The next Battlefield—which was recently confirmed for an October 2018 launch—is going to be a major test for EA and DICE, specifically in how it implements additional content. Charging for expansions risks splintering the player base (or, at least, that’s what you’d think based on Reddit and YouTube comments), while offering microtransactions that add any value risks unbalancing the gameplay and further alienating players. EA and DICE are in a shaky position, but there is a way out for them. There is an answer. They just need to look at Activision Blizzard’s best shooter, and I definitely don’t mean Call of Duty.
To Premium Pass, or not to Premium Pass
Premium Pass has been a staple in the Battlefield series since Battlefield 3, and it’s been the main way that DICE has funded continued development on each of the series’ main entries. Of course, the most vocal players have been complaining about it ever since it was introduced, but it took until Battlefield 1 for these complaints to really stick in the form of heavy, early discounts to Premium Pass and an overly generous deluxe edition that basically showed DICE and EA cared more about the cheapskate commentariat than dedicated early adopters.
The main argument against Premium Pass is the fact that it splinters the community. Some argue that sixty dollars for four expansions is cost-prohibitive and that it splits the player base—into those who can afford to purchase the new maps, and those who are stuck playing the maps from the base game. This results in emptier servers and an all-around poorer multiplayer experience. At least, that’s how the argument goes.
This isn’t a completely invalid argument. After all, it’s technically true that some players on the same game won’t have access to the same content because they didn’t buy it. On the other hand, sixty dollars isn’t a bad deal considering the content you get more than doubles the amount of content that was in the base game. When the Apocalypse expansion arrives in February, Battlefield 1 will have received 21 new maps (compared the original 10 maps, if you count Giant’s Shadow) and will have doubled the amount of weapons available at launch.
Let’s time travel back to August 2016, when DICE revealed its plans for Battlefield 1‘s Premium Pass. The reception, especially from YouTubers, was less than flattering. JackFrags and Westie echoed the same sentiments that the DLC would splinter the fan base, while The Know basically just said it was “EA being EA,” i.e. “money-grubbing.”
So what was the solution? JackFrags suggested that EA and DICE simply figure out a new microtransaction model to fully fund the future content development. Westie also expressed that Premium Pass was bad, without offering any kind of real solution.
Loot Wars: A Failed Hope
Fast-forward to April 2017. It seemed like DICE had listened to criticisms about Premium Pass when it announced that the second game in its other major shooter franchise, Star Wars Battlefront II, would be foregoing the season pass model for a microtransaction model.
That’s right! Goodbye, cost-prohibitive season pass! Hello, cost-effective microtransactions!
Wait. How did that turn out again?
Star Wars Battlefront II was an unmitigated disaster for DICE and EA, mostly because it tried to find a middle ground between giving players what they wanted (tons of free post-launch content that didn’t split the player population behind a paywall) and what they as publisher and developer needed (money to please stockholders and justify the costs of continuous development on the game). What they ended up with, even after they removed the microtransactions from Battlefront II, was a game that sold a fraction of what its predecessor sold and a whole heaping helping of online hate.
The next Battlefield is already confirmed for a fall release, and DICE and EA have a big decision to make when it comes to funding its post-release content. They need to find a balance in providing post-release content that actually adds value to a game without alienating too many of its players by what’s on offer.
Pay-to-win boxes are out of the question, as long as Battlefield remains a paid product and not a free-to-play game. If pay-to-win loot boxes hurt the sales of game where actually playing the game is almost secondary to experiencing a Star Wars fantasy, then introducing pay-to-win loot boxes to a core shooter and storied FPS franchise would be a disaster.
