At E3, Electronic Arts Threw Its Developers Under the Bus Over Loot Boxes


#1

There were a lot of problems with Electronic Art’s kickoff presentation at E3—I’ll touch on the frustrating way they rolled out Anthem later this week—but I haven’t been able to shake off one part. Roughly 15 minutes into EA’s 75 minute event, CEO Andrew Wilson made some broad remarks about EA and its goals for the future. He announced EA’s flirtation with cloud gaming and a new subscription service for Origin.

And then Wilson walked off stage and said nothing about one of the company’s biggest strategic errors in the last year: loot boxes. Cleaning up that mess, addressing the fans who felt angry and exploited about the way EA treated them, was left to other people.

Star Wars Battlefront II’s launch was a fiasco. It hardly mattered if the multiplayer shooter was fun to play; the game became the public face of loot boxes, a form of monetization in which players don’t know what they’re getting until they open digital code. In Battlefront II, loot boxes granted access to perks to make characters better, and the fastest way to access more loot boxes was by paying for them. Other games, even ones released in 2017, used loot boxes, but since Electronic Arts, a company (at times unfairly) seen as the embodiment of consumer exploitation, was the publisher, Battlefront II became a thunderous flash point.

At two different points during EA Play, in the middle of segments for Battlefield V and Anthem, developers announced (to applause!) their games wouldn’t feature loot boxes. Battlefront II came out only seven months ago, and somehow, EA was retconning one of their critical mistakes into rallying cry for the faithful.

According to a financial disclosure EA released last Friday, Wilson earned almost $20 million—a combination of salary, stock awards, and other bonuses—during the company’s 2017 fiscal year. That number jumped to almost $36 million in fiscal 2018, which ended this March and includes Battlefront II’s release. I haven’t done enough reporting on Battlefront II to say who demanded loot boxes be so deeply embedded in the game, but decades of covering the industry suggests it’s at pay grades far above the people making the game, a reliable tug-of-war between a game’s design aspirations and the folks who sign the checks.

Being in charge of the company, the responsibility lands on Wilson. But after taking $36 million in compensation for overseeing one of EA’s most troubled years, there was at least one buck that Wilson was willing to pass on to his employees.

A few minutes later, following the awkward announcement of Jedi: Fallen Order, Battlefront II design director Dennis Brännvall took the stage. While he refused to say the word “loot boxes,” he immediately admitted when Battlefront II launched, they “didn’t get it quite right.”

“Instead of coming out of the gate sprinting like we really wanted to, we had to take a step back and make sure that we were delivering the game that our players really wanted,” said Brännvall, “so we decided to completely overhaul our progression system and add a bunch of new character cosmetics for players to collect instead.”

These conferences are not improvised. They are carefully choreographed affairs, where every word, movement, and image is carefully scrutinized. It was a conscious decision to put the onus of explaining Battlefront II’s monetization—and EA’s loot box pivot as a whole—on the developers who work for EA, instead of the executives who often drive such decisions.

"EA and DICE are committed to Battlefront," said Brännvall. "We had a rough start but I really think this game has a bright future. Thank you very much for playing the game, providing your feedback, talking to us together. We will make this the greatest game that we can possibly build. There will be not Battlefront without you.”

Game developers spend most of their time locked in offices, toiling away on projects whose high-level decisions are out of their control. They work long, soul-crushing hours that keep them away from their friends and family. Events like E3 can function as a form of emotional and professional catharsis, a chance for developers (and their work) to take briefly center stage. Only a few people who work on the game get a chance to be part of the E3 stagecraft, but rest assured, back at home, there are countless employees cheering along with them.

Andrew Wilson isn’t on Twitter, sifting through thousands of hostile tweets. He’s not the one doing crowd control on Reddit, trying to find a way to explain how the developers are “listening to constructive feedback,” all without giving up the whole game and pointing the finger at corporate. That’s how you get fired.

Even if you’re charitable and imagine Wilson didn’t personally push for loot boxes, he should have taken the hit anyway. That’s his job. He’s the one who steps out on stage, apologizes for what happened, promises they’re going to do better, and makes the public commitment to leave loot boxes out of their upcoming games, Anthem and Battlefield V. (In public comments, EA has continued to defend the loot box practice, and intends to have them in the next FIFA game, where they've been incredibly profitable and successful, without the same backlash.)

There’s precedent for companies getting this right, too. Sony did it a few years ago.

For nearly a month in 2011, PlayStation Network was down. You couldn’t play games, you couldn’t buy games. The outage may have caused the collapse of a studio whose online game launched around the same time, and the personal and financial information of users was potentially exposed to malicious hackers. It was a massive (and public) screw up for Sony only weeks before their always anticipated E3 event. There’s a world where Sony tried to sweep the problem under the rug, but instead, then PlayStation president Jack Tretton walked out on stage, he did something few people in power do: performed an authentic-sounding apology.

“This isn’t the first time that I’ve come to an E3 press conference with an elephant in the room,” said Tretton. “And of course I’m referring to the PlayStation Network outage. This is the first opportunity for me to personally address everybody and discuss it a little bit. “

Tretton started by apologizing to the companies who publish games on PlayStation, before thanking retail partners who’d backed Sony long before it’d become a major power in games. Then, his attention focused to players—well, “consumers.” (He’s still an executive, after all.)

