EA’s Newest Platform: Sure-to-fail? Or Cannot-fail?
EA seems to have figured it out. The games they publish don’t have any real problem selling themselves, whether they be BioWare’s latest RPG or their AAA Call-of-Duty-killer. Not only do they not have any real problem publishing their own games to retail space, they even offer their publishing services to other developers less vested in the retail market. In fact, they’re so self-sufficient they’re widely known for being one of the very few (if not the only) publishers to autonomously handle its own online services in the console market.
So, in a way, EA’s aggressive entry into the proprietary PC digital distribution platform world isn’t particularly surprising. EA didn’t really have a need to let Steam handle the distribution and sales of their software, and it made even less sense from their perspective to allow Valve to take any cut from said sales. EA’s large and varied library of games also lets EA stand tall on its own, ensuring a relatively sizable array of games even if they end up all by themselves on Origin. So why exactly is the average PC gamer meeting this with contempt?
The most obvious reason is, of course, the simple fact that it’s EA. From the “EA Spouse” scandal to the frequent multiplayer server shutdowns to its aggressive developer purchases (sometimes for the sole purpose of usurping their IPs and discarding the owners like a used diaper), EA has been the quintessential Shinra Corporation of the video game industry, with Activision only recently emerging to contest EA’s willingness to be as aggressively business-oriented as possible. But the deeper reason remains that EA did not exactly launch Origin with the best publicity. EA appears to have wanted the creation of a more “exclusive” service, one that had easy access to all of EA’s best games that couldn’t be found on Steam. The problem was that they had already released plenty of their big games on Steam, so it is widely speculated that EA deliberately “broke” their contract stipulations with Valve so as to trigger a removal of those games from Steam without EA having to do the dirty deed. The validity of these claims remains cloudy, but what’s clear is the fact that EA’s repeated PR statements regarding these game removals are rife with contradictions.
They claim Steam never allows for paid DLC to be sold directly to the consumer without Steam’s involvement, but there exist plenty of games that do exactly that, from the many games that use Games for Windows Live’s digital marketplace to EA’s very own Mass Effect 2, where BioWare distributes all DLC (paid and otherwise) through its own BioWare marketplace. There is the claim that Steam somehow makes it difficult for developers to distribute content and patches, even though patch and content distribution on Steam is practically painless for both the developer and the consumer. As well as the simple fact that EA’s attempting to throw its weight around at Steam by making a point in NOT releasing Battlefield 3, definitely one of the most anticipated and robust PC games of the year, on Valve’s service. They are willing to fragment the PC market, unfortunately taking along DICE for the ride. Which is quite a shame for them, given their devotion to making the PC the definitive version of an AAA title. It must be disheartening to be forced to go along on EA’s crusade after they’ve been so careful about pleasing the PC gamer. In short, EA’s actions and motive are quite muddled in regards to the Steam controversy.
We’ve heard the stories, seen the responses, skimmed (or even participated in) the arguments, but there doesn’t seem to be much discussion about the platform’s future. Perhaps it’s because some people only see this as a small series of temporary EA shenanigans, with the disappearance of Origin only being a couple of years down the road. Or perhaps talking about the “now” really is just that more interesting. Regardless, it’s only fair to analyze the longevity of the service. In my opinion, I think the service is here to stay.
EA’s venture into the wild world of digital downloads is nothing particularly new. They started innocently enough with the pop-ups prompting you to “register your game with EA” during the ‘90s, but eventually they moved on to EA Downloader, replaced later by EA Link, then later again EA Download Manager, and finally the current system of Origin. This isn’t really some sort of knee-jerk decision to suddenly start competing with Steam overnight. Given EA’s past history in digital download managers, having a full-fledged digital platform of their own is only the natural evolution of their previous digital distribution efforts. And current issues that users experience regarding the stability and convenience of the service could very well be just teething problems of a young service. After all, when Steam launched alongside Half-Life 2 it was largely resented or outright hated by the majority of the community. It was viewed as little more than intrusive, bloated DRM that gave the consumer no real advantage at best, and a headache of technical and stability problems at worst. It took years of added features, frequent fixes, a major UI redesign, the gaining of trust of a wide variety of developers, and aggressive fire sales to make Steam what it is today. Who’s to say Origin can’t ever reach that state? If a developer like Valve, who was a relatively tiny company back when Steam launched, could manage to take Steam to this level, why wouldn’t EA try its hand at doing the same?
