Conner Rust left nothing about his November Battlefront II binge to chance. The 25-year-old Star Wars fan from Charleston, South Carolina, had enjoyed Star Wars Battlefront when it debuted in 2015, but like most gamers who spent any time with the title, his infatuation didn’t last long. Although the online shooter nailed the looks and sounds of Star Wars, it was light on content at launch, eschewing a single-player campaign and skimping on maps, playable heroes and villains, and a multiplayer progression system. Publisher Electronic Arts and developer EA DICE promised to rectify that repetitiveness in the sequel, which would deliver a long-awaited single-player story, a fleshed-out “Starfighter Assault” mode, more maps and heroes, and free downloadable content. The bigger, better game, which aimed to satisfy every Battlefront fan’s hopes for the franchise, was due out this November 17.
Rust was ready. To prepare for his most anticipated title of 2017, he scheduled a video-game vacation, taking three days off from his job as a freelance graphic designer. His subscription to EA Access allowed him to start plowing through Battlefront II several days before its street date, and as soon as the option to play appeared, he says, he “immediately downloaded it and dove right in.”
The first thing that raised red flags for Rust, who browsed through Battlefront’s menus before he hopped into the game, was the fact that “quite a few” of the playable characters from the original film trilogy — including game changers Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader — were locked. Unlocking Luke and Vader cost 60,000 units of the game’s currency, “credits.” The developers had given him a goal.
After three hours of gameplay, Rust had barely progressed toward that target. Curious, but not yet on a crusade, Rust started recording the time it took him to play each match and the number of credits he received as rewards. Rust had made spreadsheets for previous games — in Guild Wars 2, for instance, he’d recorded crafting recipes and requirements to level up his avatar efficiently — but he’d never been motivated to share them with anyone else. He soon realized, though, that Battlefront had a big problem.
After hours of gaming and gathering data, Rust was prepared to publish his findings. He’d discovered that the average match of “Galactic Assault” — the game’s main ground-based battle mode — lasted 11:09 and yielded an average of 275 credits. At an average rate of nearly 25 credits per minute of gameplay, obtaining the 60,000 credits necessary to unlock one of the most expensive (and most desirable) characters would take about 40 hours, not counting loading times and minutes in menus — unless a player with more money to spare than time bypassed that process by paying real-life cash for in-game currency in an exchange known as a “microtransaction,” a much-maligned practice that’s increasingly common in games. Of course, any microtransactions would come on top of the $60 macrotransaction required to access the game.
Shortly after 4 a.m. — hey, he didn’t have work — he summarized his results and linked to his spreadsheet in a 541-word post on the Battlefront subreddit bylined “TheHotterPotato” and entitled, “It Takes 40 hours to Unlock a Hero. Spreadsheet and Galactic Assault Statistics.” About two hours later, already rolling in replies, he took a nap. When he woke up, a refreshed Rust cross-posted in /r/gaming to increase visibility and added a second spreadsheet detailing the credits and additional rewards — crafting parts, crystals, and crates — that players could earn by completing all of the task-specific challenges included in the game.
“My post was the first to hit the front page talking about this stuff,” Rust (who also joined The Ringer’s Achievement Oriented podcast today) told me via Reddit private message. “I definitely feel at least partially responsible for getting the conversation going about the issue. I feel like by presenting my information calmly and with data to back it up, I gave everyone a solid jumping off point to go further. I like to think of my post as the little spark that started the fire.”
Rust spent the ensuing hours watching the world of Battlefront burn; a subreddit that had been hyped about the game’s impending arrival turned into a hotbed of anti-EA anger. The next day, an EA spokesperson posted a wishy-washy “we hear you” response — “The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes” — that quickly became by far the most downvoted comment in the history of Reddit. Soon after, in a futile attempt to placate the community, an EA DICE executive producer announced that the company would be slashing the number of credits required to unlock the top heroes by 75 percent, lowering Luke’s and Vader’s price tags to 15,000 credits. Rust’s post had prompted real change. All too easy.
