Two ways to do a content subscription service

Those of you who’ve been paying careful attention to Electronic Arts, and really you have no excuse not to, would know they’re pretty interested in this whole internet thing and how it could be leveraged to provide a constant revenue stream from increasingly dependent consumers. They’ve been pulling their games from Steam and relaunched Origin, the developer of Ultima they purchased a decade ago, as a digital distribution client, the only place to buy new multi million dollar MMO: Star Wars: The Old Republic. And then they ruined my birthday by announcing a subscription service to their sports games.

Now here’s what EA are planning to do.

  • The privilege of downloading their sports games a few days before EB Games put it on display and slap pre-owned stickers on last year’s edition.
  • Discounts on downloadable content, including on disc DLC.
  • Permission to use that purchased content on future roster updates.
  • Stats recorded on a webpage that you can browse with your internet communication gizmo.
  • A little badge so everyone knows you’re an idiot paying for the above.

I know right, some sort of joke. The very fact that EA’s offering, if I can indulge you and call it that, can be summarised down to five bulletpoints shows you everything wrong with their approach. You can’t summarise Xbox Live or Steam in 5 dot points and you shouldn’t be able to summarise EA’s either. If EA want to charge a subscription then they have to at least be on that level, offer a service of their own on the scale of Xbox Live. They’re a big company and their sport games cater to a big market – they can do it. God knows they want to do it but they’re too cowardly to try. The next few paragraphs I’m going to envision how they should run a subscription service that fosters the kind of sycophantic devotees, who’ll maintain their subscriptions indefinitely.

EA need to take their Origin client and back it. They need to get all the best programmers and make it the leanest, fastest, most feature rich game client out there; it has to be stable and it has to be multiplatform. Right now it’s slow and has a terrible interface – it doesn’t even have basic features found in the Mac App Store and Steam such as checking for updates and installing games from download. Then they need to let people register all their previously purchased EA games on there, either physical or digital, and then open the doors for third party publishers to sell their games too. They need to throw a bullshit sale that gamers can’t ignore just to get that user base up. Sims 3 complete for $50? I’m in. Then they need to announce that EA sports will no longer release yearly updates: it will be a digital subscription.

Perth Glory player.
Remember, when you bought that copy of FIFA 10 you bought the Perth Glory club even though only nationalist Westralians play as this mediocre club with no history.

Now EA aren’t in any rush to start pumping the internet tubes with sport content because, according to EA Sports Vice President Andrew Wilson, the width of bands is still an issue in many places. As usual, this is EA not thinking it though. The last FIFA game had something in the vicinity of 500 teams and 15,000 players. The average player, no scratch that, even the die hard football enthusiasts out there did not see all the game’s content because they’re out there living real lives. Players don’t need all that content when they’re just gonna play Manchester United vs Barcelona FC all day. So here’s what EA should do. When you subscribe to FIFA, you download a package significantly smaller that just contains the game engine code, some stadia and textures for some of the staple clubs. When the player does venture out and fire up the Turkish league for example, or they play someone online who picks Perth Glory, bam, quick and instant content delivery of their missing content that then becomes permanently installed. It doesn’t stop there though, if EA ever wrangle the J-League licence from Konami they can instantly add support for it to the subscription. A small patch adds it to the menu and anyone who loads it up downloads the full team kits. A system like this, a subscription where all our content is added when it becomes available and when it changes eliminates the need for DLC. Qatar builds a fancy new stadium for the World Cup, it’s there for free download. A prominent player gets a haircut (don’t forget, this is a typical soccer headline) it’s edited, right then. Players get loaned to other clubs, it’s how EA say, ‘in the game’. To stay ahead of their rivals, EA can release updates to the core game code on a a whim, those familiar with Team Fortress 2 have seen the game completely transform over the past 3 years with mandatory and free content updates steadily delivered. This should be the model that EA’s sport franchises adopt. Forget yearly updates, they can now update any aspect of the game from team sponsors to goalie AI at any point in time and they’ll be funded by the relentless dollars pouring in from subscribers.

EA shouldn’t stop there either. I said earlier that they need to use Steam or Xbox Live or the Apple App Store as inspiration. EA should invite third parties on board with this. Third parties who also struggle to deliver yearly updates to their licences. Every year brings disappointment for Pietriots’ resident Formula 1 tragic Grubdog, who goes out and buys the latest Codemasters’ F1 game to find half the tracks aren’t included or when a driver dies in a  crash his understudy isn’t available to select in-game when they replace him on the real F1 season. And I’m sure it pains Codemasters too. They pay a big fee for the F1 licence and they know their customers demand authenticity. With a subscription service they can update everything so it’s ready on time. EA could go totally crazy and open the door for hated rivals 2K to release their sports titles on the service too. With them both holding the NHL and NBA licences we might actually see some of that much vaunted free market competition lead to a better product.

