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Dec 14

Star Wars Battlefront II Progression Is Doomed By The Dark Side

Star Wars Battlefront II is doomed to fall. While EA has taken action to freeze an immediate fall to the Dark Side of loot crates and pay to win, the current game progression system is too random, and at the upper levels far too slow and grind-based, to remain enjoyable for players. Its saving grace is the quality of the actual game play itself.

Star Wars Battlefront II is a great game. Amazing sounds and visuals, giving us the experience of being in a Star Wars movie when we play. The game play this time around is excellent as well, with good game modes, especially the spectacular Fighter Squadron game mode, which could be sold as a standalone game. Lots of maps, and no more paid expansions. All added content will be entirely free. EA and DICE listened to its customers, and delivered almost exactly what they wanted.

I’m sure you all know by now where they missed the mark. Loot boxes! Now, Battlefield 1 and Battlefield 4 both used Battlepacks, a sort of loot box, but those are mostly cosmetic items or XP boosts, and all functional items from them can be readily earned by game play. Cosmetic items don’t affect game play, and many players love to get them. Those are present in Battlefront II. I don’t think that cosmetic item loot boxes would be a problem for this game, as they work in many others.

The problem isn’t those items. It is all the game play affecting items present, and how the main way to advance your character’s abilities is not from game achievements, but from earning credits — in game currency — which is exchanged for loot boxes which will randomly drop upgrade items. You get a second currency — crafting parts — which can be used to “craft” unlocks, which are also obtained from the loot boxes. You can’t unlock Star Cards, to upgrade abilities or unlock new gadget items for your soldiers, almost any other way right now. There are a handful of Star Cards which can be unlocked from game play milestones (achievements), but they are very few, and only get you the first tier of the upgrade. There are four tiers of upgrades. EA has taken the top tier out of the loot crates, so you must earn crafting parts, and the required rank, in order to get the highest upgrades in game. But crafting parts themselves are mostly obtained through random drops in loot crates!

The price tag for crafting is oddly high. For those who haven’t reached that point yet, while it only costs 40 parts to craft a tier one Star card, and 80 for tier two upgrade, 120 for tier three upgrade — double and triple the tier one base cost — the top purple tier costs 480 crafting parts. That is four times the upgrade cost of tier three, and twice the total cost to get a card from nothing to tier three. You need a high rank (25) in order to even craft the top tier cards. They no longer can drop from crates, so the only way to unlock them is with crafting parts. A trooper crate delivers around 60 parts, at a cost of 4000 credits (along with three other items). So it will take about 8 expensive crates (you can use the other crate types, might get lucky on parts) to do the final upgrade. And again, there is no other way in the game currently to get the highest tier other than collecting parts!

There are dozens of Star Cards, so just how much time would it take to actually max out your character? Even just getting the four trooper classes ranked up is going to cost millions of credits — with 4000 per hour of play being a decent amount at the moment. There are daily crates and possible timed community challenges, and of course your milestone awards until you complete all of them. I’m already suffering from the problem of crates dropping mostly duplicates for trooper classes, though the many other characters, especially heroes and vehicles, leave lots of slots for useful random benefits. Trooper classes (and the main starfighters in Starfighter Assault) are what you will spend the most time playing, and ranking those up is simply going to become very slow and grind-based.

EA has suspended the purchase of Crystals, the last in game currency, with real money, which is in turn used to purchase loot crates in the game. So for now, the problem of “pay to win” is also on hold. As long as the loot crates upgrade the power of your character in combat, being able to buy them with real money is going to be a “pay to win” situation. Shortcuts, paying to skip the grind to unlock basic items and weapons, have been present in Battlefield games for a while, but don’t really push the power up all that much. You can quickly unlock the key useful things by game play, so the shortcut merely saves time for those who have more money than time to play. Because you know exactly what you’ll get for your money, there is no random item gambling aspect.

So let’s look at the biggest problems with the random loot crate method of character progression.

First, a small but easy thing to fix. You get some special class based upgrades in special loot crates earned through milestones — actual play objectives. If you happen to have obtained the star card earned via this milestone from a random loot crate, you get a small credit refund from the duplicate. Given that milestones are a one time only, often fairly difficult challenge, this deprives the player of the value they should get from working on a hard achievement.

How can we fix that? Those special crates should give more than the random drop item duplicate payout. If not the full crafting part value for the Star Card or weapon upgrade which is scrapped, but a higher credit payout with some crafting parts to make the achievement payoff worthwhile. 200 credits for a duplicate item, when a Trooper Crate for 4000 credits drops four items (1000 credits each), simply isn’t good value.

I worry that the late game duplicate drops are going to become more and more worthless, as you will much more rarely get actually useful upgrades from the crates. We have to wait and see just how that balances out, but the duplicate value might simply be too low for many items. A second issue, and more troubling, is that once you have all the star cards unlocked — or at least those for your commonly played trooper and other classes — actual advancement will become much harder, and more random. Getting enough crafting parts to upgrade is a matter of the luck of the drop, and duplicate cards give you a poor payout in credits.

