Anthem is shaping up to be one of the biggest games of 2018, and by 2018 I mean 2019 because I am operating under the assumption that it will inevitably be delayed. It will be EA’s answer to Activision’s Destiny and Ubisoft’s The Division, a loot-shooter to call its very own.
It was one of the biggest games of E3 this year, and though relatively little was shown, we know that BioWare is ditching Star Wars and Mass Effect and building Anthem as a brand new sci-fi IP with jet-packs, legendary weapon drops and alien hunting. It is presumably open world and built around activities with teams, as is its competition in the genre.
But, this is EA we’re talking about, and even though Anthem is a long ways off, potential players are already starting to wonder how exactly this game is going to be monetized. Both Destiny and The Division debuted with very standard monetization models, a base game followed by paid DLC, but times have changed, both for those games, but also with EA ramping up its own microtransaction plans recently.
There are three primary points of concern that I can see combining to potentially make Anthem explode on the launch pad, if EA isn’t careful.
- We have obviously seen EA itself go a bit crazy with microtransactions lately, basing the core of progression in games like Need for Speed and Battlefront 2 around loot boxes. Also, EA has been selling items (or the chance at getting items) that allow players to flat-out out-perform non-playing players (though there was so much pushback to that in Battlefront 2, microtransactions had to be disabled).
- BioWare is coming off the failure of Mass Effect Andromeda, a game designed specifically for a paid DLC model, but it ultimately scrapped all single player DLC and focused only on gacha-style loot boxes for its multiplayer mode that gave players big advantages in co-operative play. An ex-developer remarked that he literally saw some players spend $15,000 on Mass Effect multiplayer cards, and they were a huge revenue drive for the series.
- What will likely be Anthem’s chief rival, Destiny, is still selling paid DLC, but it is also increasingly focused on its own form of loot box, now “Bright Engrams” in Destiny 2. Players level up post-cap to get free ones, but they’re directed to the store every single time they want to redeem one, and many of the game’s best cosmetic items, including full sets of armor, have now been locked away in Bright Engrams when previously many of the items were rewards that could be found or earned in the wild.
To recap, we have EA’s present day obsession with loot boxes, we have BioWare making a ton of money from Mass Effect loot boxes, and we have loot-shooters like Destiny increasingly relying on loot boxes as a primary revenue driver.
So yes, I do think there’s some cause for concern.
I suppose that barring any imminent legislation banning loot boxes (keep dreaming) that Anthem is going to have them. But what kind? Will core systems of the game be built around loot boxes or will they remain in the background? Will they contain cosmetic items or things that affect actual gameplay? These are important questions that BioWare and EA need to talk about up front. Instead, I expect that they will show off very pretty gameplay demos for the next year and a half, and then with a month to go before release, we’ll figure out the monetization model of the game and if it’s awful, it will be all anyone will talk about until, during and after launch, as we’ve seen with so many other EA titles recently.
My advice for EA? Resist the temptation to over-monetize this game right away. Do essentially what Destiny 1 did. Build a great game (one that does not have loot boxes or microtransactions as its core), first convince people it’s worthy of $60, and then $30 worth of standard DLC, or what have you. Do not sell loot boxes, of any kind, on day one. Just don’t. I understand the urge, but do you really want the first introduction of Anthem, probably the most important new IP of this generation for EA, to be alongside endless conversations about its monetization model and potentially predatory loot boxes?
This is why I’m hoping this fall is a lesson for EA. A common refrain is that nothing can stop the loot box train because they’re too profitable, but EA is the first company to push so far it actually bit them in a tangible way. Their stock has dropped in the wake of this controversy. Battlefront 2 will sell less than expected. Disney told them to strip microtransctions out of the game hours before launch. It was a disaster.
Avoid that disaster. Do not monetize Anthem at launch with microtransactions or loot boxes until you’ve proven you can create a great game that’s capable of building a loyal fanbase. If EA does this, the story can be about how they’re not trying to get players gambling for items for a change, which is the kind of positive press that would go great with the launch of a new IP. And later, when the loot boxes inevitably do arrive, they won’t be built into the core of the game, as Anthem will have to function initially without them, and hopefully they will not be selling power, lessons learned from Battlefront 2.
I’m looking forward to Anthem but yes, in the wake of recent events, I’m worried. I hope EA won’t trip over themselves when the game launches by going full loot box from the get-go, but I genuinely have no idea what they’ll take away from this fall’s fiasco.
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