EA’s announced a digital games subscription service for Xbox One owners called “Access”. On the surface, it looks quite tempting. On further examination, I’m quite worried by it.
There’s no word just yet as to when Access will roll out for the wider community — or when we’ll get it in Australia, although we are listed as part of the rollout FAQ EA’s written around it — but the basic gist is that a group of beta users in the States right now can pay $US4.99/month or $US29.99 a year for access to a range of EA titles.
At the beta launch, that covers FIFA 14, Madden NFL 25, Peggle 2 and Battlefield 4, along with discounts on any EA DLC purchased from the same account. Given that, to throw a random example into the mix, FIFA 14 would cost you around $70 Australian to own right now, that seems like quite a reasonable deal, although you do have to factor in the higher prices we pay for games in Australia. So far, so good.
Indeed, it’s also comparable in a way to what Sony’s done with Playstation Plus, offering a variety of games on a subscription basis. I’ve had Playstation Plus running since its inception, and I can’t really argue against its value proposition for PS3 and PS Vita owners. The pickings for PS4 owners have been a little more slim, but it’s early days there.
Clearly, this is where EA wants to go, and I’m pretty certain that if they can maintain that kind of price point, the market will follow. It’s sensible business for them, because it essentially eliminates the second-hand market in one fell swoop, gives them all but total control over the userbase, because they could cut off Madden 25 access when Madden 26 rolls around or keep Madden 26 as the “premium” product that you can only buy outright if that makes more sense to them. Equally, the FIFA players will be paying their full fee for FIFA 14/15/16/17/HeatDeathOfTheUniverseEdition, but also subsidising all the other games they’re not playing.
So everybody wins, right? EA’s lineup isn’t as extensive as the PS Plus offering, but again, it’s early days and EA has a pretty impressive IP back catalogue. There can’t be a problem here… can there?
Yes, I think there can be and there is, although it’s one that probably won’t concern the vast majority of gamers. The shift to digital distribution has been a slow but steady evolution, but shifting games over to a pure subscription model changes how we’ll be able to appreciate, enjoy and even analyse gaming history moving forwards. I make no secret of the fact that I’m a keen retro gamer, and a keen historian, and the problem here is that there is absolutely zero incentive for a subscription games publisher to keep older titles alive.
You may think that this isn’t a problem for sports titles, because they lose currency incredibly quickly. I’m certain the number of FIFA ’07 players isn’t that high any more. That’s true to a point, but it means that once EA switches off FIFA 14 (or FIFA 27, if it takes them that long to get to a digital-subs-only model), it’ll be gone forever. History suggests that companies aren’t that great at keeping their older, non-profitable title code around, because after a while it just becomes clutter.
There is value in subscription modelling for all sorts of entertainment, but in gaming I think there’s a different set of problems. Services such as Netflix and Quickflix offer subscription packages for movies and TV, but those are maintained because until we upgrade human eyeballs, the methods of watching content remain the same. There’s a strong incentive to keep films and TV copies around, because we’ll keep enjoying them in the same way.
The same isn’t true for videogames where technology and interfaces continue to be developed. While there are franchises that are indeed re-milked for all they’re worth — Nintendo being the prime example — that only applies when a title is both profitable and feasible to re-release.
EA, as an example, used to own the Bond licence for games. It doesn’t any more, which means its contributions to that particular niche are effectively locked away in old copies. That only applies when there are old copies around, however, and while disc rot and cartridge decay may put paid to some of them, when they only ever exist as subscription games, they’ll come and go and likely never be found again.