Now, if the loot crates had many more cosmetic items to unlock and drop, we might not have a problem with running out of valuable items to get, and thus less of a problem with the random drops and credit losses. But more important than that, the whole idea of making character ability advancement random, rather than under player control, is the real problem. Fortunately, that one has a relatively simple fix.

Make all Star Card unlocks achieveable by milestone style achievements. We have this with the weapon unlocks, which can not be unlocked via loot crates. You have to complete the milestones in order to get them. Well, almost — the Elite Trooper version lets you pay extra money to get some weapons unlocked early. But even there, it isn’t random, but a straight “shortcut” with money.

We have rank requirements in order to get Star Cards now, and I think those can be kept along with the new unlock requirements. It could be combined with crafting parts in a hybrid system. If the milestone achievement is 50% complete, you could unlock it with 50% of the crafting parts you’d otherwise need. The mission tasks can be set appropriate to the level of item you are unlocking, so this doesn’t need to be easy. We might even combine it with the random drop star cards, so that if you have made significant progress towards a new star card, you could get some credits along with the new star card, rather than getting nothing at all for your hard work.

This would make all the upgrades tied to the class you are playing, so you are not stuck getting random drops for something you aren’t actually playing. Now, it is fine and fair to use crafting parts to upgrade any item from any class. You can still get some upgrades from random drops, but wouldn’t be dependent on them for your advancement.

The locked heroes also could be unlocked via achievements. This isn’t quite as important if we aren’t so dependent on credits for both class advancement and unlocking new heroes, but I think it makes sense and provides a nice game play tie in to encourage players to work with all the heroes. I’d suggest using a progression system which requires using two heroes, related to the one you wish to unlock, to get your new heroes. As with the Star Card unlocks, perhaps you could get a discount on the cost for completing part of the challenge. We can actually get a sort of progression to our hero unlocks as well, by making you use some of the newly unlocked heroes in order to unlock later ones. So perhaps you’d need Emperor Palpatine and Kylo Ren in order to unlock Darth Vader, and Princess Leia and Rey to get Luke Skywalker – the current top two most expensive heroes. Iden Versio’s challenge might be the easiest – I’d consider giving it simply for finishing the campaign, or at least counting that as a huge boost for it. While Palpatine, Chewbacca, and Leia’s would be midrange in difficulty. All of these using heroes you start with, for example, Han Solo and Lando Calrissian to get Chewbacca.

The big complication, of course, is that the balance of progression will be changed by implementing something like this. But on the other hand, there will be much less need for random drops to upgrade characters, and less impact of higher value random drops — which could be made even rarer when players can earn them via other means.

The logical solution is to find more cosmetic items to put into the game. There is always room to add trophy items which don’t affect game play, and not all of them need to have full 3D art and models used within the actual game. Kill card and character “achievement all” items which are decorative and fit the theme can be easily added, and offer a way for players to show off their good fortune (and play time and achievements).

I fear that if game play based progression isn’t put into the game, the character advancement system will bog down into an exercise in random number drop frustration. Getting duplicate cosmetic items is annoying, but doesn’t affect game play. Failing to get any advantage at all after spending credits on a crate, that’s frustrating. When we reach the point where many players hit the “not yet pay to win” wall in advancement, the backlash is going to kill interest in the game. Progression systems aren’t the only thing this game has going for it, but it is something which gives players a reason to come back and keep playing a game.

I worry some that the highest tier star cards may make for some overpowered combinations. But that can be fixed with balance patches. The inability to control how your rank up your character, and the potentially immense time to reach the highest tier of upgrades, makes the long term character advancement seem pointless. The idea that many or most players would shell out cash for extra crates in order to gain a chance at ranking up wouldn’t work long if the payoff for that investment was most often useless duplicates. It was a bad idea to begin with to put character advancement into a random drop based purchasable item — rather than a fixed, predictable cost short cut package. But if you pay real money and get nothing of value, than is even worse.

A lot of games do use purchases for in game resources, but avoiding both player frustration at the process, and the pain of “pay to win” systems where spending money gives you an advantage over other players, requires keeping the benefits of cash spending more cosmetic than functional.

GTA Online has done extremely well, providing new free content, which requires players to either actively play the game frequently to earn in game money, or to shell out real money to “short cut” there way to new upgrades and unlocks. Of course, in GTA you buy property and equipment, not character rank and ability, and the vast majority of the content is pretty much just cosmetics.

Star Wars is filled with interesting sources of artwork and lore, which could be tapped to make a huge supply of cool cosmetic collectibles if that is what EA wants to try to sell. Players do seem to like collecting rare in-game collectible achievements and items, even if they have no game play benefit. For example, the Dog Tags used in the Battlefield series, just something to show off when you get a kill, and to fill a place in your character screen’s collections.

I’m sure I’m not the only one to come back to the basic idea of game play, task based achievements for character progression. There is a reason that many games, including the 2015 Battlefront and the Battlefield series, use it. I’m also sure that DICE can work out how to apply this to the current Battlefront II in a way that gives players “a new hope” for the life and enjoyment of this game. Star Wars fans deserve to have a game which is as close to perfect as possible, and not one which foolishly tries to exploit its player base to make money.

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