EA Access is the Latest Attempt to Normalize Games as a Service
Electronic Arts announced a new subscription service for its games on Xbox One last week, marking the next phase in its plan to shift its focus to games as a service.
EA Access is a subscription service that, at least in its early “beta” form, offers players the ability to download several EA games for a monthly fee of $5 or a yearly fee of $30. Those games — Peggle 2, Madden 25, FIFA 14 and Battlefield 4 for now — are only available to subscribers for as long as they’re actually still subscribed. EA Access also offers its customers a 10 percent discount on digital EA games bought in the Xbox Live store, and gives users the ability to play some games as many as five days ahead of their release. In the case of Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example, you could play the game early, and if you decide to purchase it from the Xbox Live store, you could then transfer your save from the “trial” version to the full game and keep playing where you left off.
More than what the service offers, though, is what it represents: it’s the latest step in securing a “games as a service” future that EA has been working to realize for years. DLC, online passes, season passes, Origin, DRM and pre-order bonuses ultimately mean to lead players to subscribing to games rather than owning them. And like similar services, a successful EA Access program is a step toward the normalization of this way of consuming games.
Games as a service is the concept that changes the way publishers make games available to the public. The idea is that, rather than buying a game and owning it as you might a book, you’re instead effectively renting it — the property rights stay with the publisher. There are potential benefits to those kinds of services, like the ability to access an online library of games to download or stream for a single fee, but the trade-off is the ability to do what you want with the game you pay for, like lend it or resell it. Plus, you must pay continually to keep access to any given game.
It seems that games as a service is the holy grail for game publishers and console makers. It has all kinds of benefits to the people who make games: subscription services mean guaranteed, monthly income; digital downloads mean game makers no longer have to print physical media like discs; selling subscription-based digital titles allows stronger digital rights management controls to combat piracy; and of course, digital-only downloads and streams based on subscriptions let gamemakers sell licenses for games, rather than the games themselves. That means you’re allowed to use the game software without actually owning it — and that removes the resale market from the conversation as well.
This isn’t a new concept, and we’ve been seeing the industry move in the direction of greater control over the software it sells to consumers for a few years now. Microsoft’s attempts at a digital future for the Xbox One, reversed because of consumer backlash, would have gone a long way to securing a games-as-service situation for the console — one in which players could only play while connected to the Internet, and in which even disc-based games were downloaded fully to the console.
Sony has actually made more meaningful inroads than anyone else in terms of helping players find games as a service to be an acceptable way to play, and it has done so by making its Playstation Plus subscription service a pretty damn good deal. The console maker routinely puts out free digital copies of games for subscribers, which are often new, smaller titles that would otherwise cost at least a chunk of its $60-per-year price. PS Plus also comes with a number of discounts on other games and free demos. If you stop subscribing, however, the games you got for free vanish — so you never truly own them. They’re a service provided by your subscription.
The trick Sony has pulled has been to make the subscription a great value to its customers, even if they’re giving up many of their consumer rights for the games they get through the service. And that might be why Sony hasn’t allowed EA Access on Playstation 4, after saying it didn’t represent a “good value” for Sony customers — Sony doesn’t want EA’s program polluting the waters, or competing with Playstation Plus.
Regardless of a particular consumer’s value judgment of one subscription over another, it’s important to note that programs such as EA Access, Microsoft’s Games With Gold, and Sony’s Playstation Plus and Playstation Now, which seeks to make games as a service out of backward compatibility, are all angling to get you, and keep you, paying for games that aren’t actually yours.
As in the case of Playstation Plus, games as a service isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially as a supplement to the more traditional game market that allows players to own their games, lend them as they see fit, and so on. And even EA Access has its benefits: I know plenty of players (like our Mitchell Saltzman) who see significant value in getting access to EA games a few days sooner than everyone else, even if it is just to gloat about it on Facebook. There are players who want these services.
But consumers also need to go into paying for these subscriptions with eyes fully open about what they’re giving up in using them. EA has been working to rein in its control over used games for years; it has searched for ways to increase the tails of its games, the amount of money they bring in over time, just as hard. Its efforts over the last console generation have been to add multiplayer to more titles, and to include more add-on content post-launch. The company is hoping to keep you paying over time, for as long as possible.
EA Access is the latest step toward that goal of greater control over EA’s products. As a business, it makes sense for EA and other companies to pursue that goal. As consumers, however, it might make more sense for players to resist such subscription services, lest they become the new normal of how we consume video games.