EA Access is nothing but another thinly veiled attempt for EA to remove consumer rights and irreparably damage the industry. The problem? People are eating it up.
EA recently announced that they would be putting out a subscription program on the Xbox One titled EA Access. They had offered to put it on the PS4 as well, but Sony refused, possibly due to conflicts with their PlayStation Now service that went into public beta testing around the same time as the announcement. The EA Access service has received quite a bit of praise from the gaming community since its unveiling, particularly because of the deals that it brings to the industry. However, if you look behind the curtain, you’ll find EA is behaving the same way they always have, and that the program itself could have dire consequences for the industry at large.
Before we delve into what’s inherently wrong with the program, some housekeeping. This is not, and should not be a topic that sends people into their console wars dances. Since the program’s unveiling, I’ve seen people on both sides firing back at whether EA’s deal is morally bankrupt, or that it’s infinitely superior to PlayStation Now’s admittedly laughable prices. This is should have nothing to do with the console wars. Criticizing EA’s program is not an indictment of the Xbox One, or the value that system brings to the Microsoft faithful. If successful, there is very little chance that Sony won’t reverse their position and bring it over to the PS4. So, for all those fans who love just a little too much, don’t take any subsequent negative comments as an excuse to get your console war back up.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at exactly what EA is offering with the EA Access program. Firstly, there is the Vault, which is a collection of older EA games. These will be available for members either for streaming or downloading (not clear on their site). At launch these games will include FIFA 14, Madden NFL 25, Peggle 2, and Battlefield 4. More titles will be added later. Secondly, members get 10% of all digital purchases of EA content. Finally, members will get game trials for upcoming games up to five days before release with the ability to keep your progress if you choose to purchase the game after the trial is done. All of this can be yours for the paltry sum of $4.99 a month or $29.99 a year.
At first blush, this seems like a great deal. You get a couple of free games, with more added regularly (supposedly), a standing discount, and some game trials. In reality, though, it isn’t all that wonderful. For the truly EA faithful that purchases every EA game, they will get a lot out of the discount. However, they will get shortchanged on the membership games as new stuff gets added to the Vault, since they will have already purchased them. For the rest of us, who only buy the occasional EA game, you’d have to buy a new EA game at full price, digitally, every month in order to come out ahead on this deal.
The Vault itself is suspect due to EA’s general track record with games. Most of the games they develop themselves are annual games that replace the previous. There is no reason to be excited for FIFA 13 or FIFA 12 to be released for the program, for example. It is true that EA has acquired a good number of excellent developers over the years, but even then, the value is suspect. Let’s take Bioware for example. Even their most recent game, Mass Effect 3, can be gotten for cheap ($4.99 used on Amazon.com). Go back further than that and you’re looking at pennies on the dollar. So, the value is really found in the more up to date releases. To be fair to EA, that’s exactly what they’re rolling out as their first wave. The only problem is that if they keep adding more modern releases soon after launch, they risk stagnating purchase as people will simply wait for it to go free, and, as mentioned above, people with the discount will feel ripped off. Conversely, going into their past leads to games, which are very easy to find, and very cheap to purchase.
The free trials to upcoming games is something I am extremely unfond of. Think about it for a moment. If these games were available 5 days before release to be given to EA Access members, it means the game was finished and could have simply released those five days earlier. There wouldn’t be any point in an EA Access membership because everyone who wanted to play it simply could. The demo side to the trials is also something I doubt. These are games that get demos anyway unless Microsoft has slackened on their ‘every game must have a demo’ policy. All they are doing is double upping on demos, which truthfully doesn’t add much to the market. Still, as a person who had PlayStation Plus at the beginning, the limited trials that were offered there were somewhat similar (though more limited) and I never once found a use for them.
Those are my problems with the deals themselves, but there is a much larger problem with this service than simply the suspect nature of EA Access’s quality. EA is embarking on a dangerous road, and it could fundamentally impair the gaming industry as a whole. As of now, many people are excited for the EA Access program and will sign up. This will assuredly begin a steady flow into EA’s corporate coffers. At the same time, EA’s rivals Activision, Ubisoft, and Square-Enix may start looking at the model and seeing how much money EA is making off of it. What’s to stop them from joining in and putting out their own subscription services?
Now, this may not seem awful at first, but remember that EA is already inflating the value of their program by holding back releases so they provide the 5 day trials. What is to stop any company from paywalling their content in order to get more people onboard? For example, if EA made it so Star Wars: Battlefront was exclusive to members of EA Access either indefinitely, or on a limited basis for say three months, there would be many people who would now have to pay a premium in order to access the content. It may not seem like a big deal, but what if Assassin’s Creed Rogue, Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, and Final Fantasy XV were similarly paywalled. All of a sudden, you go from a measly $4.99 to $20.00 a month by only adding another three major publishers. And that’s on top of the premium Sony and Microsoft console gamers pay for their online service in general.
“But what’s the problem,” you might ask? “It’s still a good deal, and if the content is there, people will buy it.” The problem, my imaginary, argumentative friend, is that the way the current system works is that a gamer buys what he or she wants. Do I want to play Battlefield 4? Then I will buy it and possibly some of the additional content. The way these subscription services work is they show you a straight out value, a deal, if you will. This doesn’t factor into the fact that I don’t want to play Peggle, or Madden, or FIFA, and who knows what EA will put on there next. The obvious retort is that gamers aren’t obligated to buy it. Nobody is putting a gun to your head, as it were.
The inherent problem to that argument is that EA, and companies like them, are trying their darndest to make gamers feel like they do indeed have a gun up to their head. I know many Dragon Age fans who will buy into this service simply to get to early access to Dragon Age: Inquisition. Then they’ll forget to cancel their membership, or they’ll keep it for months, waiting for that next solitary game they are interested in. The bargains themselves can be hard to resist. When you’re told you’ll be getting $100 in value for $4.99 a month right off the bat, many gamers will feel an instinctual pull to purchase the content, even if they have no interest in it. At this point, I don’t think there’s any point denying this. Steam Sales have proven effectively that gamers will buy games they have little interest in simply because the lure of a “deal” is too strong. So too subscription services like EA Access can force many a gamer in simply on the presence of a deal.
If it sounds like I don’t trust EA to play on the straight and narrow, I don’t. EA has a history of attempting to modify the industry’s practices in order to squeeze just a little bit more out of gamers, usually by restricting services that were once free while giving nothing in return such as with Online Passes. With that history behind them, I don’t think there’s much question as to whether EA will paywall content. They’re already doing it with Origin by restricting all of their games onto that single platform instead of letting gamers purchase it from wherever they want, namely Steam.
So where does this leave the industry if this practice is popular and widely adopted? Imagine tiny fiefdoms. Each major company has its own separate domain, and gamers living on the outside can only glimpse the content found beyond the paywall, while playing late, un-updated games. You want new Konami content? Well, that’s another $4.99. Capcom? That one is $6.99. What do you mean you only want a single game, and you don’t want to pay for the bundle? We have total freedom to purchase now, with each company having to sell us games individually in order to make a profit. A future where subscription content is the norm has publishers sloughing of weak titles into our greedy hands. As long as there is a single gem in the pile of coal, we won’t notice that we’re subsidizing games we never really wanted to begin with. All in the name of getting a deal
To summarize – No thank you, EA. I’ll buy Dragon Age Inquisition five days after your members, because supporting your program is supporting a future for the industry I don’t want to see.