For EA, though, that was just the beginning of a Battlefront nightmare that hasn’t abated. Rust’s post, and Battlefront II’s onerous unlockables, placed both big-budget game and small-budget player squarely at the center of the most controversial trend in gaming: microtransactions, specifically the kind involving gambling-like “loot boxes” (or as Battlefront calls them, crates). The simmering resentment that blossomed into a backlash after Rust’s post has since spiraled into a movement that may reshape the industry — and that, in this liminal moment, leaves players and posters like Rust in the unlikely role of informal watchdogs with a humble but powerful pulpit.
To understand the Battlefront backlash, you have to understand why microtransactions make gamers so mad. For most of their hobby’s history, playing a game on a home computer or console meant forking over a onetime fee. When players brought the box home from their neighborhood brick-and-mortar store, they gained access to everything inside — namely, the same software as everyone else, contained on a cartridge or disc.
As technology evolved and the internet infiltrated everything, games became perpetually living documents, capable of communication and reinvention. In most ways, this has served players well, enabling wonders such as online multiplayer, patches, and downloadable expansions. No longer were games frozen in the form that they took on the day that they shipped: Bugs could be fixed and communities could create content for old games that extended their expiration dates.
In recent years, though — and especially within the past few — companies discovered that they could keep charging people for games that they’d already purchased. This self-sustaining, “games as a service” model is a gift that keeps giving to publishers, generating revenue not from onetime payments or monthly subscriptions but for items, abilities, and cosmetic “skins” that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible (or would be accessible slowly). In some cases, this tactic can be positive, a means of extending the lifespan of a beloved game for people who aren’t ready to stop playing. In other, more manipulative cases, the fallout can keep potential players away and lead to lasting bitterness.
Microtransactions come in differing degrees of toxicity. Some “free to play” games are entirely financed by microtransactions, which range from completely cosmetic and optional to nearly necessary to climb the competitive hierarchy. “Free to play” or not, games that include the latter type of purchase are often described as “pay to win,” reflecting the fact that money can propel free-spending players to heights that they would have a hard time reaching simply by grinding or by being good at the game. Some of these games dispense rewards — whether purchased or earned — through loot boxes, which randomly drop coveted items as incentives to keep playing.
Games that pair “pay to win” models with loot boxes are often the most infuriating: Not only do they encourage constant investment, but they don’t allow players to purchase what they want. Instead, they parcel out goodies unpredictably, stripping the player of his or her agency by separating the prize from the performance. At best, microtransactions erode consumer confidence that games are more than a means of extracting money, causing the player to question whether every in-game challenge is a cash grab in disguise. At worst, they exploit addictive tendencies, much like the slot machines whose rush they try to replicate.
Publishers have embraced microtransactions partly because they can; if online commerce and digital downloads on a massive scale had become feasible earlier, microtransactions might have flourished long ago. But microtransactions are also a means of survival in a knife-edge industry. As more powerful hardware permits ever-more-ambitious virtual worlds, Triple-A titles cost more and more to make, and their retail price hasn’t kept pace with inflation. In the early 2000s, for instance, gamers typically paid $49.99 for a new release; that’s roughly $73 in today’s dollars, but standard editions of most Triple-A titles still retail for $59.99. Rather than raise the sticker price and scare away customers on the front end, publishers are, logically enough, opting to tack on costs post-purchase, via paid downloadable content, “season passes” that grant access to all future DLC, and, more problematically, microtransactions. Judging by the rapid growth in sales of add-on content, the strategy seems to be working. Even Rust spent $40 on Battlefront II microtransactions, albeit only to fuel his research.
In a prerelease effort to build goodwill among gamers who’d felt burned by Battlefront’s short shelf life, EA announced months before Battlefront II’s release that it wouldn’t sell season passes for the game, and that all DLC would be free. But EA executives couldn’t pass up the potential for microtransaction revenue to help them recoup the cost of the expensive Star Wars license. And they might have gotten away with it, too, if not for those meddling Redditors — and EA’s own embrace of the most burdensome, pay-to-win type of microtransaction, rather than the more innocuous, cosmetic kind. “I understand why they got the response they got,” Rust says. “I think it was deserved. The fan base wanted a game that respected their time/money just as much as it respected the franchise. Hearing that a 40-hour grind for Darth Vader was supposed to fill us with ‘pride and accomplishment’ when some other person can just pay $200 and buy enough crates to get the credits was just insulting.”
