Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Subscriptions for Everyone!

Recently, Electronic Arts has begun rolling out its EA Access program where, for a monthly fee, people will be able to play a bunch of their games, both new and old. The service is extremely limited at the moment, only being on the Xbox One after Sony turned it down, but it is making waves as some folks fear that, should it take off, the program could set a nasty precedent whereby other major publishers feel emboldened to erect their own little walled gardens for their IPs as well. Where once it was just a matter of going to a shop, or online digital distributor to get a game, suddenly things could become a lot more complicated, as people have to register multiple accounts with different services while being nickle and dimed on multiple subscriptions to play the games that they're interested in.

For me, this whole process seemed inevitable. Many of the large publishers have had dollar signs in their eyes for years trying to figure out a way to hook their claws into gamers with some sort of recurring fee service. Whether it was the success of Xbox Live or popular MMORPGs, they saw potential in subscriptions. It was just a question of how they'd go about approaching things.

So far, things aren't looking so good. We're seeing what amounts to nothing more than trying to create a false sense of value in their product with EA forcing the demo for the latest version of Madden behind the Access pay wall. That doesn't strike me as value at all. Instead, it feels like the demo is being held for ransom, and EA is telling fans of the series that if they want to play it, they'll just have to fork out the dough for Access. I'm sure the company's PR spin doctors are doing their best to control the message and make it sound amazing, but it's really hard to take them seriously.

Madden 15 has been locked behind EA Access.
As it stands now, it's Electronic Arts that is testing the waters. Other major publishers like Activision and Ubisoft are still waiting on the sidelines. However, both publishers have stated that they're keeping an eye on how Access does, and if a decent number of people hop on board, they may well roll out similar services.

If they were to enter the fray, I have a hard time imagining it would end well. One or two subscriptions may be sustainable for the average consumer. The costs don't add up to anything too exorbitant, and it's only a couple of accounts that need to be managed. When things get to the point where it's three, four, five, possibly more, that's when problems start to arise. What once only cost around $20-$40 per month suddenly starts approaching $100. What was once a couple of accounts to manage suddenly balloons to significantly more. Gone is an affordable handful of services, replaced with a pricey array of programs that need to be micromanaged by users.

It sort of reminds me of when Netflix started to become popular, and suddenly everyone and their mother were running out trying to make their own video streaming service. Unfortunately, for a lot of these companies, things didn't pan out because the reality was that most users were okay with Netflix and the $8 monthly subscription. Having to pay for three or four subscriptions would result in people paying a lot more for a number of different services. While providers may look at it as inexpensive when their own services costs under ten bucks, they seem to fall into the trap of assuming they exist in a vacuum, or they over estimate the value of their brand in people's eyes. Meanwhile, consumers just see how much money overall is leaving their bank accounts each month for the services that they are paying for, and they may not be all that loyal to a given brand on the whole. They don't see it as $8 for streaming service A, $7 for B, and $10 for C, they just see $25 for all of it at the end of the month, and that's going cheap, not factoring things in at the far loftier prices EA and the gang seem to be eyeballing. Suddenly the whole proposition becomes a lot more expensive, and a lot less enticing for a lot of folks.

And like I said, there's still the whole brand loyalty thing. Sure, there are some people that absolutely swear by certain IPs. Some folks buy all the CoD DLC and seasons passes without giving it a second thought, there are those that live for Madden, and no lack of people who will rush out and get the latest Assassin's Creed day one no questions asked, but are they enough to support these services in the long run? How many of these people are fans of series from multiple publishers? Will they be willing to pay $50-$100 per month to be subscribed to all of these services simultaneously for a substantial portion of any given year? (And this on top of other subscription they may have, like Xbox Live and PSN)

I have a lot of trouble seeing this taking off in a big way, but on the other hand, plenty of gamers have shown over the last decade that they can very easily be separated from their money, and many of them will not vote with their dollar when push comes to shove. They'll talk a mean game on internet forums, Twitter, and the like decrying this or that company's business practices, but check their gaming activity when the company they're complaining about releases a big title, and low and behold they're playing the bloody thing. Call them out on it and they either sheepishly mutter something, or spew some nonsense about how they're apparently a gamer first, and don't want to miss out on the title. I really have to wonder if these people truly understand that having principles and standing up for something sometimes requires making sacrifices.

So, I guess we'll see what happens. As it stands, it's just EA testing the waters right now, but this could be the thin edge of the wedge, as more publishers dive in later on. This sort of thing is really starting to jack up my cynicism towards gaming on multiple levels: one because publishers are once again salivating at the possibility of nickle and diming people, and two because as logical as it may be for some to say no to this, I can't help but fear a decent number of folks will happily play along in the end. It happened once with DLC, and I really wouldn't be surprised if it was repeated here.