Success cannot be bought.
For gamers, 2017 will be looked back on as a big year, and one where the hits just kept on coming.
It was a lucrative time for AAA studios and independent developers alike, with blockbusters like Horizon Zero Dawn and NieR: Automata releasing to huge fanfare and adulation, alongside indie darlings like What Remains of Edith Finch and Battle Chef Brigade. Long-awaited sequels and revivals brought us back to beloved franchises, from the sprawling Egyptian landscapes of Assassin’s Creed Origins to the grim dystopian universe of Wolfenstein 2.
The Nintendo Switch brought the floundering Japanese giant back into the limelight. The console itself is a fantastic, innovative wonder of technology, but bookending 2017 with two game of the year candidates in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey sent it into another stratosphere.
The Xbox One X powered up our gameplay while the Super Nintendo Mini Classic, powered us down and showed that great games, even twenty years later, never grow stale.
The laundry list of hits lead some to declare 2017 one of gaming’s best, and you would be hard-pressed to disagree. However, the year was not all successes, triumphs and Power Moons. There were occasional disappointments and setbacks suffered by the industry, and none were more prominent than the debacle of microtransactions.
Clearly, EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II is at the centre of the vitriol, having become the poster child for the pitfalls of modern gaming. Based strictly on its gameplay, Battlefront II is an inoffensive game that earnestly set out to iron out the wrinkles present in the original. It is robust, to be sure, but much of that is fool’s gold: actually unlocking content and in-game progression was intended to be a grind so long and tedious, most would simply surrender to the specter of the loot crates.
This kind of practice is seen in many of EA’s titles, and they probably would have gotten away with it unscathed had it not been for the broad appeal of the Star Wars franchise. Madden and FIFA are yearly events – paying for player packs is par for the course – but Star Wars transcends gaming. It is a passion for some, a legacy that brings people who may not normally purchase games out of the woodwork.
The community was shell-shocked. They were angry. And they weren’t about to go unheard. On Metacritic, Battlefront II may have a modest aggregate critic score of 68, but based on almost 7,000 ratings for the PS4 version alone, it has a user score of 0.9. This is to be taken with a grain of salt of course, with besmirched fans giving straight 0s in all categories in an effort to declare their detestation, but the message is clear. These extreme lengths to maximize revenue would not be taken lightly.
As such, next February’s UFC 3 was bound to be the next in the line of fire, red flagged for being an EA title and already being called out for its reliance on microtransactions. EA were quick to put up their shields, clarifying in a statement that the purchasable boosters apply only to the game’s Ultimate Team mode and that their inclusion is in order to “prevent uneven matchups as much as possible”.
Predictably, this has done little to dissuade the animosity. To many, it is effectively an admission that they are implementing a ‘pay to win’ scheme, and such a concept does not sit well in these tumultuous times. Surely a matchup between two players of differing skill levels should be uneven? Gaining a competitive advantage by boosting your fighter through monetary investments doesn’t reward dedication; if anything, it discourages it, instead giving the edge to those with expendable funds.
But the issue here goes further than EA, and it would be all too easy to simply take potshots at gaming’s persona non grata. NBA 2K18, from rival publishers 2K Sports, is riddled with the exact same kind of murky procedures. A few console generations ago, customizable player avatars were a joyful experience, with progression points rewarding hard work and good gameplay. You can still try that in the newest installment of the popular basketball stalwart, but needless to say, you will be languishing as a mediocre pawn, excluded from pickup games as online players can see your poor stats and ratty threads.
Even Nintendo, a company usually lauded for their carefully considered implementation of DLC, pushed the envelope a little in 2017. In Fire Emblem Echoes, for example, the highest character promotions were locked behind a paywall. Previously, alternative special classes came at an additional cost, but now, even base heroes couldn’t reach their full potential without it. This is a rare dalliance for Nintendo, who usually only hide such benefits behind the guise of the amiibos.
In what has fast become industry standard, we have simply entered an era where many games will be incomplete upon purchase, with additional content reserved only for collector’s or deluxe editions. Unlocking characters in a wrestling game used to require players to fulfill storyline conditions, or achieve a high score in the survival mode – but now if you want access to legends Rob Van Dam and Batista in WWE 2k18, it may cost you an arm, a leg, and a sizeable amount of pride when you try to explain why there’s a John Cena action figure leering at you from the bookshelf.
Things may not be all trending down however. EA yanked Battlefront II’s premium currency system before the official launch, and Belgium’s Gambling Commission even declared loot crates a form of gambling last month. Though EA have implied that the microtransactions would return at a later date, it will likely result in a more balanced system. This unprecedented redirect was truly indicative of the power of the people, and all going well, publishers will have learned an important lesson going forward.
EA’s impertinent gambit and the public lambasting that resulted may have been the low point of 2017, but the severity of the situation need not be catastrophized. It will still be a year that most will remember fondly, offering an incredible range of experiences and timeless classics. 2018 will certainly have its work cut out for it should it hope to best it – and rest assured, it’ll be wary of taking shortcuts like microtransactions to do so.