Our Take: EA’s Response To The Star Wars Battlefront 2 Controversy

EA executive announcement - ea.com

Shuffling the top means changes are coming…usually.

[Update 9/10/2018 – Patrick Söderlund has decided to leave EA, post promotion.  EA tried to keep him there with several incentives, but ultimately he chose to leave.  That does not alter the point of this article. In an organization as big as EA, true change still must come from the top and flow down.]

If you’ve been following the latest gaming news, you might have noticed EA’s sudden “change of heart” when it comes to game design and monetization (aka loot boxes).  If you aren’t up to speed on what is going on, you might want to check out this article on The Verge.

If you don’t want to read it, here are the basics:

  • EA, as a company, recognizes that the loot boxes in Star Wars Battlefront 2 (BF2) were a disaster (for public relations and financials).
  • Patrick Söderlund says the backlash from SWBF2 has had an effect on management (they aren’t ignoring the fallout and know they made mistakes).
  • Söderlund fully admits that the loot box system (in SWBF2) was specifically designed to encourage players to play and pay, over a long period of time.
    • There is no beating around the bush here!  Söderlund clearly admits what AAA developer-publishers have refused to admit since the loot box “craze” took over: It’s not about “player choice” or “saving time” – it’s clearly about long term monetization.  I know we all knew that, but it’s refreshing to hear an executive of a AAA publisher admit it.  (And as I have said many times in the past and on twitter – loot boxes have a place in this industry.  It’s the gross abuse and misuse of the system, at the expense of the consumer, that have destroyed their value as a monetization tool.)
  • The company is reviewing in-game purchases in upcoming games (Anthem and new Battlefield).

EA has apologized in the past. They apologized for Dungeon Keeper Mobile.  They apologized for Sim City.  They apologized for Battlefield 4’s terrible launch.  Söderlund’s apology shouldn’t be any different, right?  EA is just going to be EA and muck up the next game right?  Well, maybe, but maybe not.  This time around, there is something else going on that might make a difference: leadership changes.

EA recently announced changes in some of their most critical leadership positions but the most interesting is certainly Patrick Söderlund’s new role as Chief Design Officer.  While I don’t have the space here to cover complex organizational theory, executive level changes are typically precursors to major shifts in company strategy.  This is especially true when leader adjustments are made in response to a failing of the company, such as massive financial loss, lowered expectations, or tarnished public perception.  (You can read some basics on leadership changes here.)  I think it’s safe to say at this point, with Star Wars Battlefront 2 failing to hit financial expectations and public backlash to loot boxes seemingly mounting to a critical point (and possible legal action on the horizon), that EA is finally rethinking the Wilson Loot Box design mechanism.

It makes sense for a company like EA to promote someone like Patrick Söderlund to Chief Design Officer.  He is one of the creators of Battlefield.  He has been in the trenches, with the designers & programmers, trying to create great experiences for gamers (years before loot boxes became the cornerstone of monetization).  They didn’t even promote him in the traditional sense – they created the position specifically for him, in an effort to drive change through the organization.  Here’s the bottom line: If a video game company is going to change their design principles and win back the public trust, Söderlund is the person you want running the show.  Classic organizational structure dictates that changes come from the top and flow down.  It won’t happen any other way in a company as big and resistant to change as EA.

Patrick Söderlund
Patrick Söderlund’s new job description – snippet from ea.com

This recent action by EA does not in any way excuse them for the absolute debacle that was Star Wars Battlefront 2.  Using loot boxes in place of a meaningful progression system was absolutely the wrong thing to do and EA paid for it.  SWBF2 came in under expectations and the company received massive amounts of bad press.  Given the direction the industry was heading, abuse of loot boxes in that manner was bound to happen sooner or later.  Is there a silver lining in all of this?  This might be the turning point in which loot boxes, industry wide, become relegated to cosmetic and relatively trivial items.  Perhaps we see the industry start to move away from loot box mechanics? (I doubt that will the case in the near term but the trend may change over the next 5-7 years.)

What do you think?  Is this latest move by EA a genuine attempt to “right the wrongs” and move toward game design less reliant on loot boxes?  Is this just pandering to the loudest critics?  Is this just false hope and we’ll see the same loot boxes in Anthem?  Let us know what you think in the comments or on Twitter