Disc-based video games aren’t doomed yet; there are many years left to go before their seemingly-inevitable demise finally comes. One big game publisher, though, is clearly already scrounging for the nails they eventually hope to put into the lid of that particular coffin. EA this week announced a new online subscription service giving players unlimited access to a whole “vault” of games for as long as they keep paying the monthly fee. Is it a great idea for consumers or a blatant cash-grab from EA? In reality, probably a little bit of both.
The program is called EA Access, and it’ll run players about $5 per month. For now, EA is starting small. The service is in limited beta and only has four games available: Battlefield 4, Madden NFL 25, FIFA 14, and Peggle 2. But the hook is that players who choose to subscribe not only get access to the vault games, but also get small discounts on and early access to new, big-budget, blockbuster games when they come out.
EA Access is also exclusive to Xbox One owners — but that’s not necessarily because of a specific preferential deal with Microsoft. Sony considered, but ultimately rejected, allowing EA Access on the PlayStation 4. A Sony representative told Game Informer that, “We don’t think asking our fans to pay an additional $5 a month for this EA-specific program represents good value to the PlayStation gamer,” who is of course ideally already paying annually for Sony’s not entirely dissimilar game-vault-access service, PlayStation Plus.
The idea of subscription access opening up a massive on-demand archive isn’t new, although it’s less well-explored in gaming than in other media. After all, an HBO subscription doesn’t just get you the newest season of Game of Thrones; it also gives you access to an extensive on-demand catalog of older shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, along with a whole bunch of movies they have the rights to. And that’s pretty similar to what EA is doing here.
So whether EA Access is a good deal or a bad deal depends on what you play and how often. It’s a bet, of sorts. Sometimes you win, and sometimes the house does.
For example, Peggle 2, one of the four pilot games being offered on the service, is $11.99 on Xbox Marketplace. After three months of paying $4.99 for EA Access, you’re losing the bet and EA is keeping your extra money. On the other hand, Battlefield 4 for Xbox One is still about $30, as is Madden 25, and FIFA 14 remains listed at its $60 launch price. If you did regularly play all four of those titles through EA Access, it would take over two years for the monthly subscription fee to exceed the price of buying the games outright. In that case, you win the bet.
The concept of EA Access is both like and unlike the models we’ve already adopted for other media. Take Netflix, for example. We all know that you can go buy a Blu-ray of a movie that’s also on Netflix. When you do, you’ve spent $20 on something you already had access to — but you get to keep it if you stop subscribing. On the other hand, imagine if Netflix delivered its original series independently of its streaming service. Then you could just buy Orange Is The New Black and House Of Cards for $60 per season as soon as they came out. Or, if you paid them your $8.99 monthly for access to Netflix’s entire back catalog of film and TV, then you could get season 3 of Orange Is The New Black added to your account for $50 instead.
But EA’s new plan is like its peers in other media in one key way: it’s rent-to-own content, without ever getting to the whole “own” part.
And games are far from alone. Once upon a time, consumers purchased a book or a tape or a CD or a video game cartridge, and then the consumer owned that thing to use as often as she wanted or to resell when she was done with it. Now, though, we’re transitioning into an era where we don’t own copies of our media but instead, mainly rent access to it. You own access to your Kindle books at Amazon’s whim, or to your iTunes library at Apple’s. If a PC gamer’s Steam (or EA Origin) account is cancelled, she can’t play any games she has registered through those services anymore. Likewise, if a player loses his XBox Live account, his access to most of his games is severely curtailed.
EA’s new plan isn’t just about one game publisher trying to keep getting a long-tail revenue stream out of older or less lucrative titles. It’s about an industry trying to find its footing in a rapidly changing world. We’re not there yet (and won’t be without some upgrades to our broadband infrastructure, for starters), but an all-download, all-streaming, disc-free future for video games is clearly not too far over the horizon.
EA Access in and of itself isn’t actually a bad deal for many consumers in the current landscape, but it is yet another step on the path to rental-only access to all media. That’s a big change for consumers, and one with the potential for a whole bunch of pitfalls.