Why Electronic Arts Hates Linear Games, but Loves Microtransactions

In the wake of Visceral's closure and a microtransaction scandal, EA's boss has opened up about the logic behind these decisions.

We probably weren’t the only ones looking forward to the Star Wars game that Dead Space developer Visceral had in the works up until about a month ago. Headed up by former Uncharted designer Amy Hennig, it was to be a solo action game that took in the grubbier parts of the Star Wars universe. Later reports suggested that it would have included gameplay elements from Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, and the cinematic quality of Hennig’s previous games at Naughty Dog.

Then, in October, publisher EA made the decision to close Visceral and, in an accompanying press release, announced that it planned to “pivot the design” of the now defunct studio’s Star Wars game. In essence, this means that the project once headed up by Hennig, a linear game, is effectively dead.

Although EA didn’t spell it out at the time, there were suggestions in that press release that the publisher wasn’t interested in single-player experiences anymore. The firm talked about “listening to feedback” from would-be players and making a game that “players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come.”

More recently, EA boss Blake Jorgensen talked a bit more about Visceral’s closure and the thinking behind it – and interestingly enough, the topic of “linear” games came up in his presentation, given at a technology conference in Arizona (via Dual Shockers).

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“As we kept reviewing the game, it continued to look like a much more linear game,” Jorgensen said, adding that these types of experiences are things “people don’t like as much today as they did five years ago or ten years ago.”

Ultimately, he added, EA decided that it was best to “cut the bridge when you realize [you] can’t really make a lot of money on something.”

Kotaku‘s recent behind the scenes reporting suggests that all wasn’t well behind the scenes on Visceral’s Star Wars action game, codenamed “Project Ragtag.” The fact that EA hasn’t managed to take full advantage of the Star Wars license is one thing, but the publisher’s stance on linear or single-player games is what’s really worrisome, especially when it comes to company’s push for more microtransactions in its games.

Just last week, the publisher was forced to shut down microtransactions (paid loot boxes) in Star Wars Battlefront II after the immediate fan backlash that came roaring through the internet after players realized they would have to basically pay more to unlock major characters like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker for the multiplayer mode (characters that were free in the first game, mind you). Microtransactions also allowed players to buy better perks (Star Cards) for the multiplayer, meaning that you could pay to get a leg up in online matches (pay-to-win, basically) – a situation that is never fair to those who paid the price of admission and want to earn new skills and abilities through actual gameplay. 

Microtransactions have become a reality of today’s gaming industry, as publishers push to milk every last cent from their players. EA’s misguided idea that players no longer want linear titles stems from the fact these types of games eventually end, meaning that the publisher has only a finite amount of time to sell its customers extra things they don’t actually need before they put down their controllers. With games like Destiny, which features both a linear campaign as well as more open-ended challenges, quests, multiplayers modes, and expansions, players could be locked in for years. It’s more than clear why BioWare’s next open-world multiplayer adventure game, Anthem, looks so inspired by Bungie’s shooter. 

In a separate interview with Gamesindustry.biz, Jorgensen addressed the Battlefront II debacle, claiming that the reason there were so many pay-to-win opportunities was a matter of catering to all of the game’s audience:

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“We pulled off on the MTX, because the real issue the consumer had was they felt it was a pay-to-win mechanic. The reality is there are different types of players in games. Some people have more time than money, and some people have more money than time. You want to always balance those two.”

But the truth is that EA, as a business, clearly prefers the players with more money than time. Linear games don’t make sense to EA’s exploitative pricing model because the players with time finish them and then move on. Players that don’t have time can jump into an open-ended game at any point and spend money to improve their chances of winning in the short run. Non-linear games are a win-win for EA because they keep those that have time playing and investing in expansions while those that don’t can simply buy their way to better gear, weapons, abilities, and perks. 

While players (but mostly Disney) have dissuaded EA from Battlefront II‘s current microtransaction model for now, Jorgensen assures that microtransactions will continue to be a key part of the publisher’s strategy going forward. 

“We’re not giving up on the notion of MTX,” Jorgensen told Gamesindustry.biz. “We’re learning and listening to the community in terms of how best to roll that out in the future, and there’s more to come as we learn more. But I would say we’re certainly not changing our strategy. We think the strategy of deeply engaging games, keeping the community together, and allowing people to play those games with new content coming via events over time is critical to the future of our business. We feel like we’ve nailed that in the sports games, and we’ll continue to try and find the best model that works in the non-sports games.”

Ultimately, microtransactions will continue to be a reality of the gaming space and publishers (not only EA) will try to find new ways to get consumers to pay more beyond the $60 price tag of most titles. After all, these companies are businesses at the end of the day, looking for profits where they can find them. But if the backlash towards Battlefront II is any indication, things can change in the long run.