EA shoots itself in the foot once more with ripoff microtransactions
For the very first rant of my fresh new blog site, I figured what better way to announce my presence than to rip into one of the most hated companies in North America: Electronic Arts. Not only are they an easy target, but seeing as I'm a fan of their hit game Apex Legends and their latest in-game special event just began, my frustrations with the company have been renewed.
Apex Legends is one of the most popular games in the battle royale genre and has been since it's surprise launch back in February. Developed by the extremely talented Respawn Entertainment (developers of Titanfall & Titanfall 2, and now owned by EA), Apex Legends amassed millions of players virtually overnight thanks to its polished shooting chops, the squad-based mechanics and character abilities, its generous free-to-play model, and its excellent map design.
For the uninitiated, the battle royale genre has become massively popular in the last several years, most notably in the form of mainstream phenomenon Fortnite, and is enjoyed both by millions of players and millions of viewers of live streams on the likes of Twitch and Mixer.
Pitting dozens of players against each other in either a free-for-all or multiple team format, battle royale games start off with all players aboard a dropship where they can decide when to jump out and parachute down to a landing spot of their choosing. Once grounded, players scavenge for loot in the form of weapons, weapon attachments, armour, equipment, ammo, health pickups, and more all while fending off any other players or squads they see. The massive maps present in these games (typically islands) force the action by creating a "hill" or safe zone marked on the map, with timed rounds that slowly make that safe zone smaller and smaller - if you're outside of the ring, you'll take damage, with each round doing more damage and giving you less time to get into the safe zone before it begins to move in. The last man or squad standing at the end is declared the champion, sort of like a videogame version of The Hunger Games.
Apex Legends made its splash in the genre thanks to its high level of polish (many other battle royale games like Player Unknown's Battlegrounds and even Fortnite have had a lot of issues with bugs or unrefined gameplay mechanics), its variety of playstyles available, its focus on squads and teamwork, and its intuitive systems. It's a surprisingly simple game to pick up and play despite its impressive depth - loot quality is easy to figure out and ammo is colour coordinated, movement is fast and fluid, inventory management is made remarkably simple thanks to helpful icons and contextual tooltips, and the minimap always shows a direct line to the next hill. It's easy to get into, but very hard to master.
The Ping system, which places a contextual marker on your and your squadmate's HUD and minimap is a remarkably simple yet ingenious mechanic that needs to be implemented in virtually every team-based game. It makes communication very simple even for players who don't want to talk on a mic - simply point at something and press the Ping button to mark it for your teammates. If you're looking at an enemy, that marker (accompanied by your character's verbal warning) shows a symbol indicating a target is there; Ping loot and the marker will show what the loot is to your teammates in case they want it; Ping the location you want to move to, and your team will see exactly where you plan on going. You can even cancel Pings or acknowledge other player's Pings, letting them know you are aware a hostile is close or declaring dibs on a weapon you want to pick up - its contextual usage is incredibly effective and makes communication a breeze, and holding the Ping button will give you a selection of markers to choose from for more specific communication, such as telling your teammates you want to defend a certain location, that hostiles were there but you can't see them, and so forth.
As a true free-to-play game, you can play as much as you'd like and never have to spend a dime, and it won't put you at any disadvantage against players who have dropped real-world cash into the game. The paid content is purely cosmetic, and there's a chance to earn basically all of the cosmetic items through simply playing the game (albeit a lot, or else there'd be no reason to spend money). And considering how addicting the game can be and its dedicated following, racking up hundreds of hours in Apex is not uncommon.
For the game's cosmetic loot, Apex Legends offers tons of content and has been steadily releasing more since launch, from various character and weapon skins, different banners poses and borders for your character's player card which also showcases your stats with that character, different quips for kills and in the player selection screen, and even different executions to use on downed enemies. Every cosmetic item is tiered based on rarity with the same colour scheme as in game weapons and items, keeping all the game's systems consistent.
