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Star Wars Battlefront 2 controversy: Has EA killed the premium + IAP business model?

by Pascal Luban on 11/21/17 10:32:00 am   Expert Blogs

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Probably not, but it will make other publishers much more suspicious about this business model.  This is unfortunate because, if properly implemented, it can benefit both players and publishers.

This business model that offers IAPs (in-app-purchases) in a game sold at full price is called paymium. Past examples show that it can be quite effective without getting players mad: Rainbow Six - Siege and Overwatch are some of the titles that manage to implement it successfully.

So, what went wrong with Star Wars - Battlefront 2 and, most importantly, how could we properly implement this business model in triple-A titles?

Most likely, EA and Dice tried to adapt a successful freemium monetization strategy to their game:  Progression trees. In that strategy, players can unlock improved features with a specific resource. More advanced features require larger amount of resource which are earned by playing the game. In some games, like Clash Royale, that resource can also be purchased with real money.  This monetization strategy does work, even in competitive games.

That looks a lot like what was planned for SW-B2: To unlock advanced equipment and exciting characters, players had to earn loot boxes that contained a variable amount of crystals. Loot boxes could also be purchased with real money. However, there are two major differences that led to players anger.

First, SW-B2 is about … Star Wars. Players are willing to pay a premium price to enjoy the ability to play its most awesome characters. The planned monetization strategy would have made it very difficult for many players to unlock those characters. No wonder players got mad.

Second, many people feared that players spending real money would quickly unlock combat equipment that could give them an unfair advantage in this competitive game. This is called « pay-to-win » and is largely rejected by most western players. However, selling items that give a competitive advantage can be accepted by players in freemium games if properly implemented. The issue arises in SW-B2 for two reasons: players could not assess the effectiveness of the loadout-based matchmaking and, again, it appears like an abusive practice in a game sold at full price.

It boils down to one simple conclusion: Introducing freemium-inspired business models in a full-price game is a dangerous move.

As a consequence, one question arises: Is paymium a bad business model anyway? Wouldn’t it be simpler to stick to the good old premium model?

Probably not.

Publishers will increasingly use this business model for several reasons:

  • The development and marketing cost of blockbusters are skyrocketing. Publishers will need extra revenue sources, especially if sequels are not published on a yearly basis.
  • Live games, games that are managed like a service, will grow in importance, and their revenue model is not based on the rigid premium model.
  • Paymium allows publishers to introduce flexibility in their prices. For instance, one could imagine selling the campaign mode of a game at a low price and the multiplayer mode as a subscription. Being flexible on prices mean you can target a wider audience.

So, what are the best practices to implement IAPs in a premium game?

  • Sell cosmetic items only. This is the solution present in Overwatch and Rainbow Six - Siege. This is the safest and easiest way to add IAPs in a premium game. However, revenues can be low.
  • Sell DLC. High value DLC remains popular among players but content has to be worth it. Ubisoft has been very creative with the DLC it sells for The Division.
  • Adopt the GTA 5 model. The game is sold at full price but it grants access to a successful free-to-play online mode where freemium monetization strategies can be implemented.

In the long term, I believe publishers and studios have to prepare themselves for freemium-inspired business models and game design practices for triple-A titles. This is a true challenge for them. EA’s misfortunes show that adopting freemium strategies out of their proper context does not work. It is important to understand that defining a monetization strategy for premium games is not to define items to sell; it is to create a game flow where players will see IAPs as enhancements to their experience, not hurdles.

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