The Battlefront community’s hate has made it powerful. Although Battlefront II has the bones of a very good game, it seems destined to be remembered more for the stir that its microtransactions caused than for its gameplay. “I think any potential backlash, to [EA], was a risk worth taking,” Rust says. “I don’t think they saw us coming.” Faced with a PR disaster, EA temporarily disabled all microtransactions on the eve of the game’s widespread release and has yet to reinstate them. In the weeks since, the company’s stock price has taken a hit, sales of the game seem to have suffered, and some industry analysts have warned that other publishers may be cowed into implementing more modest microtransactions in other games, as EA (which has employed similar systems in previous games) already has in another November 2017 title, Need for Speed Payback. Other analysts disagree that microtransactions have suffered a serious blow, citing the still-robust bang for the buck that video games provide relative to other forms of entertainment. But there’s no denying that publishers are paying attention to the public’s wrath. “We got them to shut off microtransactions entirely before global release even hit,” says Rust, who credits his fellow aggrieved fans for protesting effectively. “In my opinion, that saved a lot of people from paying into a broken system. I am glad I posted as soon as I did.”
In many cases, the algorithms governing microtransaction systems are so opaque that Redditors like Rust (and the horde that rallied behind him) are the consumer’s strongest advocate. Although the industry’s self-regulating Entertainment Software Rating Board requires companies to disclose the presence of “digital purchases” in games, it doesn’t consider loot boxes to be a form of gambling because the loot-box buyer is guaranteed to receive something inside (even if it’s something no one wants). Nor are companies in the United States required to reveal details about the underlying odds that dictate loot drops, although they are obligated to do so in China as a result of rules put in place by the Ministry of Culture that went into effect this past spring.
Although the outrage over EA’s latest release has been especially severe, this is far from the first game to push players too far, inflame fans’ anger, and force a developer to adjust a competitive economy on the fly. That pattern has repeated itself for years, and it’s become more common as more developers have given in to microtransaction temptation (sometimes after vowing not to) and players have grown more adept at identifying how games are gouging them. This year has seen a string of high-profile releases whose microtransactions have inspired Reddit resistance movements backed by data-driven posts.
In mid-February, mega-publisher Ubisoft released For Honor, a hand-to-hand combat brawler that pitted Vikings, knights, and samurai against one another with little regard for historical accuracy but great regard for fun. Three days later, “bystander007” — an alias of 23-year-old Arkansas college student Carson Hawkins — authored a post on /r/forhonor entitled “Logical Look at Steel.” Much like Rust would later, Hawkins argued that the game’s unlocks took too long, estimating 2.5 years of casual play to open up everything and close to a year even for hardcore grinders, whose progression the game subtly throttled the more they played. Hawkins concluded that the publisher was pushing players toward spending more money on its in-game currency, writing, “Ubisoft really wants you to buy those Steel Packs.”
Via Reddit private message, Hawkins says now that he chose to stress the “logic” of his argument because it played well to the Reddit crowd (although the emotional eddies in his nearly 2,000-word “logical look” might make Spock raise an eyebrow). “It’s Reddit,” he says. “Emotionally positive posts do well, but emotionally negative [posts] don’t. You can only be negative if you add data to back it up, otherwise the redditors patrolling the fresh posts downvote you and it never gains traction. Reddit only accepts negative content if it has statistical support.”
After Hawkins’s math garnered attention outside Reddit and helped fuel a Reddit-driven boycott, Ubisoft tweaked the game to make steel much more plentiful. Hawkins, who thought that the changes weren’t substantial enough, still stopped playing the game a month later, without having purchased any steel. “Other games have pulled the same tricks,” he says. “For Honor was just one that hurt the most.” Like Rust, though, he’s not strictly against microtransactions in every form. “I don’t hate microtransactions if they’re optional and alternatives are available,” he says. “You can have microtransactions without everything being a microtransaction.”