To really hold this subscription market captive though, to make sure gamers never relent on their subscription fees, EA should hold promotions. Free play for all comers coinciding with major tournaments in the real world would really perk some interest. Hosting an online players league with scheduled matches that people can watch live. Stats all up the joint comparing the efforts of hundreds of thousands to gamers and how they compare to their real life counterparts. User submissions for plays of the week! Are you reading this EA? Can you make this happen? I’m just coming up with ideas really fast now, I’m just going to type them down. Cross platform access to subscribed titles, so you can pickup your round of Tiger Woods on your mobile, PC or console. User-created assets competing in user-run leagues. ‘Rental’ play for casuals: pay a one-off fee for a few days access in case you get a craving for some quick NCAA basketball action when you’re stoned with your mates on a Sunday afternoon. Tiered subscriptions depending on how many games you want access to, $30 for one, $40 for two,  $45 for three, $70 for all games. Prepaid options…

Steam vs Origin
With a little investment, creativity and courage, Origin could completely supersede Steam by offering services that competitors simply can't

I am frothing now at the prospect of this. This is Stockholm Syndrone, when you empathise with your kidnappers. I now want to be held hostage by EA and pay them for this amazing subscription service. It wins on so many levels. From a gamers point of view we get full access to all sports content, with up to date rosters, leagues, fixtures, stadiums the lot. No more DLC, no more rebuying the same product every year; gamers will want to keep renewing their subscriptions and cop any rate increases on the chin because there is the impression that their investment is continually gaining value. From EA’s perspective it solves all their problems. It completely kills pre-owned games – which EA hate. It provides them with a reliable and steady stream of revenue and saves them distribution and manufacturing costs. Hell, they wouldn’t even need to advertise anymore. Do you ever see Steam ads on TV?  No because Valve have made their service so important, so integral to PC gaming that it’s as natural to PC gamers as the post office is to people who mail stuff. EA can be that. They can can make Origin the place for interactive sports. People will approach them. They’ll be all “hey we’re a small developer from India and we want our cricket game on your service but could you help us negotiate with the ICC for a cricket license?” EA could find themselves into a position more powerful than Valve, than Nintendo, than Microsoft. Valve leveraged their power to open up the PSN to Steamworks and bring the dream of cross platform play alive for Portal 2 owners. If EA make Origin awesome enough, and they can only do that by making this sports subscription I’ve just envisioned plus cross platform support with Wii U, PC and PS3, they could force Microsoft to tear down entry gates of Xbox Live. Microsoft will have to let them do what they want because listening to ESPN on Xbox Live will no longer be compelling when Wii U owners are having proxy war of baseball statistics with PS3 players.

But here’s what will happen: EA will roll out their pathetic, five dot point subscription service instead of my awesome, comprehensive, industry shaking one. EA will keep Origin as an under utilised Battlefield 3/Star Wars: Old Republic game purchasing interface, surrendering third parties to GamersGate, Steam and other, more viable digital distributers. There’s two ways to run a content subscription service: the EA way or the proper way.

UPDATE: It has happened! EA Season Ticket. And it’s even worse than expected. They narrowed it down to four bullet points, getting rid of the ability to transfer purchased DLC to future titles. Also the discount in DLC is a paltry 20%. Yep, pay $25 to save $1 on Tiger Woods courses.

3 thoughts on “Two ways to do a content subscription service

  1. Great article, RAB. This is an issue most of us have missed.

    If EA bring out a subscription service, having it limited to EA sports games is not a good move, especially if they STILL CHARGE for DLC. Nobody is stupid enough to fall for that.

    Either go all out, and give me access to ALL EA content on the service, or forget gaining mainstream popularity. They’ve got a pretty big chunk of game content to use, so why not? I’d get the service for something like Mass Effect, then end up trying their other games just because i’ll have access to the content. This is how they’d make up any losses in profit caused by not ripping people off. Paying a subscription to get a “discount” on DLC is insulting.


  2. Oh god I’ve been thinking about how incredible this would be for those ridiculously comprehensive Career/Maste League/What have you modes these sport games often come with. You know the ones where you play as a team through bulk seasons and trade and recruit players int eh offseason. Imagine, you’re watching the news and hearing about these promising young rookies and they can be added to the player roster on Madden or whatever you can scout them and see if you want them in for your persistent career team. Holy shit. Make it happen EA please.


  3. I like this fantasy robust, fully-featured subscription service. Evolving the content packages to correspond to real world changes makes complete sense for sports-oriented gaming. Not only that, but add “classic” or “historic” content, so instead of just Top Spin/Virtua Tennis 2017 with some oddball Grand Slam Tennis released separately, the classic stuff could be a module of the same “tennis service”.

    Remember all the [yearly or shorter] WWII shooters? Same friggin war, same friggin landscapes and units, yet so many “different games” recycling the same theme and mechanics. It’s BS; I’d rather see “one war” with many episodes or events covered similarly to a History Channel series chronologically covering different events and aspects of a topic (more modular detail and flexibility than the old “expansion pack” method). Tho it’s hard to count on game companies to provide legitimate “authenticity” in a shooter.

    Unfortunately, your last paragraph pulled me back into reality. This most recent console cycle made me skeptical of any “courage” publishers may have; they’ve learned to play it “safe”.


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