It’s a scene still fresh in the minds of consumers worldwide: Don Mattrick takes the stage. The room goes silent. Xbox One is revealed… and gamers balk.
The internet exploded with such ferocity, I was surprised the amount of virtual ink expelled hadn’t caused the collapse of our planet. But, why all the rage? Well, there were concerns that the new Kinect would double as Microsoft’s tap into our personal lives… which is hilarious when you think about how many people have broadcast themselves doing the horizontal Macarena (via Twitch and Ustream) on the PS4. But that’s neither here nor there. What really burned their asses was the idea that renting, borrowing or trading physical copies of games would become a thing of the past. Yes, Microsoft ignored the writing on the wall, and they paid a pretty hefty price for it. I mean, it isn’t exactly rocket science. Consumers want fair prices, convenience and flexibility. What did Microsoft come to the table with? High prices, convenience for a single market (the United States), and little-to-no flexibility.
But hey, I’m not trying to turn this into a Microsoft bitch-fest. No, all I’m saying is that they could have played a big part in making digital THE attractive next-gen business model, but blew it by opening shop in the middle of a torch and pitchfork store. Furthermore, Microsoft’s failure didn’t just hurt them, but the many publishers that were hoping to reclaim a chunk of the profit that Gamestop – and other retailers that have entered the used game market – have taken from them. So, while it’s clear that consumers don’t want a DRM machine in their living room just yet, that isn’t stopping big names in the industry from continuing to push their all-digital agenda.
Enter Electronic Arts, a company that’s come under fire within the last year for launching the oh, so broken Battlefield 4, not to mention the money hungry – and review score manipulating – Dungeon Keeper. Of course, the average consumer has already forgotten about such things. At this point, it’s ancient history. Water under the bridge. People have been conditioned to accept the business models that allow pay-to-play and even buggy content to thrive with little-to-no consequence, so what happens when another new business model rolls out? There are some that either love it or loathe it, but by and large, there’s a passive ‘take it or leave it’ attitude that permeates the gaming community, or at least a sizable chunk of it. All too often I’ve seen legitimate concerns waved off with such justifications as, “This is the future, so get with the times.” Or the classic, “That’s just the way things are, man.” People certainly have the right to care as little or as much as they want, so I’m not going to go off the deep end, suggesting they take time out of their busy lives to become industry activists. Instead, I implore each and every one of you to, at the very least, pay close attention to EA’s latest venture…
…And its name? EA Access.
It’s a subscription based model on the Xbox One that begins by offering consumers a ‘choice’. For $4.99 a month or $30 a year, you’ll be granted access to the EA Vault. Games contained within are yours to download and play for the length of your membership, which is a fantastic deal provided you don’t already own the four titles provided at launch (Madden 25, Fifa 14, Battlefield 4 and Peggle 2). There will be additional titles added in the future, of course, and once they’re placed in the EA Vault, that’s where they’ll stay for the program’s duration. Additional benefits include a 10% discount on all EA digital content – meaning games and DLC – as well as the ability to play upcoming titles five days before their official release (albeit for a limited time).
As it currently stands, EA Access is a smart idea that acts a win-win for almost everyone. I mean, to have access to an entire library of AAA titles for only $30 a year, delivered straight to your console? With discounts on games and DLC, to boot? Does it get more consumer friendly than that? Let’s see: Fair prices? Check. Convenience? Check. Flexibility? Check. Furthermore, it makes the prospect of PS Now pale in comparison. Sony said they intentionally shied away from EA Access because it was a ‘bad value’, but who are they kidding? This IS value, and I think people are going to sign up in droves to take as much advantage of it as they can.
From a business standpoint, one might ask how EA are able to take games that are roughly a year old – because no, you’ll never receive the latest and greatest right out of the gate, because that wouldn’t make much sense – and throw them in a single package for such a cheap price. You’d expect they’d lose money, right? Well, fact of the matter is that because of Gamestop and various other retailers – hell, even Wal-Mart has joined the used game brigade – titles that have been out for nearly a year are virtually worthless, at least for the publisher. Most people are likely going to visit Gamestop and save some money by purchasing a used copy, and publishers like Electronic Arts never see a dime of that. So, basically, this program acts as the perfect lure to pull people away from the temptation of secondhand game shops. Why pay $20 for a single title when you can have access to an entire library for just a little more? Seems like an easy decision to me.
