Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Here We Go

From Pastrapadre:
It was only a few weeks ago that EA Sports president Peter Moore talked of a persistent social profile that would transfer from game to game. Now the manner in which that may be carried out is becoming clearer. Thanks to several people who took the time to forward over the included document, the plan of a subscription service that EA Sports is investigating has gone out in the open.

Here we go.

From the document:
--Discounts on all downloadable content for all participating EA Sports titles.
--Full downloadable versions of participating titles before they come out in stores.
--Ability to transfer paid content from your current participating titles to future title versions.
--Free and exclusive opportunities to extend your EA Sports experience to PC and Web.
--Free and exclusive EA sports downloadable content for participating console-based titles.

Let's take a deeper look at some of those:
1) Full downloadable versions of participating titles before they come out in stores.
That's a double win. I can download a game for full price that I can't resell, and since Madden and NCAA are totally unplayable until three months of patches (and sometimes, they're not even playble then), I can get a head start on the waiting!
2) Ability to transfer paid content from your current participating titles to future title versions.
Also awesome, because I can pay a yearly fee to not have to pay a different yearly fee. Yeah!
3) Free and exclusive opportunities to extend your EA Sports experience to PC and Web.
Also fantastic, because after trying so hard to use the web-based recruiting interface in NCAA, which failed time and time again, I can now EXCLUSIVELY fail.

Hell, yes.

Seriously, this is just sad. Inevitable, but sad.

You know what? If they want to do this by sport, so that I could show the NHL developers some love, I'm fine with that. But if they want me to help subsidize the idiot factories that make Madden and NCAA, count me out.

EA has one real problem with their sports games, and this is true of basketball, football, and golf: the games bear little relation to the sports they allegedly represent. And while golf has its own set of problems, it's incredibly simple to explain what's wrong with the football and basketball games:
1) if players don't move at a realistic speed, both by themselves and in relation to other players, the game will feel wrong and play poorly.
2) if the ball doesn't move realistically, the game will feel wrong and play poorly.

Those two rules should be on the monitor of every single developer of EA Sports, because if those two things are right, everything else can be fixed. But if those two things are wrong, it doesn't matter if the f-ing sweatbands and spirit patches are accurate.

There are multiple reasons why these things don't get fixed:
1) Zero leadership.
2) It's awkward, isn't it? Can you imagine a bullet point on the box that says "Players finally move at realistic speeds"? Far better to spend hundreds of hours getting the correct nipple size for all the FBS cheerleaders instead.
3) Why would they want to fix any of this? The EA Sports product line is relative mediocrity paired with exceptional, cutting-edge marketing. They're not about making the product more realistic--they're about selling more product.
Look, Madden was much better the first year that Ian Cummings took over. It was playable (after a lot of work from users, but I'm okay with that). But last year was a disaster, and when I heard that Ian Cummings had left, my first reaction was: who cares? He's no better than anyone else in the parade of clowns that have led development on that game for the last 20+ years.

The sad part: even after 20+ years, Madden, the flagship game, still doesn't resemble professional football in any meaningful way.

NCAA is even worse. They've released what amounted to late alphas the last two years, absolute fireballs plummeting to Earth.

What does it matter, though? They've bought exclusive rights. There are no incentives to improve the game in any meaningful way when there's no competition.

What are the two EA sports games that really shine? NHL--no exclusive license. FIFA--no exclusive license (they've locked up as much as they can, but the soccer world is too fragemented to get every license).

Yes, I know that NBA Live is the exception to the competition. I have no explanation for that, except that Live has always failed both Rule 1 and Rule 1. Miserably.

Everyone who likes sports games has a "favorite" memory of just how awful Live has been. My favorite was two or three years ago, when the ball would warp as guys dribbled. In a replay, you could clearly see that it took about three frames of animation for the ball to go from the floor to a player's hand. It was so incredibly bad that it immediately became incredibly awesome.

EA has crushed their competition not by making their games better, or by adding value to their products, but by cornering the market on exclusive licensing. They've bought up every exclusive license they can. No competion. Big win.

Ironically, though, in the end, it's a pyrrhic victory. I'd love to see a chart of how much their exclusive license fees have gone up in the last five years, because it must be killing them. And once you've tapped the market to exhaustion, maybe your sales will stop going up, but licensing fees will never stop going up. At some point, certain games are going to hit the wall.

Let me just say this, and I believe it's a stone-cold guarantee: in the next five years, EA will begin backing away from these exclusive arrangements. Maybe they'll keep the NFL, or try to, but that's just one league. How exactly are they going to keep buying exclusive licenses for dozens of the world's best soccer leagues, particularly when every single time they have to renew a license for one league, the price of renewing everyone else goes up?

It's unsustainable.

Maybe they'll be able to obtain some licenses for chicken feed--the PGA Tour comes to mind--but in an era where television rights are shooting into the stratosphere, I promise you that licensing fees are going to increase at the same pace.

This subscription free isn't innovation, it's desperation. EA has tried to expand the base of these games in every conceivable way, but once that's tapped out, all they have left is to soak the existing customer base even more. That means they have to jam a "subscription" free of $15-$35 (the figures mentioned in Pastapadre's article) down our throats.

This isn't from strength. It's from weakness.

So try to soak us with this bullshit subscription fee, EA, and by "bullshit" I mean you're going to start transferring game features we actually want to "exclusive subscriber status" so fast it will make our heads spin. Soak us all you want, boys, because every time you have to renegotiate the fee for an exclusive league license, we'll be the ones standing at the back of the room, laughing our asses off.

EA Sports "won" by eating a bomb, and it's ticking.

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