Seven months after For Honor arrived, the latest incarnation of the annual 2K Sports basketball sim, NBA 2K (which my colleague Jason Concepcion worked on as a writer), showed up packed with many more microtransactions than it had featured the previous year. Again, a Reddit user (who wishes not to be named, even by his or her handle) ran the numbers to estimate the number of games required to reach certain milestones and shared the daunting totals, inciting the usual horror. As a moderator of /r/NBA2k, “yyy2k,” explained to me via private message, “This year seems to be worse because 2K has reduced the ease for players to earn VC themselves … while also making it harder for players to increase their [overall rating]. It has turned the game into a long ‘grind’ as many members in the community call it. The casual user is stuck between deciding whether to be a mediocre player … and suffer against the competition or to spend real money on VC and upgrade their player quickly.” The user who quantified the phenomenon — a fan of the series since 2009 — eventually elected to join the latter group, telling me, “At some [point] I had to give up and pay $20 just so I can actually play online with my friends.”
According to the /r/NBA2k mod, who also preferred not to share a real name, he or she interacts regularly with 2K personnel at 2K’s request, forwarding fan-feedback threads and conveying the community’s gripes. Although yyy2k points to some ways in which the community’s complaints about microtransactions have been heeded, most of the problems are still in place. Small wonder: If money talks, it’s telling 2K not to cave. Strauss Zelnick, CEO of 2K parent company Take-Two Interactive, claims that despite all the bad buzz about microtransactions, the game (which remains the best NBA option available) has outsold last year’s edition.
The best non-EA example of Reddit’s representative democracy in action has arisen in the short time since the Battlefront bubble burst. In this case, the self-appointed microtransaction monitors came for Bungie’s popular 2017 shooter Destiny 2. Last week, redditor “Energiserx” painstakingly recorded his play sessions and used precise pixel measurements to prove that Destiny 2 was depriving some prolific players of promised experience points, just as Hawkins had claimed was the case with For Honor. Energiserx, a 28-year-old engineer from New South Wales, Australia, showed his work with spreadsheets, graphs, and tables. Via private message, he told me that the research and writing for the two posts he produced took him 45 hours across eight days, during which he also worked a 40-hour week.
Presented with his unassailable stats (and an initial post with nearly 8,500 net upvotes), Bungie owned up to its scale-thumbing in a blog post the following day, but the company’s language further fanned the flames. “Their statement came across as very disingenuous, with carefully worded spin, but also stating that they were aware of the system, ‘weren’t happy with how it was performing,’ and yet hadn’t taken action over the months that the game had been out,” says Energiserx. “The conclusion that seems logical to me is that they were trying to tempt people into spending money through the hidden scaling, and other less subtle techniques.”
Confronted by the fan base’s anger about Bungie’s poor PR, the company canceled a promotional livestream and subsequently vowed to improve its practices, which made the work worth it for Energiserx. “The best and most unexpected part is seeing how many people are now critically analysing things, and trying to put together arguments using proof, instead of anecdotal statements and opinions,” he says. “The other gratification I feel is that I may have helped convince Bungie that communicating is something they need to do.” (My requests for comment from EA, 2K, and Bungie were declined or left unanswered, while Ubisoft sent a statement about the For Honor team’s weekly livestreams, attention to player feedback, and frequent tweaks to the game.)
The current cycle of Reddit discovery followed by mob backlash followed by belated corporate apology seems unsustainable. The visibility of the Star Wars and Battlefront brands has catapulted microtransactions into more of a mainstream spotlight, and some signs suggest that we’re heading toward government regulation — or at least industry self-regulation in response to the threat of government intervention, a protective instinct previously exercised when congressional inquiries into video-game violence led to the birth of the ESRB and parental ratings in 1994.
In the wake of the Battlefront II scandal, a state representative in Hawaii has declared his intention to fight the “predatory behavior” of loot boxes, as have politicians in France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. While invasive regulation might inflict its own costs, some small nods toward transparency could curb the worst loot-box behavior. But for now, we’re still in the frontier stage, with Reddit serving as a crowdsourced, stopgap solution for gamers and publishers who are trying to keep the peace while navigating a potentially profitable and potentially painful new twist to a newish medium.
“I don’t think all microtransaction systems [are] inherently problematic,” Rust says. “All I really want is the developer to respect me as a player and a customer.” Until gamers can count on that respect, Rust and his ilk will have their spreadsheets handy, keeping companies accountable. “That’s what I like to do in my spare time, is just take down multibillion-dollar corporations,” he says, his laugh not quite hiding a hint of pride.