So yes, there’s many positives about EA Access. As it stands right now, gamers win, the publisher wins, and everyone’s happy. So, why do I have such a hard time being happy for ‘everyone’?
The short and simple answer is history. Looking back at the last couple generations of gaming, there’s an obvious domino effect. One idea always leads to another. What’s ‘well enough’ is almost never left alone.
Although it wasn’t the first console to offer DLC, Xbox was probably the most notable to do so. Why? Because while third parties were offering digital content for free, Microsoft published games sold their content for a nominal fee. Fast forward a bit, and along comes the Xbox 360. A great console, for sure, but thanks to the success of paid DLC on the OG Xbox, it was designed with microtransactions and DLC in mind. To start, they locked multiplayer behind a pay wall. Yes, if you wanted to play online, you had to pony up some dough for an Xbox Live Gold membership. Most, if not all publishers, joined the ‘charging for DLC’ party as well… but what if you didn’t feel comfortable using your credit card on the internet? Microsoft countered such concern with a ‘points as currency’ system, so all you had to do was hit up your local retailer for pre-loaded Xbox Live cards.
Sony had also ‘evolved’ over the last generation of gaming. Seeing the potential in digital revenue, they introduced the Playstation Store alongside the PS3. Fortunately, they were smart enough to keep multiplayer access free of any pay wall. Sony were undoubtedly envious of all the profit Microsoft reaped with Xbox Live Gold however, so they eventually decided to get in on the action… and POOF. Just like that, Playstation Plus was born. Sony didn’t want to echo what Microsoft were doing to a ‘T’, so instead, they tried to entice people with features and content. PS+ allowed demos and updates to download automatically, and granted access to content such as betas, storage in the cloud, full retail trials (timed demos) and ‘free’ games. Skip ahead to the launch of the PS4, and Sony have finally succumbed to locking multiplayer behind a PS+ membership.
In short, competition may keep the ball rolling, but not always for the best. Multiplayer, once free, became a critical tool for monetization. Digital content began as something small, but individual pieces were inevitably thrown into packs, and those packs are now bundled and pre-sold as season passes.
There are certainly exceptions to ‘the rule’, but the patterns are clear: We’re paying more money for the same amount of content, and throwing cash at services that never should have been behind a pay wall in the first place. That’s what businesses do, though… make money. If they want to KEEP making money, they have to mold us into ‘better customers’. And what’s the best method for that? The long con. They chip away at us little by little so we KEEP saying to ourselves, “Huh, that’s interesting. Well, that’s just the way it is, I suppose…”
And that’s why I’m concerned about EA Access. Sure, it’s a great deal today, but what about tomorrow? What are we giving up for the sake of a bargain? Can this really be good for gamers in the long run?
I can’t predict the future, but I know this much: When a company reveals a great new business model – which EA Access seems to be – the rest will come running. Over the next 7 or 8 years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Activision, Ubisoft and various others produce something similar. They’ll do everything in their power to convince people they have the best value, so things could get messy in a hurry.
How about a boost in XP? There goes balanced multiplayer. Exclusive DLC for subscribers? Great, even more content behind a pay wall. Exclusive access to games before they’re released?
Oh, wait… EA Access has already done that.
Looking even further ahead, I suspect this will allow consumers to be more comfortable with the prospect of an all-digital future. The implication here is that the next generation of consoles will likely be the very DRM machines we fought so vehemently against back in 2013.
Or not. Who knows?
EA Access could turn out to be a rare flower amongst a sea of decay, a step the company hopes will grant them a bit of good will with gamers worldwide. As I said, I can’t predict the future, and I don’t expect everyone who reads this editorial to agree with my predictions. That said, our money is what ultimately speaks to the publishing companies of the world. If you appreciate EA Access for what it is today, tell EA you support it by signing up… just consider what it could mean to the industry overall if this program turns out to be a huge success.