Let’s discuss EA’s future and Wilson’s promise

If you’ve seen the E3 2018 EA Play presentation, you’ll likely have come away with questions about EA’s future that are difficult to answer. Last night’s presentation was quite low-key, and it was played safely. There were no really big announcements, no artwork or title logos for Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order, and even the Battlefield 5 information was kept on the down-low (EA actually chose to split up the gameplay footage between EA Play and Microsoft’s event later tonight). Few people came dressed in suits, and there was the expected cringey shoehorning in of esports, but this time for a mobile game. Expectations were intentionally kept low. You have to wonder if EA has a clear idea of where it wants to be in the next five years, and what they’re going to do to fix their public image, but the answers are there if you read between the lines.

Wilson’s Promise

“Before we close the show with our spectacular epic, Anthem, I wanted to share a few final things.  I am blessed to be able to work with some of the most creative people on the planet, who come to work every day to create amazing entertainment. And what I can tell say about all of those teams, and what I can say about us, is that we are always trying to learn, and to listen, and strive to be better. And so as you look at the ten experiences you’re going to see today, and as you play games this week, there’s some things we hope come through.”

“First, that at the very core is choice; is that you as players get to choose how you play, what you play, when you play, and what devices you play on. That in making those choices you feel you are treated fairly, that no-one is given an unfair advantage or disadvantage for how they choose to play. That for every moment that you invest – that you put so much of your life into the games we make – that for every moment you invest you were rewarded and you were given value for that investment.

And most importantly, that the games are fun. That we move past the grind and that these are experiences that truly enhance your lives. And so as we think through all the things that we are trying to do, do know that we want to be better and that we want to make great games.”

In his speech, Andrew Wilson didn’t ask the gaming community to forgive them for past transgressions. It didn’t address the findings against EA by the Belgium Gambling Commission, and it didn’t include the expected “we know we didn’t get this right” line. Instead, Electronic Arts under Wilson’s leadership sees their current and future actions as trying to give players choice – the choice to buy loot boxes, the choice to get into the grind, the choice to buy cosmetics. There’s an honest attempt to make players not feel unfairly disadvantaged if they choose not to take part in the RNG meta or any similar in-game activities. Even though you chose to play the game that way, EA says they endeavour to make you feel that you are still treated fairly.

On the surface then, it appears that EA no longer considers games to be a form of escape from reality. Certain titles will still be considered art forms, as seen in the amazing work coming out of EA Originals and Jo-Mei Games, but overall EA wants you to feel rewarded for playing their games. This pivotal speech is setting up the company to have several “live services” as part of their core offering in the future, and introducing players to the idea that not indulging in microtransactions on in-game items shouldn’t make them feel like they’re getting less out of the experience than someone who does purchase that additional content. EA is giving you the choice to participate or not, and your decision should never impact on the game being fun, or the fairness to players.

This, I feel, is an important message from Wilson and EA as a whole. Their business model is slowly changing from selling fully packaged titles with paid-for DLC expansions to a new digital model where a core offering of games are rendered as a service, where you can pay to enhance said service or personalise it to your own liking through cosmetic purchases for your characters. The rest of their software lineup – at least, with the small amount of other games they publish – might still consist of fully packaged titles, made up of AAA productions and small indie titles.

EA took their first steps towards this brave new world with Star Wars Battlefront 2, but they made the mistake of not rewarding players for playing the game, for locking content behind an addictive system with random outcomes, and a trickling of content that didn’t keep players engaged. Hopefully they learn from these mistakes in Battlefield 5 and Anthem.

Games as a subscription

The newly-announced higher tier of EA Origin Access brings with it another change to EA’s business model, moving it closer to the end goal of offering games as a live service. Origin Access used to give you access to EA’s stable of AAA games, but they only arrived into the game library six months to a year after release. As a cheap solution to getting into EA’s games without buying them all individually, Origin Access is fantastic value for money. Premier, on the other hand, gives you day-one access to new titles as they launch, and you pay $15 for the privilege.

