EA Takes the Lead with New Service

As far as video games are concerned, EA are the evil Santa Claus.  They give everyone games galore to play through the year, but nobody likes them.  Their decisions to have micro-transactions in almost every title, to charge extra for DLC that should be part of the game to start with and to bleed the life out of their biggest franchises really go against gamers’ moral values.  The vitriol against the company is perhaps best measured by their dubious accolade of being voted “Worst Company in America” for two years running in 2012 and 2013.

Yesterday EA announced a new feature for the Xbox One that won’t overwhelmingly change gamers’ perception of them, but shows that they can innovate and be something different for a change.  Whether it sinks or swims is yet to be seen, but it is an exciting new tack for the video game market that has become in danger of alienating many users with its pricing policies.

EA Access is a new subscription based service, being piloted on Microsoft’s latest console and in the US only for now, where gamers can pay a small fee per month to have unlimited access to what they’re calling “The Vault”, a collection of top-of-the-range titles available to download and play.  Other features include “Play First”, where you can get early access, in the form of trials, to new EA games whilst being able to carry your progress over.  EA Access also comes with 10% discount on all purchases of EA games or services.  From the off, the whole package is being priced at $4.99 a month – and when you look at the value you are getting it’s pretty remarkable.

When you hear this news, it’s easy to lapse into cynicism – but for once I think that’s completely unwarranted.  “The Vault” isn’t a collection of so-so B-titles, the likes of which are common fare for similar programmes such as Xbox Live’s Games for Gold.  No, EA Access will allow gamers to play FIFA 14, Battlefield 4, Madden NFL 25, and Peggle 2 to their heart’s content.  These are truly the biggest games that EA has released over the last year.  With the new Dragon Age: Inquisition and all of the new sports titles already confirmed for “Play First” this Autumn it looks like the service will have a bright future too.

EA values those four games alone at $100, so getting that for $5 a month or so is amazing value for money.  It is essentially copying the Netflix business model, which has been phenomenally successful – both commercially and critically, with dozens of Emmy nominations under its belt and over $100 million in profits in 2013, but at a lower price.  When Netflix launched the consensus was that the business would never last because it charged so little for so much content.  The nay-sayers have been proved completely wrong.  Games are a little different from movies and TV, but it’s not surprising that one of the industry giants has chanced their hand with Netflix’ strategy – but the price is staggeringly low considering the price difference between DVDs and games.  Granted, the fee is over and above your existing Xbox Live membership of around £3-£4 a month, but paying at most £10 a month for games and Xbox Live membership is good value.  It’s interesting that it’s the annualised sports titles that are getting the focus with EA Access, as they are probably the console games that suit the subscription model best.

The days of spending $60/£40 for a game may well be through, and it’s over-due.  Buying games is a completely different process now than it was just a console generation ago.  Used games spooked publishers enough in the last generation that they introduced in-game measures specifically designed to curb that area of the market.   Downloading games is becoming increasingly popular, which should cut costs as retailers and manufacturers are erased out of the picture. Sony’s ambitious PlayStation Now, where you can stream video games over the internet, launches its public beta tomorrow.  The next-generation of consoles might have been criticised for lacking in visual wow-factor compared to their predecessors, but arguably more industry-changing changes have come from the likes of Sony and EA’s new ventures.

Something about EA Access still seems too good to be true, even if it is just pre-conceptions about the company seeping through.  Can they really financially justify putting all of their biggest titles up for grabs for what will surely be a loss?  Will the value for money look so good when you have to pay $5 a month for Activision’s games, and Take Two’s etc.?  What happens to games you download if you stop subscribing? There are surely still kinks to work out with this new system, but it’s refreshing to see new ideas coming through in the industry, and even better that it’s coming from EA.  I really hope that this sparks a change across publishers and consoles. Now if they will just get going on revealing the new Mass Effect, properly this time, that’d be great.

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