How Controversy Can Make Or Break A Game For Publishers

Today, the internet is everywhere. Accessible on practically every screen, for billions of people around the globe, in almost any location imaginable. With an estimated 2.5 billion gamers world wide, there’s always plenty of people discussing big games and subsequently discussing big name publishers like Blizzard, Activision and Electronic Arts.

In today’s gaming industry, these big name publishers are under scrutiny more than ever. Everything is being live streamed, broadcast, discussed, recorded and publicized instantly. From the first leaks of a new game all to way through to launch and long after, the amount of attention for video game publishers and their ventures can potentially become negative, crippling a developers work of art.

But for some of the publishers, they make great use of the old adage of “no such thing as bad publicity” using the watchful eye of us, the gamers, to their advantage. Here’s a few examples of how huge controversies surrounding video games can either make or break a company.

Blizzard – Hearthstone-Hong Kong Horror

Blizzard has recently been under scrutiny following the banning of a professional Hearthstone player speaking out in support of protests in Hong Kong. The city-state has been plagued by riots in a cry for independence from the Chinese mainland. But Blizzard Entertainment took a stance against the player for making a political statement during a tournament for the popular collectible card game.

The public support of the protests landed Hearthstone player Blitzchung as well as two esports casters bans and even going so far as to strip Blitzchung of his tournament winnings.  Outrage spread quickly through the community.  From gamers, to industry titans, and even politicians, many saw the banning as a politically and financially motivated move by Blizzard.

In a later response, Blizzard explained that the decision had nothing to do with politics, Chinese money or preserving China’s gigantic player base at the expense of Hong Kong. Instead, it had everything to do with the expression of a controversial opinion itself. Whatever Blizzard’s explanation of the incident, many fans and critics alike started voicing their disapproval of Blizzard’s actions, creating hashtags like #BlizzardBoycott. Some even went through the trouble of creating fan art featuring Overwatch character Mei (who is Chinese) to protest against Blizzard, China and the whole incident itself.

Even with some understandable reasoning behind their statements, the company is now viewed as a pro-Chinese publisher that silences any player or group if they oppose Blizzard’s views. They can’t seem to shake the image anymore. And they’re not the only one. And with BlizzCon coming up November 1st, many feel that the outrage will continue as protests are scheduled for the event.

EA – Battlefront II’s Loot Box Controversy

With the release of Battlefront II in November of 2017, publisher Electronic Arts had two magical ingredients for an amazing game: Battlefield-developer DICE was making the sequel to the wildly successful Battlefront (2015) and Star Wars hype was at an all time high following the revival of the movie franchise two years earlier. But there was one issue that stopped Battlefront II and EA dead in their tracks: loot boxes.

While the game seemed to be everything players had hoped for through the trailers and beta’s, players soon discovered that progression was entirely randomized through the loot box system. Although most skills unlocked through the game weren’t major upgrades, some of the higher tiered items gave significant boosts to player skills. If you simply bought your way through the game, theoretically, two players of the same skill level facing each other could have two completely different gaming experiences.

Someone who had bought high tier items through loot boxes skipped having to grind dozens of hours to unlock the same skills of someone who had not bought loot boxes at all, relying on the few crates that were awarded to the player through gameplay.

And with some hero’s such as the iconic Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker costing over 60,000 credits at the time, many players began to realize that the whole loot box system was simply a money grab.  Players who did the math realized that to grind their way to an equal amount of credits it would take an average of 40 hours play time to unlock just one of those hero’s.

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Understanding the impact of loot boxes being coupled with specific advantages in a game is important to understand the power of negative publicity.  When players learned that an unfair advantage could be given to one player over another, this screamed pay-to-win.  As a result, many gamer’s cancelled pre-orders, multiple articles were written about how the game’s progression and in-game advantages were tied to loot boxes, early reviews of the game made the controversy a main focus, thus overshadowing almost all positive aspects of the game.  This led to Battlefront II selling nearly 1 million copies less than anticipated.

