At E3, Electronic Arts Threw Its Developers Under the Bus Over Loot Boxes
The company refused to take responsibility for last fall's backlash, and let the creatives behind 'Battlefront II,' 'Battlefield V,' and 'Anthem' promise things would be different.
There were a lot of problems with Electronic Art’s kickoff presentation at E3—I’ll touch on the frustrating way they rolled out Anthem later this week—but I haven’t been able to shake off one part. Roughly 15 minutes into EA’s 75 minute event, CEO Andrew Wilson made some broad remarks about EA and its goals for the future. He announced EA’s flirtation with cloud gaming and a new subscription service for Origin.
And then Wilson walked off stage and said nothing about one of the company’s biggest strategic errors in the last year: loot boxes. Cleaning up that mess, addressing the fans who felt angry and exploited about the way EA treated them, was left to other people.
Star Wars Battlefront II’s launch was a fiasco. It hardly mattered if the multiplayer shooter was fun to play; the game became the public face of loot boxes, a form of monetization in which players don’t know what they’re getting until they open digital code. In Battlefront II, loot boxes granted access to perks to make characters better, and the fastest way to access more loot boxes was by paying for them. Other games, even ones released in 2017, used loot boxes, but since Electronic Arts, a company (at times unfairly) seen as the embodiment of consumer exploitation, was the publisher, Battlefront II became a thunderous flash point.
At two different points during EA Play, in the middle of segments for Battlefield V and Anthem, developers announced (to applause!) their games wouldn’t feature loot boxes. Battlefront II came out only seven months ago, and somehow, EA was retconning one of their critical mistakes into rallying cry for the faithful.
According to a financial disclosure EA released last Friday, Wilson earned almost $20 million—a combination of salary, stock awards, and other bonuses—during the company’s 2017 fiscal year. That number jumped to almost $36 million in fiscal 2018, which ended this March and includes Battlefront II’s release. I haven’t done enough reporting on Battlefront II to say who demanded loot boxes be so deeply embedded in the game, but decades of covering the industry suggests it’s at pay grades far above the people making the game, a reliable tug-of-war between a game’s design aspirations and the folks who sign the checks.
Being in charge of the company, the responsibility lands on Wilson. But after taking $36 million in compensation for overseeing one of EA’s most troubled years, there was at least one buck that Wilson was willing to pass on to his employees.
A few minutes later, following the awkward announcement of Jedi: Fallen Order, Battlefront II design director Dennis Brännvall took the stage. While he refused to say the word “loot boxes,” he immediately admitted when Battlefront II launched, they “didn’t get it quite right.”
“Instead of coming out of the gate sprinting like we really wanted to, we had to take a step back and make sure that we were delivering the game that our players really wanted,” said Brännvall, “so we decided to completely overhaul our progression system and add a bunch of new character cosmetics for players to collect instead.”
These conferences are not improvised. They are carefully choreographed affairs, where every word, movement, and image is carefully scrutinized. It was a conscious decision to put the onus of explaining Battlefront II’s monetization—and EA’s loot box pivot as a whole—on the developers who work for EA, instead of the executives who often drive such decisions.
"EA and DICE are committed to Battlefront," said Brännvall. "We had a rough start but I really think this game has a bright future. Thank you very much for playing the game, providing your feedback, talking to us together. We will make this the greatest game that we can possibly build. There will be not Battlefront without you.”
Game developers spend most of their time locked in offices, toiling away on projects whose high-level decisions are out of their control. They work long, soul-crushing hours that keep them away from their friends and family. Events like E3 can function as a form of emotional and professional catharsis, a chance for developers (and their work) to take briefly center stage. Only a few people who work on the game get a chance to be part of the E3 stagecraft, but rest assured, back at home, there are countless employees cheering along with them.
Andrew Wilson isn’t on Twitter, sifting through thousands of hostile tweets. He’s not the one doing crowd control on Reddit, trying to find a way to explain how the developers are “listening to constructive feedback,” all without giving up the whole game and pointing the finger at corporate. That’s how you get fired.
Even if you’re charitable and imagine Wilson didn’t personally push for loot boxes, he should have taken the hit anyway. That’s his job. He’s the one who steps out on stage, apologizes for what happened, promises they’re going to do better, and makes the public commitment to leave loot boxes out of their upcoming games, Anthem and Battlefield V. (In public comments, EA has continued to defend the loot box practice, and intends to have them in the next FIFA game, where they've been incredibly profitable and successful, without the same backlash.)
There’s precedent for companies getting this right, too. Sony did it a few years ago.
For nearly a month in 2011, PlayStation Network was down. You couldn’t play games, you couldn’t buy games. The outage may have caused the collapse of a studio whose online game launched around the same time, and the personal and financial information of users was potentially exposed to malicious hackers. It was a massive (and public) screw up for Sony only weeks before their always anticipated E3 event. There’s a world where Sony tried to sweep the problem under the rug, but instead, then PlayStation president Jack Tretton walked out on stage, he did something few people in power do: performed an authentic-sounding apology.
“This isn’t the first time that I’ve come to an E3 press conference with an elephant in the room,” said Tretton. “And of course I’m referring to the PlayStation Network outage. This is the first opportunity for me to personally address everybody and discuss it a little bit. “
Tretton started by apologizing to the companies who publish games on PlayStation, before thanking retail partners who’d backed Sony long before it’d become a major power in games. Then, his attention focused to players—well, “consumers.” (He’s still an executive, after all.)
“Which brings me to the audience that I’m most interested in addressing,” he said. “Those are our consumers. You are the lifeblood of the company. Without you, there is no PlayStation. And I want to apologize both personally and on behalf of the company for any anxiety that we’ve caused you.”
I’ve met Tretton a few times in the past, and he’s always struck me as a good guy who’s actually trying to do right by the people who buy what he’s selling. Maybe that’s part of his whole schtick, a way to hoodwink press and players alike, but even so, it’s a shrewd one. If people think you’re a human, they’re more willing to forgive after you’ve screwed up, even if, at the end of the day, it’s in service of a monetary exchange.
Wilson hasn’t earned that kind of goodwill from players and with good reason. This moment, this specific E3, would have been a genuine opportunity to drop the facade, or at least pretend.
Towards the end of EA Play, Wilson did appear for a few final words. It’s the only time he even gestures at the widespread distrust aimed at EA, and there’s an alternate universe where a rewritten statement has a chance of landing on potentially compassionate ears.
You can watch the moment here:
“I am blessed to be able to work with some of the most creative people on the planet who come to work every day to create amazing entertainment,” said Wilson. “And what I can say about all of those teams and we can say about us is that we are always trying to learn and listen and strive to be better.”
Knowingly or not, he shifts the blame on this failure to connect. Other people. Other teams.
“There's some things we hope come through,” he continued. “First, that at the very core is choice is that you as players get to choose how you play what you play when you play and what devices you play on. That in making those choices you feel you are treated fairly, that no one is given an unfair advantage or disadvantage for how they choose to play.”
In a more just world, Wilson is paid $36 million per year because he’s steering a billion dollar ship, and wants to do good by the countless employees whose work fueled those profits, even when he leads them into troubled waters. We don’t live in that world.
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