How the EA Star Wars video game fiasco can be a lesson for banking, fintech
Illustration courtesy of EA
Consumers these days have more platforms to voice their displeasure with brands than ever before.
They voice discontentment because they want to make sure they're receiving optimal value for the dollars spent on their favorite brands' products. And if that optimal value doesn't match their standards, expect to read about it on Twitter.
Such is the way of social media as we approach 2018
The financial services industry should take notice of this growing trend as new products continue to flood the market at a rapid pace as banks, fintechs and related industries fight for space on consumers' smartphones.
And if you need a guide on how not to handle something, keep in mind what happened to Electronic Arts in the weeks before it released what was one of the most anticipated video games this year.
Gimme the loot (box)
If you're unaware of what's been happening in the video game industry the past few years, all you need to know is that microtransactions have become a four-letter curse word for gamers during that span.
Essentially, some publishers are releasing $60 video games at retail that come with an unsavory surprise for some gamers: microtransactions in the form of what are called loot boxes.
Popular with free-to-play mobile games, microtransactions (or in-game purchases) have slowly become more of a trend within blockbuster console video games. But what EA did recently with the latest Star Wars game caused some consumers to outright revolt.
EA owns one of the most coveted gaming licenses in the industry: it's the only one that can make Star Wars games. They have a monopoly on the franchise in that particular medium. Sounds like easy money, right?
And Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon spanning almost four decades. The franchise's fans (myself included) hold any media associated with the universe to incredibly high standards, sometimes unfairly.
So, what did EA do? It made the grave (and costly) mistake of attaching a lousy progression system for Star Wars Battlefront 2's multiplayer component. If you're unaware, the game enables you to play in iconic Star Wars battles and locales from the entire movie universe. Cool, no?
The problem is that players needed to put in an awful lot of hours with the multiplayer component to unlock characters like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.
To make the situation even worse, EA created a way for users to upgrade quicker to those characters by enabling them to buy what are called loot boxes. Those virtual containers feature game upgrades to help players level up faster with enhanced weapons during game play, which in turn helps them unlock those iconic characters quicker.
EA had created a pay-to-win system on top of the $60 it was charging at retail for the game, not to mention special editions that can cost as much as $100.
Gamers revolted to this system in the worst way possible for a gaming company: they cancelled preorders for the game.
Even when EA made changes to the system in the weeks leading up to the official release, and put less focus on the pay-to-win aspect of the game to unlock those characters naturally, it still wasn't enough for gamers.
The highlight (or low point) of the controversy happened when an EA executive hopped on reddit to explain why EA created such a system in the first place. Reddit users obliterated the comment, making it the most downvoted one of all time.
The situation got so bad for EA that Disney, which owns the Star Wars franchise, reportedly had to step in to put the kibosh on the microtransaction fiasco hours before the game officially debuted. EA temporarily removed microtransactions as of Dec. 5. We're still not sure when, or if, they will return to the game.
At this point, it probably doesn't matter. EA has sold less than 1 million copies of the game across multiple gaming platforms. Call of Duty, which is a popular military first-person shooter, has sold some 5 million copies in a similar time frame.
What was supposed to be a sure hit for EA in Battlefront 2 has turned into a dud for a company that already didn't have a good reputation with gamers.
If you're a banking, fintech or payments executive reading this and not seeing the connection, come a little bit closer to the screen so I can help you understand this situation better.
As I mentioned before, companies are introducing new products in the financial services/fintech and related industries at a rapid pace. Some have fared better than others. And some have been almost invulnerable to criticism.
Uber comes to mind on that front. Despite a long list of transgressions since it debuted in 2009, the company keeps chugging along as the dominant player in the ride-sharing industry. Not even a social media campaign, #DeleteUber, could stop its progress.
In the payments industry, I read horror stories all the time about users' bad experiences with PayPal, Venmo and various prepaid card providers.
RushCard immediately comes to mind. But remember all the hoopla around the ill-fated Kardashian prepaid card?
This was in 2009 when the industry still had a Wild West feel to it. The Kardashian Kard had a $99.95 fee just to own it, with a $9.95 purchase fee and what 12 monthly fees that totaled $7.95. Users would also have to pay a $7.95 monthly fee after the first year.
Could you imagine if Twitter was a bigger platform while this was all going on? But even with that controversy, the Kardashian brand thrived, for better or worse.
And here's another thing to keep in mind. When companies rile up or appear to be taking advantage of consumers, that gets the government's attention.
If you remember the Kardashian Kard fiasco, it was Connecticut Attorney General, now senator, Richard Blumenthal, who railed against the fees associated with the product.
EA and other companies now are facing scrutiny in foreign countries and the U.S. over whether loot boxes can be considered a form of gambling. Keep in mind that a game like Battlefront 2 is rated T for teen.
As financial services executives go forward, they need to keep in mind whether the value of a product matches what someone is paying for it. And even if something is free, such as mobile banking, consumers have high standards for how something like that should operate.
Essentially, don't be the EA of the financial services industry and you'll be fine.
Will Hernandez has 14 years of experience ranging from newspapers to wire services and trade publications. Before becoming Editor of MobilePaymentsToday.com, he spent two years as the content manager for PaymentsJournal.com, a leading payments industry news aggregator and information hub published by Mercator Advisory Group. Will spent four years covering the payments industry as an associate editor for multiple publications in SourceMedia's Payments Group based in Chicago.