“Which brings me to the audience that I’m most interested in addressing,” he said. “Those are our consumers. You are the lifeblood of the company. Without you, there is no PlayStation. And I want to apologize both personally and on behalf of the company for any anxiety that we’ve caused you.”

I’ve met Tretton a few times in the past, and he’s always struck me as a good guy who’s actually trying to do right by the people who buy what he’s selling. Maybe that’s part of his whole schtick, a way to hoodwink press and players alike, but even so, it’s a shrewd one. If people think you’re a human, they’re more willing to forgive after you’ve screwed up, even if, at the end of the day, it’s in service of a monetary exchange.

Wilson hasn’t earned that kind of goodwill from players and with good reason. This moment, this specific E3, would have been a genuine opportunity to drop the facade, or at least pretend.

Towards the end of EA Play, Wilson did appear for a few final words. It’s the only time he even gestures at the widespread distrust aimed at EA, and there’s an alternate universe where a rewritten statement has a chance of landing on potentially compassionate ears.

You can watch the moment here:

“I am blessed to be able to work with some of the most creative people on the planet who come to work every day to create amazing entertainment,” said Wilson. “And what I can say about all of those teams and we can say about us is that we are always trying to learn and listen and strive to be better.”

Knowingly or not, he shifts the blame on this failure to connect. Other people. Other teams.

“There's some things we hope come through,” he continued. “First, that at the very core is choice is that you as players get to choose how you play what you play when you play and what devices you play on. That in making those choices you feel you are treated fairly, that no one is given an unfair advantage or disadvantage for how they choose to play.”

In a more just world, Wilson is paid $36 million per year because he’s steering a billion dollar ship, and wants to do good by the countless employees whose work fueled those profits, even when he leads them into troubled waters. We don’t live in that world.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/9k8j5v/at-e3-electronic-arts-threw-its-developers-under-the-bus-over-loot-boxes

#2

100% agree. A CEO is paid a lot because not only does he steer the ship, he also should take the hit of any issues even if he knows internally it wasn’t his fault. Like Patrick says, take the blame let the consumers know you will do better. Then let your employees know you got their back (ensure good morale) and make changes that will take in everyone’s input and still help make profit. Its easier said than done but it can be done.

One of things i hate about big companies (I work in a big tech company) is that many people tend to push away blame. They aren’t willing to own up to it and make good changes.


#3

I’m worried about Bioware. Anthem was in development for long enough that its a safe bet there was some sort of lootbox system in the game. Suddenly E3 rolls around and they have no economy or game structure to show, just basic gameplay and a few skins. No loot boxes either.

I’m just a little worried how many late nights in crunch that “no lootboxes” announcement required.


#4

yet another example of CEOs being selfish and of the general terribleness of Capitalism as a whole. In a more just world, not only would Wilson be the one taking the blame and apologizing for the fuckup that was (most likely) corporate’s decision - i highly doubt most game devs would be interested in throwing lootboxes into their game and ruining the experience they wanted to deliver by milking people for profit - as well as having said employees be paid better and have better labor practices.

Sadly, we dont live in that world. we live in a world where profit is the only driving direction. That needs to change. I dont know how, but it needs to.


#5

I’d maybe go a bit further and suggest that in a better world, folks like Andrew Wilson wouldn’t be getting paid $36 million in the first place. But, y’know, baby steps.

Seeing the amount of vitriol being thrown at the devs & community managers at DICE (which is a big problem in of itself) was bad enough, to make the design director meekly come out and apologise for decisions they likely didn’t have a lot of control over is rubbing salt in the wound. For all the sincere, charming indie devs EA gives their stage to, you’d like they could show a similar amount of respect to the studios that work under them, but I guess that doesn’t afford them the same amount of good PR.


#6

I think a big issue is there is no real direct way for people to hold higher ups accountable. They are so insulated from the responses to the practices they enact it ultimately does not matter to them until it affects the bottom line.

And this is another reason why unionizing is so crucial for game developers. Many of the actual developers working on these games as Patrick wrote don’t want these sorts of practices in their games and have no control over whether they are there or not. If the developers themselves can hold more of the power, they will be able to hold Andrew Wilson and other higher-ups accountable, and it will lead to less scummy business practices.


#7

Andrew Wilson won’t apologize because he’s not sorry for lootboxes in the slightest. It’s his creation, his calling card, and the sole reason he’s an obscenely compensated CEO, according to this outstanding piece of games journalism, called The Untold History of EA’s Long (and Rich) Pay-2-Win Love Affair:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTLFNlu2N_M

If Pulitzer Prize for games’ journalism existed, this should have gotten it.


#8

It’s not like Riccitiello ever offered any kind of mea culpa for EA’s “missteps” during his reign of error, though. Electronic Arts just doesn’t have that kind of insight or humility in their corporate culture, ostensibly because the gaming community keeps going back to them every time.


#9

This article reminds me a lot of a New Yorker cartoon from a while ago:


Andrew Wilson’s job isn’t to be liked, it’s to make the company he leads profitable. So far he’s accomplished that, 2017 had strong growth in both revenue and stock price, despite all the mistakes. It’s impossible to say how much impact one person, even the CEO, had in had in the growth, but from that capitalistic view point he’s doing his job well.

There are unseen costs to this that cannot be expressed in raw dollar amounts. Perception of EA may one day catch up and hurt sales. Developers may see this policy of handling blame as a reason to leave or avoid working for EA.