Through playing the game and leveling up, you can earn up to 45 Apex Packs, each containing 3 random items from the massive pool of cosmetic options, with more rare loot obviously being less likely to appear in a pack. You can purchase individual Apex Packs for roughly $1 apiece if you want to buy more, and every 3 months new level rewards are offered, with a few free cosmetic items unlockable alongside a few more Apex Packs. Crafting materials, which are sometimes found in Apex packs, can be used to craft specific cosmetic items if you have your eye on a specific piece of gear (you can view all of the available skins at any time in the menus alongside the ones you actually have), with more rare items costing more crafting materials, but these materials are quite sparse.
Each 3 month period is called a "season" and introduces new gameplay additions and changes (like new weapons, Legends, challenges, and more, all for free) and comes with a paid Battle Pass, which can be bought using Apex Coins - a Battle Pass costs roughly $10 US when converted and instantly gets you some unlocked bonus cosmetics, with tons more earned through leveling up during the season. Each season features 110 levels per season with all of them from 1-100 granting a reward (and bonus rewards for getting to the maximum of 110), from standard Apex Packs to crafting materials, legendary skins and even Apex Packs that are guaranteed an Epic or Legendary item.
In a great twist you also earn Apex Coins, the premium currency used to purchase Apex Packs or the Battle Pass - if you play enough during the season, you'll have earned enough vitrual currency to buy the next season's Battle Pass without spending another real-world dime, which is an awesome bonus and very rewarding to avid players.
All of this sounds pretty great, so what's the problem? Where's the rant?
The seasons and Battle Pass is pretty identical to what other successful battle royale games have done (ie. Fortnite) and is well worth the small investment. What follows is where EA in their infinite wisdom had to go and ruin things with a ridiculous pricing model.
As the months have gone by, Apex has had several in-game events, each lasting around two weeks that add in a different game mode, some challenges to get a few free cosmetics that fit the event's theme, and some paid cosmetics only available during the event. So far, so good.
With the latest event starting October 15th and lasting through Halloween, Apex's Fight or Fright event is arguably the biggest and best event they've had. Adding a new game mode called Shadowfall which is essentially a modified version of a free-for-all mode combined with a zombies game type, Shadowfall takes place in a night time version of King's Canyon, the original map used until season 3 brought us the brilliant new World's Edge map. This new version of the classic map also includes plenty of visual flair, with glowing wildlife, spiders that spring out of some supply bins and have to be shot to receive their loot, cobwebs and creepy candle assortments adorning the map's structures and of course the zombified versions of each Legend.
The game mode is a lot of fun, and like its last event, it comes with 24 exclusive cosmetic items for the event's theme. As time has passed the events have featured better looking loot, and this time the character and weapon skins are actually quite impressive, with very cool designs featuring the legends as different Halloween outfits, from Caustic's creepy killer clown getup to Wraith's scary witch costume and Gibraltar's Frankenstein makeover. Considering the amount of time I've spent playing the game and how much fun it is, I, like many gamers would be more than willing to shell out a few bucks to show appreciation to the excellent developers of Apex Legends and encourage them to keep up the great work.
And that's where EA and their hideous track record of gouging consumers comes in.
On the event's store page, all 24 cosmetic items are displayed and can be inspected, with 12 of the items being Epic rarity, and 12 being Legendary. Every legend has their own Halloween skin along with two Halloween-centric quips that come included with the skins, plus there are several weapon skins, a couple of banners, and a couple of weapon charms (kind of like ornaments but attached to your gun).
If you unlock all 24 cosmetic items which is clearly what the store page is designed to aim you toward, a new Lifeline Heirloom set is yours for "free" - only the third Heirloom set in the game, these packs contain 3 special unlocks for the character including a new execution move and are the rarest items in the game with well under a 1% chance of getting one by opening an Apex Pack. The game promises one Heirloom set for every 500 Apex Packs you open - considering if you haven't paid any real money but have played the game religiously since launch you'd have opened way less than 100 packs total, that gives you a pretty good idea of how rare they are.
In an improvement from previous events, you can unlock cosmetics here by using crafting materials, albeit at a higher cost than for normal loot - crafting one of the 12 Epic items costs you 800 crafting materials, while a Legendary costs a whopping 2400. With recent battle passes granting you 1200 crafting materials over the course of the 100 level season, even if you completely levelled up in every season so far and saved all your crafting materials and got some extra from Apex Packs, you'd be very lucky to have enough to craft just 2 of the 12 Legendary items. Given they are for a special event, that aspect is more than reasonable.