This controversy was one of the biggest controversies of the gaming world at the time. On the Star Wars Battlefront II Reddit page, a user voiced their frustrations after purchasing 12000 Crystals for $80 only to realize that the Crystals could not be used to purchase the various hero characters, which are only available to buy in the form of Credits. This user wanted to purchase the Darth Vader hero, who at the time cost 60,000 credits.

An EA spokesperson responded to the post with the following:

The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.

As for cost, we selected initial values based upon data from the Open Beta and other adjustments made to milestone rewards before launch. Among other things, we’re looking at average per-player credit earn rates on a daily basis, and we’ll be making constant adjustments to ensure that players have challenges that are compelling, rewarding, and of course attainable via gameplay.

That reply would become Reddit’s most downvoted comment in history with over 675,000 down votes, earning it a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.  Following the massive response to their attempts to reconcile with the community, EA eventually reduced the price of all hero characters by 75%.  And while that seemed to suffice, the damage was already done.  After multiple attempts to revive the game, it never seemed to reach its full potential.

In fact, many developers today have a difficult time creating a monetization system, simply because this whole controversy was picked up by politicians from around the world. Although some of the reasoning behind legislation is a bit sketchy at best, at the very least, gamers, parents of gamers and politicians have become aware of what companies try to do with the so-called ‘surprise mechanics’.

Activision – Taking The High Road

That leads us to Activision, the only company in this list that actually seemed to use negative press to their advantage. The publisher best known for the Call of Duty franchise was repeatedly compared to EA for the potential inclusion of loot boxes in the upcoming Modern Warfare soft reboot.

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After the beta, leaks suggested a multitude of shady features coming to the game. From loot boxes to one year exclusivity for certain game modes, many gamers to voice their concerns for the monetization of Modern Warfare. We at Game Enthusiast even wrote an in depth article on how Acitivision should be held accountable for their practices.

It took the company more than a month to publicly announce that loot boxes were never coming to Modern Warfare. This announcement was received very positively by the community. Developer Infinity Ward did address the controversy by responding to one of the many criticizing Reddit-posts with a mild comment. But up until a few days ago, nothing official was announced and the developers only teased the fact that loot boxes weren’t being implemented in the game. So why did it take them so long?

As far as we can speculate, there are two reasons as to why Activision waited a month to publicly denounce loot boxes. One reason could be that they did plan to introduce loot boxes in Modern Warfare, which would explain screen shots from the beta showing loot boxes on a player’s screen. But after seeing the community response, they took a month to reevaluate their strategy and come up with a new business plan.

The other, more likely option would be that Activision used all of the speculation to their advantage. It would certainly explain why the developers responded to the speculations in the way that they did. Radio silence would be too suspicious, and announcing the lack of surprise mechanics right off the bat would have killed a lot of buzz circulated by the mention of loot boxes.

So we can only assume that Activision recognized the opportunity that arose with the community when it was looking like loot boxes would once again rear their ugly head. Instead, Activision would announce a more fluid and accessible method of monetization in the form of a Battle Pass, similar to Fortnite and Apex Legends.  They even announced that everything that was available in the premium content stream was unlockable through play time.

In today’s video game industry, the community has an immense power. With nearly unlimited access to a huge network of people who are dialed in on gaming, the power of controversy can really be a deciding factor in a game’s success.  Publishers who listen to their communities and try to limit exploitation of the players are the one’s who succeed.

And while it is unlikely that we will ever see a time where a AAA title doesn’t have some form of exploitation to increase revenue, the gaming community really does have a say when it comes to the success of a game.  We will continue to see controversy in the gaming industry, and when we do, publishers will be given an opportunity: Do what’s best for your community, or do what is best for profits. And it is up to us to let them know what we want and that going for profits will hopefully result in them making less of it.

We will be sure to keep up with any latest news and updates on all of your favorite gaming franchises.  Let us know what you think about the controversies in the gaming industry and how you think they impact a game’s success.  Leave a comment below or come join in the conversation at Facebook and Twitter.


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