You know, we're still playing FIFA 18 Ultimate Team.
Our original FIFA 18 review is basically incorrect at this point. EA has patched the game so much since late September that the ridiculous ping-pong passing we fell in love with no longer works, crosses are pretty much useless again and the goalfests have completely died down. But still we play.
We've also played over 350 matches now, which has really brought this year's irritations to the fore. Kickoff goals are the worst. There seems to be some sort of buff that makes it much easier to score straight after kickoff - perhaps because the whole defending team is static as you run at them - and it results in endless frustrating goals from both AI and human players. And we're convinced the Squad Battles AI cheats like crazy. But still we play.
Part of the reason we play, of course, is that we love soccer more than we find these problems offputting. For every 6-3 defeat to a bronze Squad Battle team, for every time Thibaut Courtois dives under a cross, for every Gabriel Jesus dab celebration, we're never that far away from Harry Kane holding off two defenders to land a shot in the top corner and send us into raptures. We've been told to stop shouting "GOLAZO" in the middle of the night.
But another part is the trading. Because for all the time we've spent playing soccer in FIFA 18, we've probably spent more time pecking away at the transfer market. Which brings us to the topic du jour: Squad Building Challenges.
SBCs are probably the things that stop us setting FIFA 18 aside during those dark moments when, to be honest, we should probably throw the disc in a closet and play something else. SBCs dominate our thoughts on the bus or when we're putting the kids to bed. Wondering whether we have enough rare golds to do another Gold Upgrade Plus before it expires. Contemplating the Del Piero Prime. We're playing without playing.
SBCs are great. They are also pure evil; the sort of genius devilry that makes you smile with admiration even though you know it's going to kill you. They are Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate. They are the other raptor hiding in the bushes. Clever girl!
SBCs, in case you haven't a clue what we're on about, are little puzzles EA sets up that you solve by creating custom squads. For example, one challenge might involve assembling a team with an overall rating of 83 and chemistry of 75. You need to find players for every position (sometimes there are limitations here) and make sure you fulfil the requirements. Then you hit submit and you get a specific pack as a prize.
Solving these puzzles is fun. With the easier ones, the challenge is doing it as cheaply as possible. Sure, 84-rated Strootman fits into that midfield, but he still costs a few thousand coins, so is there a cheaper alternative that gives you enough chemistry? For the harder ones, the challenge is finding ways to solve the puzzle at all. The rewards also range from reasonable - premium gold packs, jumbo premium gold packs, prime gold packs, etc - to exclusive and highly coveted things like Prime Icon players.
The dark side of them, however, is their hidden purpose: they're designed to leave you with less coins and make you want to buy more packs. In general they're simply designed to get coins off the market. Like any economy, the FIFA transfer market is based on supply and demand. When everyone's buying packs with real money, it means they're gaining loads of items they can sell for coins, which adds huge amounts of extra liquidity to the market. This can be bad for prices and availability. SBCs help get rid of coins, because when you submit a squad, you lose all those players permanently. In exchange, you get packs that probably won't contain the same value. For other SBCs, you get untradeable rewards.
The Gold Reward Plus SBC, which is live now, is particularly clever. It gives out guaranteed players with 81+ overall rating, but they are untradeable. Nevertheless, the prospect of better-than-usual pack rewards sees players dumping endless squads of cheap gold and rare gold players into them to spin the wheel and see what they get. We're as guilty as anyone. We've probably "spent" 20-30,000 coins' worth on these packs, and while we've gotten some good stuff - Mo Salah, Gerard Pique and Path to Glory Payet - we've essentially thrown our in-game money away. It's easy to imagine EA watching a bunch of analytics graphs and then turning on certain desirable SBCs when it sees the market needs adjusting.
In the end, this leaves us with a more diverse club with lots of untradeable players, which encourages us to try building new squads, but of course we've also lost all our coins chasing SBCs, so what do we do? We buy some more FIFA Points.
The dark side is flowing through us
If you're wondering why we're writing about this, it's because it feels very apt today. The thing about SBCs is that they are so nakedly designed to make us engage more with the microtransaction side of the game, but we still love doing them. It's very satisfying to solve the puzzles. It's fun to get the packs and exclusive rewards, even if they don't pan out. They fit the overall Ultimate Team metaphor of card collecting and trading very well, even though they're something that didn't exist in the original playground sticker collection setting. We know they are bad for us, but we're still happily hooked.
Meanwhile, today is a dark day for EA's Star Wars universe, as Battlefront 2 is forced to abandon its microtransactions, allegedly because Disney CEO Bob Iger called EA CEO Andrew Wilson to ask what the hell they were doing. Before taking the big chair, Wilson made his name in EA Sports when Ultimate Team rose to prominence. There is a certain irony, as we all tut about Battlefront 2's situation, that Ultimate Team's grip on our microtransaction dollars has never felt stronger, and it's all because the designers built systems that feel entirely at home in the context. Hopefully whatever EA DICE does to replace the discredited guts of Battlefront 2's progression, it comes up with something that has greater empathy for the subject matter.
And on that note, we're off to do another Gold Upgrade Plus. Cross fingers for Messi!