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UFC 3 controversy exists because of Star Wars, not a pay-to-win scam

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Outrage is useful, but it must be used responsibly

EA Sports UFC 3 fighter EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts

The people who got in such a lather over microtransactions in EA Sports UFC 3 last week and over the weekend must not play Ultimate Team, or even sports video games.

That was the only thought I could form as I watched the fury build up in the usual quarters and then spill over into such a mainstream controversy that it warranted a clarification from EA Sports what this was all about.

The short answer is: It’s nothing new.

The longer answer is: This was an outrage because people are still pissed off about Star Wars Battlefront 2 and therefore still mistrustful of Electronic Arts and its motives whenever the word microtransaction is used. That’s understandable, but as applied to UFC 3, it comes out as false anger, if not worse.

Ultimate Team modes, or some variant using microtransactions, have been in just about every licensed sports video game except motorsports since EA Sports came up with the concept about a decade ago. You might even say this is the beginning of loot crates, at least on consoles. Ultimate Team and its imitators are predicated on acquiring packs of virtual items, given sports’ natural association with trading cards and other collectibles. Yes, players earn free currency to open those card packs. Yes, they can buy that currency with real money instead.

But for Ultimate Team, at least, it’s an entirely separate mode within the game. Progression in the single-player career or in standard multiplayer of UFC 3 has nothing to do with Ultimate Team or loot boxes. They’re not some optional thing there; loot boxes are inaccessible to those modes.

EA began UFC 3’s open beta on Friday (the game launches in February), and not all of its modes are available — such as the career, which is a substantial chunk of the mixed martial arts fantasy the game offers. The limited nature of the beta does make Ultimate Team more prominent in the menu and an elaborate onboarding for that mode gives it considerable emphasis, too. Yet this can’t be blamed on mixed messaging or the showcase given to a mode in a beta test.

Anyone who played UFC 2 would have known this is nothing new. And if it wasn’t an outrageous pay-to-win scheme when that game launched in 2016, why is it now?

The matchmaking system puts the lie to pay-to-win accusations against UFC 3 Ultimate Team, too. Even if you spend $100 on virtual currency to build a highly-rated fighter, you’ll simply be placed against others of the same rating. Don’t spend money, and you’ll still be matched against those who have developed a similar stable of fighters through fair work.

If you want to see what a real pay-to-win scheme looks like in a sports video game, visit NBA 2K18’s playground. That game’s microtransaction-based progression permeates its MyCareer suite — which includes the single-player career — and throws all players into the same pool in their cooperative/competitive multiplayer. The anger of the UFC 3 community feels contextual rather than factual when you look at what creates noise, and the level of the rumble.

When you’re mad at the wrong thing for the right reasons

UFC 3 may not have earned this anger fairly, but its existence highlights what everyone is actually angry about: How EA screwed up the launch economy of Battlefront 2. That is a system where advancement is dependent upon loot crates — with some lesser options that do allow players to create or earn specific bonuses on their own.

Need For Speed Payback also advances a player’s vehicle attributes through a similar system. Both games were cuffed around in reviews for their opaque progression systems and the grind associated with leveling up. The developers of both games have made changes in reply, and both studios promise more are on the way.

The company’s executives may make statements that sound unhelpful, if not uncaring, when it talks to investors about this mess, but deeds count more than words. If the developers at EA DICE really thought they were being treated unfairly by the public, if they felt like the game’s progression was appropriately separated from loot crates, they’d be digging in against that. They wouldn’t be increasing the free currency payouts or giving players greater means to pick out their own Star Cards for free.

Consumers forcing change is a great thing. Not only did players’ unified outrage lighten up Battlefront 2’s heavy-handed microtransaction model, the ultimate outcome validated their judgment that this was wrong, that they don’t have to take it and they don’t have to accept “don’t buy it” as a reply, from anyone. The accountable response to a bad or unfair product isn’t to tell people who don’t like it to pound sand; it’s to fix the product.

But to overplay that hand with UFC 3 squanders the moral capital raised during the Battlefront 2 blowup. This mess puts distance between developers who are doing their best to make something enjoyable and a community that seems immediately and even unfairly unwilling to give them a chance.

What if EA Vancouver, panicked by another mob at the door — or ordered to appease it by a licensing partner — threw some kind of a bone to get this controversy off their backs, and it ended up making the mode worse? These modes have been around a while, and seem to be working well for everyone. Changing them in response to anger that exists due to another unconnected game doesn’t seem wise.

It would also make me mad, because I do play Ultimate Team. It’s not my preferred mode of play, but I know exactly what it entails and I know the value of my work there. I also know I can play it fairly without feeling forced to buy anything. It’s nothing like what was going on in Battlefront 2 before EA pulled microtransactions and rebalanced the currency payoffs. Ultimate Team is in the game, but it isn’t the game.

If Electronic Arts must accept that damaged trust affects the whole brand, then its community can at least understand the thing that’s supposedly making everyone mad before marching off with torches in the air looking for something to burn. There’s no evidence that people know why they’re mad, only that EA should be the target. That’s not a good look for anyone.