While some may see this as a great way to deliver value over the standard $5 package, which allows you to trial these games for a limited time, I see it as the first step towards offering live services under a single subscription. It won’t make sense in the future for gamers to pay for a subscription to a single live service unless that single game happens to be all that they end up playing. A blanket subscription would give you more options about what you want to play, and Premier definitely does this – tired of playing Battlefield 5 online with friends? Switch over to FIFA 19. Got an invite from a friend to play Anthem? It’s already installed, so you can switch to that. Buying these games individually would set you back $180, but $15 is far more palatable, and you’re likely to keep playing these games for extended periods of time (which means that a year’s sub, at $100, saves you $80 and gives you exactly the same experience. Want to take a break from games for a while? Cancel your subscription and put the money to good use elsewhere, maybe as a small savings.

Does this mean that EA will end up earning less money and downscaling their studio efforts? I don’t think it will. In the company’s 2017 financial earnings call last year, CEO Andrew Wilson revealed that games under their big franchise banners typically cost around $300 million to make including marketing, which is quite favourable when compared to what it cost to make games ten years before that – accounting for inflation, it’s actually become cheaper to make a profitable AAA title. Activision took an enormous leap of faith in 2009 when they spent $50 million on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and their gamble was rewarded by day one sales of over $300 million worldwide, shattering records and becoming the fastest-selling game in history. By contrast, putting up $140 million for an ambitious project just five years later was a no-brainer, as the company earned back every cent from pre-orders and launch day sales of Destiny. Take-Two Interactive probably took the biggest leap of faith of them all, spending $265 million on GTA 5 and becoming the quickest game in history to reach sales of $1 billion.

If EA had to keep making games like Need for Speed or Battlefield 5 on a twice-yearly basis, they could skip a significant chunk of the marketing efforts they put into selling individual copies and instead focus on the service they offer through Premier. That service being that you can play absolutely all of their games as much as you want for $14.99 a month, no strings attached. A steady stream of revenue of up to $100 a year from your customers as opposed to maybe $60 depending on reviews of one game? I know which route I’d rather take.

Streaming games as a subscription service

“First, that at the very core is choice; is that you as players get to choose how you play, what you play, when you play, and what devices you play on.” Streaming seems like a natural fit for a game that’s also a live service. Services are meant to be cross-platform, enabling you to jump from one device to another and keep the user experience similar across those platforms which may be dissimilar. When it comes to games, it’s a little trickier to do because we all have a dedicated device that plays our games with higher fidelity and a better framerate, whether that’s a desktop computer, a gaming laptop, or a home console. Studios like Bluehole might well figure things out and offer multi-platform and cross-platform play for PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds on phones and tablets, but the reality is that these other devices aren’t always as powerful as our dedicated devices.

Games delivered through streaming, to be clear, aren’t coming this decade. I’m hesitant to even vouch for this becoming feasible in 2020, primarily due to other market forces at play. Sure, playing your games anywhere is a great idea and would grant us tremendous freedom to take our favourite titles with us, but the current offerings from mobile providers aren’t going to cut it. You’re going to need more data that is also cheaper and it’s going to need to be available everywhere you go. We can achieve this already with LTE networks but the hurdle is data costs and restrictive fair use policies. Radio spectrum is also something that holds back rollouts of services like 5G networking, and getting a license for that spectrum is both expensive and extremely time-consuming. By the end of the next console generation, perhaps, we’ll see this kind of service take off.

Still, Andrew Wilson’s throwaway comment about a streaming service that they’re currently working on makes me wonder what spurred this into motion, and why it’s so low-key. It’s not something that we necessarily need or want today, and it’s not a need for EA’s customers either. I suspect that their customers would instead prefer to be able to play their favourite game ported to the Nintendo Switch than a potentially unreliable mobile streaming service. If EA feels so strongly about this that they need to make a comment about it, and simultaneously have no slides, no details, and no proper date set for alpha or beta trials, you can bet money on the fact that someone else spooked them into action.

It’s not Sony, that’s for sure.

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