message that permeated through the conference. At times, EA said and showed things that seemed to point towards a publisher and developer who has learned a lot of lessons from a very rough 2017, a lot of which is thanks to the controversy surrounding loot boxes and games as services. However, its silence in other portions, specifically when it came to sports games, sent a mixed message.
One of the defining news stories of 2017 revolved around the drama of Star Wars Battlefront 2, specifically its implementation of loot boxes and microtransactions. The road there was a long and strange one, filled with mixed messages and confusing rhetoric that ultimately came to a boil when the world got its hands on the beta in October 2017. And, of course, EA completely removed microtransactions for a period of time just hours before Battlefront 2 officially launched (after a week of negative reviews and feedback from early access for preorder customers).
Well, anyone who thought EA would try to sweep this all under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen – or worse, suggest that fans were wrong to be angry – were proven wrong very quickly. Literally six minutes into EA’s conference, General Manager of DICE Oskar Gabrielson took the stage to talk about October 19’s Battlefield V. It was there that he emphasized there would be “no loot boxes, no premium pass.” That sort of cut-and-dry statement is clearly a 180-degree shift from DICE’s previous game, and a response to the muddled confusion that surrounded how EA handled those very questions in 2017.
The fact that EA’s flagship game for this fall is making a public mea culpa for last year’s fiasco a loud part of its marketing strategy shows that the publisher knows how much it hurt itself with Battlefront 2. And, speaking of Star Wars, that wasn’t the last time we saw DICE on stage at the conference. About halfway through, Dennis Brannvall, Design Director at DICE, came out to talk about the state of Star Wars Battlefront 2. He started off on a shockingly honest note, saying, “We launched our game in November of last year, and clearly we didn’t get it quite right. So instead of coming out of the gate sprinting like we really wanted to, we had to take a step back and make sure we were delivering the game that our players really wanted.”
This is a real, honest, and direct side of EA that is normally reserved for wonderful, nervous indie developers showing off their EA Original. It flies in the face of the idea that admitting a mistake is showing weakness. But having this admission of failure come from DICE on the biggest stage of the year did a great job of humanizing the entire ordeal, and putting forth a convincing argument that this time they might not repeat the same mistake.
‘Without you, there would be no Battlefront.’
Brannvall capped off his presentation by saying, “We had a rough start, but I really think this game has a bright future. Thank you very much for playing the game, providing us with your feedback, and talking to us. Together, we will make this the greatest game we can possibly build. Without you, there would be no Battlefront.”
But this sort of humble response isn’t relegated to just DICE. At an EA Play Q&A, Mark Darrah, Executive Producer at BioWare on Anthem, was asked about loot boxes. He responded, “We are going to have some cosmetics and vanity items that you’ll be able to purchase, but you’re always going to know what you’re going to buy before you spend any money on it. No loot boxes, no ability to pay for power. That means no ability to spend money on gameplay advantage at all within Anthem.”
But despite DICE and BioWare making statements about loot boxes and microtransactions, there are some parts of EA that remained conspicuously silent on the matter. Most notably its sports division, which has massive games like FIFA, Madden, and NHL that rely heavily on those post-release purchases in their Ultimate Team online modes. In a 2016 earnings call, EA CFO Blake Jorgensen said that roughly half of EA’s $1.3 billion per year business of “extra content” comes from the Ultimate Team services.
EA certainly isn’t alone in making decisions that get themselves in hot water. A Way Out’s writer and director Josef Fares put it bluntly at last year’s Game Awards when he said, “all publishers fuck up.” We even rounded up over a dozen examples of those very instances. But it’s rare for a company the size of EA to come out and flatly admit that kind of mistake, which is part of the reason why this year’s EA conference was such a pleasant surprise.