UPDATE: EA's PR contacted us to clarify that cosmetics can be bought with either shards or coins. Items sold in the store do not require both.
Every live service game needs a layered, multi-faceted engagement strategy. Most online games of this nature have lots of little "hooks" such as artificial-feeling grind mechanics thrown in, requiring players to spend hours accumulating materials, resources, EXP, etc. to build up their characters. Keeping players busy is an important part of the live service cycle, and BioWare's big new IP Anthem will employ these mechanisms in droves.
Today lots of Anthem preview articles went up. Some of them, like GameSpot's and Variety's coverage, delved into the heart of what makes Anthem tick: engagement. We know Anthem has cosmetic microtransactions, but even this monetization avenue isn't a shortcut.
In a surprise move, EA has implemented a dual-currency microtransaction store that requires users to actually play the game to unlock skins, emotes, and other cosmetics. You can't just spend X If you want to buy items with Shards, the premium paid currency, you also have to spend Coins too. Everything can be bought with Coins alone, but nothing can be bought with Shards by themselves.
If this wasn't interesting enough, EA and BioWare have layered how you actually earn Coins. Even accruing the free currency isn't always a direct path and pushes gamers to interact socially with others. Anthem's new Alliance System keeps track of your accomplishments and rewards you with points that are converted into Coins at the end of the week. The more missions and events you complete with others, the more Coin you get. So naturally players will not only grind in-game content but also team up with randoms or friends to gain more Coin over time.
It also helps Anthem will have in-game matchmaking systems for every single activity.
This staggered payout is a vital mechanism for Anthem's engagement and is something you typically see in mobile games. This may not be the only way to earn Coins to spend on cosmetics and other in-game items like blueprints, but it's an incredibly important one.
This marks an important pivot for EA, and it's all because there's no lootboxes in Anthem. Even without lootboxes EA has found an interesting way to adapt.
Everything that can be bought halfway with Shards is always visible. You always know what you're going to buy and what it does. Lootboxes are the exact opposite--you don't know what you're going to get. So because you have no idea what's in a lootbox, you're more likely to keep spending money on mystery items (especially if you get something good). This straightforward path is typically how publishers like to monetize their big games.
With Anthem's new dual-currency system, which is layered and tied directly with long-term playtime and grinding, EA is basically trading the concept of you paying more upfront for you playing more over time.
With lootboxes you simply pay a fee to unlock an item right away. In Anthem, you'll have to spend time grinding and playing to get the same kind of gear. Even if you pay you'll have to grind, albeit not as much. But you'll still have to interact with the game world. EA knows that this is sometimes more lucrative than outright purchases because gamers stay sticky in the ecosystem, thereby playing more and help shape the present and future of the game.
Pushing players to join up with others to earn Coin in a staggered payout is a new nonlinear piece of the puzzle and should work like a charm. Provided there's enough interesting content to consume and attractive items to spend currency on, players should be consistently buzzing in the network and providing BioWare and EA with immensely valuable feedback and metrics.
This folds organically into the already-grindy nature of Anthem, which sees players continually tackling missions and killing enemies to earn randomized loot. The Quest for More Loot is a big, big part of this particular shooter.
Thanks to successful engagement in games like FIFA, EA makes billions from live services every year. Monetization is so powerful it often eclipses actual full digital game sales.
Typically EA likes nonlinear monetization in the form of lootboxes, where outcomes are a mystery. Now it's merging nonlinear monetization (the forked dual-currency store) with the powerful nonlinear engagement that sees players grinding, playing, and interacting in the world's best live games.
After all, EA said Anthem will have "disruptive social features" and they're actually not wrong here. But there's something they didn't tell us: these social dynamics are inherently tied to a big webwork of revenue-generating engagement.
And as we've written many, many times, gamers who play more will often pay more incrementally. They are continually engaged with new content--including flashy skins and cosmetics--and social interactions. This is how live service games help make EA billions every year.
Remember how I explained the live service roadmap in my Fallout 76 review?
How the cycle flows from full game sales -> engagement -> monetization? EA understands this very, very well and has banked hard on the most important part: engagement.
But all of this relies on Anthem actually being a fun game. Fun is a critical part of any engagement model and offsets the grindy aspects. The camaraderie of social interactions should help boost fun, but the content still has to be there. If Anthem isn't any fun it could ultimately fail...but it sure looks like a blast to play.
EA has put tremendous effort into Anthem and it represents a big opportunity for long-term growth. It's not surprising the publisher is willing to try new tricks and methods to extend the new IP's lifecycle. But Anthem's launch is just the beginning. BioWare and EA both have to adapt to player whims and market trends as they emerge.
This means Anthem could see many monetization changes over time despite the promises of free DLC in perpetuity.
Ultimately I'm excited to see how Anthem takes shape in the coming months and years. Even if BioWare is fledgling in this arena, EA knows what it's doing and we should see meticulous care put into Anthem's curation and long-term maintenance.
Anthem releases on February 22, 2019 for PS4, Xbox One and PC. The VIP Demo, which is only available for those who pre-ordered, goes live this Friday, January 25, 2019 on all platforms.