So how much do they cost in real money?
Here's where things get truly baffling. Initially I thought the 1000/1800 crafting materials could be used to craft ALL 12 of the corresponding Epic/Legendary items, which wouldn't be too bad - that's roughly $10 for the Epics, and $18 for the Legendaries.
Upon further review, I realized the amount of Apex Coins required was PER ITEM.
That's right, to get a single one of the 12 Epic items, be it a character or weapon skin, a weapon charm or a banner, it costs 1000 Apex Coins. That's $10 US. For a single, digital cosmetic item. One that doesn't do anything but makes your character (or weapon, banner, etc) look different.
For a Legendary item? 1800 Apex Coins, or about $18. Again, that's PER skin.
If you're paying that way, getting all 24 items and the "free" Heirloom set will cost you about $336.
But wait, there's a cheaper option: event exclusive Fight or Fright Packs. These special Apex Packs contain 1 of the 24 exclusive items (with an equal chance of Epic or Legendary items) alongside 2 non-exclusive items you'd find in a normal Apex Pack not related to the event. There are no duplicates as well, so if you purchase 24 packs, you'll have all 24 items, guaranteed. That sounds cool, and you get some bonus loot!
The normal Apex Packs cost a dollar, so what do these cost?
700 Apex Coins, or $7. No bulk discount either. So if you want the entire collection, you're gonna have to spend $168 (perhaps minus a few multiples of 7 depending on if you have a decent amount of crafting materials saved up). That's roughly 3 times the cost of a full-priced game, all for some digital costumes and skins.
To put that in perspective, you can get an entire year of EA Access, with dozens of EA titles to play as much as you want alongside 10 hour trials of all of their latest games plus other incentives, for just $30, which would net you between 2-4 of these cosmetic items depending on how you buy them in Apex Legends. Their very own Battle Pass only costs $10 and contains well over a hundred items!
EA has long been at the forefront of gouging customers with microtransactions - their annual sports games regularly lock away content and customization options that were included in previous installments behind loot packs that are particularly stingy and contain whole game modes completely centred around driving players to buy loot packs, and those are for games players have already paid in full for. Not to mention Star Wars Battlefront II, where their microtransaction system was the focus of the entire multiplayer component at launch and required a complete overhaul after the media firestorm that ensued when angry gamers voiced their unanimous condemnation, tanking the sales of what was otherwise a great game and earning a public apology from licensor Disney itself.
With Apex Legends, it seemed that EA was copying (and copying it well I might add) the playbook of other successful battle royales monetization schemes and were surprisingly generous with the battle pass content. Their limited-time events however have been a whole different story, and this latest one is very similar to the last Iron Crown event they held, with similarly priced items.
Not only is EA offering too little to warrant such prices, they're pricing themselves out of potential sales with costs so high only kids with rich parents or those with stolen credit cards are going to be willing to spend anything, let alone purchase all the event's items.
After the Iron Crown debacle, one developer on the game even fought back against criticism in saying the game is free and they have to recoup their money or else the game wouldn't exist - while a true statement, the exorbitant prices are ensuring that they won't make much money if any off a game that millions of gamers are actively playing. But of course, the developers can't go out and say "we're doing our best but EA is the publisher and they determine cost, it's not our fault they're idiots".
Despite the backlash, EA has seemingly doubled down on its pricing with the latest event once again showing its complete lack of awareness - while offering each item individually is an improvement and being able to use crafting materials to make them is a nice gesture, the delusional asking prices which remain unchanged are a slap in the face to those wanting to support the game.
The actual content on offer is great, and the developers have continued to put out even better content as the months go by, with a great new map and some great themed events coming out and injecting fresh life into the game regularly. This latest batch of paid content looks great and if it were reasonably priced I'd have no problem shelling out a few bucks as a thank you for the hours of enjoyment, as would many other gamers.
Instead, EA is alienating its own fans and failing to monetize a great potential base of customers, no doubt thanks to the notorious corporate pencil pushers that don't play the games and don't realize the markets demands.