Premium Pass is still obviously an option, but DICE needs to be better at delivering on what Premium Pass promises, which is expanded content within a few months of the game’s release, not the year-plus journey that Battlefield 1‘s Premium Pass has become. Battlefield 1 has bled some of the franchise’s regular players for several reasons, but one of the most significant reasons that Battlefield 1‘s current player count is 10 percent of what it was at launch is because its DLC has taken ages to arrive. You can’t charge people almost the same amount for DLC as you’re charging for the full game and not deliver the goods. As a longtime Battlefield player and early adopter, I’m personally going to wait until the next Battlefield’s Premium Pass inevitably goes on sale if DICE sticks with the same release schedule.
A third option is cosmetic-only loot boxes, but Battlefield isn’t Overwatch. Players don’t identify with their Battlefield avatars the way they do with Overwatch‘s richly characterized heroes. Getting that D.Va skin you’ve been eyeing, for instance, provides a rush because D.Va is your character, and she’s so uniquely designed and distinctly your favorite. Battlefield avatars have been anonymous soldiers who are meant to die. Battlefield 1 already has cosmetic only loot boxes called Battlepacks, but the skins you earn are for your weapons, not your character, and they’re just not as enticing because, frankly, no one else besides you will notice your weapon skins. I’ve never seen numbers about Battlepacks sold, but I can’t imagine their sales rivaling the revenue that comes from DLC and Premium Pass.
Cosmetic loot boxes could work for the next Battlefield, but DICE would have to do one of two things: add character customization, or bring back weapon attachments.
Battlefield 4‘s Battlepacks were exciting because there was a chance you’d earn a scope or a grip for a gun that you enjoy using. Either that, or the attachment you got could breathe new life into a gun you never tried in the first place. The point is that you could get something from Battlepacks that would at least offer a new experience to you as a player without giving you too much of an advantage over other players, considering that attachments and battlepacks were easy enough for everyone else to earn, too. I think DICE could get away from returning to Battlepacks that actually included gameplay-changing elements as long as Battlepacks were easy enough to earn without paying.
Thinking outside the loot box
My hope is that DICE finally adds an actual character creator to a Battlefield game. The idea would be that you will create an overall character who would then wear different uniforms based on what class they’re actively playing. Loot boxes could then contain cosmetic items like haircuts, plus items that would change the uniforms for each class without making the classes unrecognizable in the heat of battle.
The main goal here, however, is to create characters with significant personality, or at least give players the ability to create those characters. That’s the difference between Overwatch and Call of Duty: WWII, whose basic character creator is laughably impersonal and uninteresting. Heck, Rocket League‘s Octane, Dominus, or Merc have more personality than Call of Duty: WWII‘s soldiers, and those are rocket-powered RC cars.
At the same time, I honestly can’t stand loot boxes, and I feel like the sort of online black markets they birth create bad juju for the industry as a whole. Sure, cosmetic loot boxes might not affect the meat-and-potatoes gameplay mechanics of some games, but they sure as heck affect my enjoyment of a game when I see someone else wearing a cool skin or driving a cooler car that I can’t just straight-up earn or buy directly (except at an inflated price online). And while the ESA might not consider loot boxes to be a form gambling, they’re at the very least shady. I mean, things that aren’t shady usually don’t lead to the creation of unofficial markets that, in turn, lead to children getting scammed out of items they’re trading.
I think the best thing for DICE to do is to create a hybrid system. You can either buy the cosmetic items inside loot boxes for a slightly increased price, or earn the loot boxes through playing the game, with the significant chance that they won’t contain the item you’re looking for. This would be uncharted territory for Battlefield, but if DICE reveals that it’s once again going back to the Premium Pass well, it’s going to have to deliver significantly more exciting content in a much more timely manner than it has for Battlefield 1. Otherwise, trying something new and untested—like character customization where the characters contain actual visual personality—might be exactly what the 16-year-old franchise needs.
If EA and DICE actually have the courage to take another stab at loot boxes in what is possibly the publisher’s biggest franchise outside of FIFA and Madden, then they have the potential to create a new standard for the industry as a whole. As a longtime Battlefield player, I’m just really hoping they don’t mess it up again.