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Star Wars’ Microtransaction Crisis

WE Communications Blog: Brands in Motion

12/6/2017
— Ian Denning 

Star Wars’ Microtransaction Crisis

 

Last month, only hours before “Star Wars Battlefront 2” was set to launch, Electronic Arts (EA) announced a major change to the mega-budget video game. Bowing to mounting pressure from gamers and the gaming media, the game developers revealed in a blog that they would temporarily suspend all microtransactions in the game. A move that would cost them millions in revenue.

Gaming journalists called it unprecedented, but it wasn’t enough to stem the flood of bad PR or change the conversation that consumed the industry for months. What happened, and what can brands learn from EA’s very public tangle with very angry gamers?

 

What are microtransactions, and why are people talking about them?

Triple-A video games are incredibly expensive to produce. Many cost as much as big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. To earn back production costs, video game developers look for ways to monetize the game after its release. Think buying extra lives in “Candy Crush” or paying to unlock a new camouflage outfit in “Call of Duty.” Developers call these in-game purchases “microtransactions.” Gamers call them a nuisance.

Anger about microtransactions has been around for years, but a number of high-profile games released this fall raised the pitch of the discussion. By October, every developer launching a new game that included microtransactions was on the defensive.

For “Star Wars Battlefront 2,” the timing could not have been worse.

 

A battlefront for microtransactions

Many video games require microtransactions only for nonessential content — a new costume or a cooler-looking weapon, for example — but “Star Wars Battlefront 2” tied them directly to progression.

Before EA pushed pause on microtransactions, the only way to stay competitive in online play would have been to either sink dozens or hundreds of hours into unlocking upgrades, or start buying them. Rolling Stone noted that to unlock all the content in the game (which retails for $60), a player would either have to play it for 4,500 hours, or spend $2,100.

As our Brands in Motion research has shown, consumers are quick to turn on a brand they think has stepped out of line — even if that brand is as beloved as Star Wars. The gaming community wasn’t happy about what they saw as a pay-to-win system. The backlash inspired hundreds of stories across almost every gaming outlet on the internet. The EA Community Team’s response to the controversy has become the most downvoted comment in Reddit history.

EA dialed down the cost of some content by 75 percent, but it didn’t stop the backlash. Disney, which owns Star Wars and its characters, reportedly contacted EA to express concern about damage to the brand. Shortly thereafter, EA halted all microtransactions in “Battlefront 2” until it can overhaul the system.

 

Managing a microtransactions crisis

So what can brands marketing to gamers learn from this? Here are a few takeaways.

Set expectations. In today’s market, consumer expectations are increasing exponentially. Gamers were excited for “Star Wars Battlefront 2,” but concerned about EA’s poor explanation of the microtransaction system in pre-launch coverage and the public beta. When the details of the system were revealed, those concerns turned out to be totally justified. Had EA explained the system better and set expectations, it would have had more time and ability to respond to gamers’ concerns. That said …

If you’re having a conversation about microtransactions, you’ve already lost. No game developer ever got a pat on the back for having a good microtransaction system. Gamers see them as a necessary evil at best. If your new title includes microtransactions, think twice before tying them directly to gameplay or progression. You could find yourself facing a “most downvoted Reddit comment ever”-sized controversy.

Partnerships can make your crisis comms complicated. EA has been lambasted for microtransactions in the past, and it didn’t do anything to change how its games handled them. Likely the only reason it pulled them from “Star Wars Battlefront 2” is that Disney owns the IP, and Disney wasn’t happy. EA is potentially giving up millions of dollars of post-launch revenue to ensure its use of the Star Wars license in the future.

In the end, the love of your consumer is the measure of your success. Lucasfilm, the company behind Star Wars, publicly supported EA’s decision to pull microtransactions from the game. “Star Wars has always been about the fans — and whether it’s ‘Battlefront’ or any other Star Wars experience, they come first,” a spokesman told the Washington Post. EA could have saved itself a lot of trouble — and a lot of revenue — if it had shared the same attitude.

 

Connect with the author, Ian Denning, on Twitter

 

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Ian Denning
Marketing, WE
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