Given that we don't have sales figures or even estimates for the game other than the amount of people playing it, it's hard to say if anybody is buying these absurdly priced cosmetics - while the Battle Passes seem popular (as you can tell by the special skydiving emotes on the way down from the dropship) after a couple days of play I've yet to see anyone with one of the event's Legendary character skins in either the Shadowfall mode or the traditional mode, though I have seen a few of the Epic items (which a couple can easily be crafted for free by regular players or Battle Pass owners). I can't recall the last event's Legendary skins being shown regularly in games either.
Given the price point and lack of seeing them on other players, plus the high install base and the relatively low percentages of players in most games that pay for cosmetic items even at modest prices, I think it's safe to assume that less than 1% of Apex Legends players have paid for any of the event cosmetics, and if they have, it's likely through one or two of the $7 Apex Packs.
In a game as popular and with the quality of content Respawn is producing, there should be players in every 60-person match who have at least a few bucks for a rare skin, as is shown with the success of the Battle Pass - instead, you don't see any (or perhaps I just happen to always find games devoid of them, and their high price points is a stroke of genius - judging by rampant player complaints and media coverage, I'd guess that isn't the case).
Given that Respawn didn't have a very long development cycle and re-worked many assets from Titanfall including many of its mechanics, it's likely that Apex Legends didn't cost a ton to produce and likely recouped its money from the Battle Pass - even with the expanded dedication to the project and more marketing, it may still be in the black simply off of Battle Passes and standard Apex Packs, with event cosmetics meant to be a nice bonus. The problem there is that they're making a few bucks off a very small segment of players when they could be making millions off a much larger segment and not pissing off their dedicated fans while they do it.
So how do they fix it? It's one thing to complain, but people rarely offer better solutions, so here's mine.
It's painfully simple, which is what makes it so infuriating. If someone could just sit down with one of the EA execs that's responsible for this price scheme and explain how stupid they are, Apex Legends could make them some real money.
The event content, amount of it, and options available to purchase it are fine as is, and the amount of crafting materials required to get one of the items free is also fair. The real money costs are the problem.
A much better pay scheme that could actually result in serious revenue would be as follows:
An Event Pack still contains 1 of the 24 items and 2 regular loot items, but costs 300 Apex Coins ($3), or 3x as much as a standard Apex Pack.
A single Epic item can be purchased for 300 Coins ($3) each - incentivizes the Event Packs as they feel they're always at least getting their money's worth with additional bonuses, and people who just want a few specific items tend to have no problem paying a couple bucks for it - this is how mobile games have raked in millions in the past despite coming in increments of as little as a dollar or two.
A single Legendary item can be purchased for 500 Coins ($5) each - still a bit pricey for a cosmetic item, but if players really want just a specific item or two it's low enough they'll likely buy it.
All 12 of the Epic items in a bundle for 1000 Coins ($10) - much cheaper than individual buys and thus looks like a great value, and a very reasonable amount at less than $1 per item.
All 12 of the Legendary items in a bundle for 1500 Coins ($15) - again much cheaper than purchasing individually, and a reasonable amount for consumers.
An Event Bundle which includes all 24 items plus the Heirloom set would then go for 2000 Coins ($20). This is where a lot of money would be made - it's got value to the customer, seems like a reasonable cost to get some cool items and support a fun game, and I guarantee you'd find way more people willing to shell out $20 for this than all of the individual purchases at their current rates combined. The amount of players willing to drop a few dollars on fun free-to-play games is surprisingly high and can be seen from other games in the past and present, but if those players are greeted with insultingly high costs that appeciation for the developers goes away in a hurry.
Why a random gamer can think of a much better business model in a matter of minutes and understand the market more than execs at a massive gaming company seemingly can, I'll never know, but that's EA for you. While they have some excellent development studios and talent, their management is woefully incompetent and the reason why the company has struggled so much in recent times, not to mention is regarded as one of the most hated companies in North America for the last several years.
EA has made a habit of buying up successful and talented development teams in their prime, only to mismanage them in bizaare fashion and hamstring their creativity until said studio is killed off.
Hopefully with Apex Legends someone can talk some sense into EA's suits before Respawn Entertainment gets shuttered for "underperforming" like so many other developers bought by them in the past.