The ire drawn by the events surrounding Origin’s launch, particularly the removal of major EA titles from Steam, is almost palpable. On every gaming blog and news site there are solemn vows from multiple people that the Origin client will never touch their precious hard drives. While I most definitely encourage the advocacy of consumer rights and definitely believe in voting with your wallet, it’s difficult to take these proclamations of boycott seriously given the results of previous efforts like the infamous Left 4 Dead 2 and Modern Warfare 2 boycotts. History shows that all it really takes is for EA to release a highly anticipated title on Origin and have that be the definitive “platform” for people to willingly adopt Origin, which is what they’re doing with Battlefield 3 (even if the effort IS a little transparent). They also need to get their foot in the door, so to speak, which is what they’re doing by offering many of their more popular older titles like Mirror’s Edge, the modern Command and Conquer games, and The Sims 2 and its expansions for $5 apiece during weekends. As soon as a sizeable amount of people start putting the Origin client on their hard drives, EA will have taken the first big step in solidifying their status as a legitimate digital distributor, and judging from their current actions it’s difficult to think they will fail at this.
So what exactly is the future of Origin? Firstly, I think the most basic fact we can establish is that Origin is here to stay. It’s not as if they can simply leave the distribution of their games to other avenues such as Direct2Drive, Steam, or GamersGate, because it’s a little difficult to imagine a scenario in which EA “gives up” on Origin and goes back to EA Download Manager or even removes it completely. At the very least it’ll remain a relatively niche distribution where you’ll only get EA games. Will they continue to “boycott” Steam? Possibly. That really hinges on how successful a “boycott” of Battlefield 3 goes, and honestly I think many gamers will cave and purchase the game. After all, it’s one of the very few major titles where the PC gets its dues, and most longtime Battlefield fans wouldn’t miss this for the world.
What then, after they get their foot in the door? Will they venture out into distributing non-EA games? Again, it’s possible. They could certainly publish indie titles from garage indie developers, who are just starting to appear on Steam’s front pages each week, but with Steam’s almost fickle submission requirements and the market being flooded with other indie games there’s certainly room for improvement. As for other full-budget games, I doubt very many third-party developers in need of a distributor would pick Origin over Steam, but I doubt EA would want to compete with Steam on that level, at least in the near future.
And what about the client itself; how would that improve? Their first crack at Origin is a pretty valiant effort, but obviously in need of some fixes and tweaks. For one, they could certainly lose the large icons and jumbo-sized page designs, seeing how this is a PC client and not a console one, but past that they could do well in adding all the popular Steam features such as easy backups, in-game screenshots, etc. They could also pick and choose the best features from other services like Impulse, which lets you install each game on any location and hard drive you want among other things. And, seeing how EA’s handling everything about their online gaming themselves, it would be trivial for them to add the coveted multi-platform multiplayer between PC gamers and their console brothers, especially on non-FPS titles like racing and adventure games. Since they “own” every game published on Origin, they can also make it a much more unified service than Steam will ever be; providing cloud saves, plus a unified achievement system for all games. They could even have games communicate more seamlessly between each other; having Mass Effect 2 and 3 automatically detect complete game saves from the previous Mass Effect games, for example. Being in control of not only the service, but every single game that is on said service could definitely have its upsides should EA choose to play to their strengths.
Ultimately, success or failure is up to EA, but they’ve done well to at least get their foot in the door. The way they’ve been drumming up interest and a sizeable portfolio of games is widely regarded as being dubious, not to mention the fact that the client itself still has plenty of issues, but if Steam could get to where it is now EA can certainly try. And try they should, because even though EA has a nice mold to use with other digital distribution services, they’re still trying to put a dent on the mighty stalwart from Valve that has gained the love and trust of PC gamers far and wide. It’ll be an uphill battle, and it’s uncertain where EA will take the service, but one thing for sure is that the battle has begun.