It seems like it’s been such a long time since one of the big three publishers released a Game. Not a service, not a DLC delivery machine, not a store: an honest to goodness Game. Does Jedi: Fallen Order mark the return of the good old days?

Probably not.

But could it?

How to Make More Money – A Brief History of Game Monetisation

For the last 30 years game publishers have sought to make a lot of money. That’s pretty much their reason to exist. They’ve accomplished this in many ways.

Originally we had expansions. You make a game, sell it, and if it does well financially, make an expansion and sell that too.

I don't have a photo of my Sims 1 or 2 expansion packs, but even now expansion packs are popular for some games.
I don’t have a photo of my Sims 1 or 2 expansion packs, but even now expansion packs are popular for some games.

Skyrim got Horse Armor

Expansions evolved, much like dinosaurs into chickens, into Downloadable Content, the monetisation buzzword the 00’s. Now those expansions could be sold online without discs, which meant they could also be small. No longer did you have to make a new story campaign to justify the cost of printing 100,000 CDs! Now you could make some armour for a horse and sell that for a few bucks on Xbox. It generates less revenue per sale, but the potential buyer is now much easier and cheaper to reach. This strategy is a lot less risky and potentially a lot more rewarding than the one before it.

The Sims series is a really good way of tracking the game industry's adoption of monetisation strategies - it's more like a store than a game at this point.
The Sims series is a really good way of tracking the industry’s adoption of monetisation strategies – but it also means that the latest title has a lot of extra content to pay for.

The Mobile Game Effect

Then we see Free-To-Play rise on mobile and we start the see the effects of that on AAA. New subscription-based MMOs can’t establish stable enough player bases for earn the kind of income they need, so they go F2P instead. This means selling DLC, expansions, early access, and eventually loot boxes to fill the subscription hole. This strategy depends on a minority of players spending a lot of money frequently, a practise that introduced the rather dehumanising term of “whales” to describe them.

Buy all the things!
Buy all the things!

So AAA publishers then looked at these and thought: “Hang on, we don’t have a problem with people buying our games. They happily spend a minimum of $60 on the basic version of the game, double that for the season pass, plus the DLC, the merchandise and the $100 plastic statue; so why can’t we put all that Free-To-Play stuff in there too?”

And “Games as a Service” was born. No longer would you buy a game, play it and then move on. No! Now you buy the game, enjoy it, then just as you move on the next bit of story is released, then the next, and the next, and the next. Quite often it feels as if the initial release has been cut short – the story doesn’t end, the traditional 3 act story structure is missing to make way for the followup expansions. Reviews to these games are typically disappointing at launch, look at Destiny 1 & 2, The Division et al. Some, however develop nicely into better games – see Destiny with The Taken King expansion, while others seem to fall into infamy such as Fallout 76.

EA’s big Star Wars mistakes

Do you know what happens if you make a game and put the Star Wars logo on it? It sells. Usually very well. The oft-maligned Force Unleashed has a 6.7 User Score on Metacritic, not a great reception, but it still sold more than 6 million copies in its lifetime. Star Wars game have been good sellers since the beginning, and the run of LucasArts titles in the 90s have become classics still sold on Steam today.

When EA was handed the exclusive licence to Star Wars games many were understandably hesitant. EA has been at the forefront of “innovation” when it comes to games marketing. Dead Space 3’s tonal shift and aggressive monetisation left a bitter taste in player’s mouths from an otherwise much loved series, and it was feared that EA would do the same with Star Wars.

And they did.

Star Wars Battlefront, a name that previously badged two games that still have a dedicated player base, was released in 2015 to, well, this:

This is not good, EA.
This is not good, EA.

This is not a panning, but it’s far below the original’s 83 Metascore and 8.7 User Score. After a marketing campaign that focused on how developer DICE replicated the look and feel of Star Wars, the game’s lack of any single player story campaign drew much of the negative criticism.

EA had looked at the industry trending towards online games and services and culled what would otherwise be considered a central core concept of a Star Wars game. When EA did add a story to sequel Battlefront 2, the campaign was so short, the missions so uninspired and the experience so boring that people who had wish for a story mode soon regretted it.

Instead, EA had doubled down on the loot boxes and free-to-play elements despite the premium price tag, arguably sparking the prominence of “loot boxes are gambling” discussions that have bubbled out on industry pundits and into the ears of law makers worldwide. Countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands have outright banned some of the monetisation strategies that Battlefront 2 heralded.

After the backlash

The reception to Battlefront and Battlefront 2 changed EA. Battlefield 5, the latest in the core EA first person shooter series, lacked almost all of the monetisation features that had plagued the Star Wars titles. Following that gesture of repentance, EA has also advertised the upcoming Jedi Fallen Order with this tweet:

People representing EA have publicly apologised for the loot box fiasco. Outwardly, it seems that EA realises they screwed up and want to assure players it won’t happen again. But can we trust this?

Of course not. That would be stupid, and would allow them to get away with crap like this:

EA's surprise mechanics
Screenshot curtesy of Polygon, definitely check out their article: https://www.polygon.com/2019/6/21/18691760/ea-vp-loot-boxes-surprise-mechanics-ethical-enjoyable

What’s next

EA hasn’t changed. They can’t. They answer to their shareholders who expect that profit should increase each and every year. How can profits go up if your money making methods are curtailed?

This shift is temporary and only serves to allow time to pass and for players to forget the furore of its recent past. There’s every chance Fallen Order will be a good game, potentially great! Just don’t let that cloud the rumblings that’ll still be continuing behind the scenes at EA.

Really this leaves me with two questions I want the answers to:

  • Will we actually get a Star Wars game worthy of the franchise’s heritage?
  • For how many games will EA follow this strategy before falling back on bad habits?

Only time will tell.