Tuesday, April 10, 2012

EA Sports And The Rise Of The Screwmium Model

This is quite depressing.

10 years ago, there was a robust and thriving sports games scene, both for PCs and consoles. There were two or more companies releasing games for every major team sport (and golf).

In truth, most of these games weren't very good out of the box. Many, though, supported a high degree of customization via sliders. The PC versions supported modding, and golf course architect programs, in particular, added hundreds of courses to the PGA Championship and Tiger Woods series.

Great stuff.

Now? With only a few exceptions, we're dead. Exclusive licensing deals by sport have killed the industry. Fewer than half as many sports games are released now, and the dominant franchise in several sports is complete ass (Madden and NCAA, for just two examples).

Who bought all these exclusive licenses? With the exception of the MLB license (which was a bizarre, two-developer exclusive), it's been EA. For the ecosystem of sports games, EA has been The Death Star.

Now, though, I think EA is in trouble.

Exclusive licenses are a double-edged sword, particularly when you have more than one. EA has so many that they are not just competing against other gaming companies when they bid, they're also competing against their own bidding for other sports leagues.

An example.

Let's say that in order to win the exclusive license for Team Sports League X, EA needed to outbid another company, so they wound up paying significantly more than they wanted. No problem, though, because now everyone who wants to play a videogame of that sport has to buy from EA, right? So they can make it up.

Here's the problem, though. Team Sports League Y, whose license is up for renewal next year, sees EA pay 30% more for Team Sports League X. Hey, thinks TSL Y, we are far more prestigious than TSL X! So if TSL X's rights fees got bumped by 30%, for example, then TSL Y thinks their license should be worth 50% more, at least.

It doesn't have to be an exclusive license, either. They still have to pay for a non-exclusive license, too, in other sports.

So EA, in order to get all these exclusive deals, overpaid. And when all of these licenses come up for renewal, in essence, EA is bidding against itself. Every time they overpay, it's not a one-off--there are other sports leagues lined up to cash in on that excess.

How does EA handle this economically? By inventing a new model I call the "Screwmium" model. It's like freemium, but with all the good parts removed and "screw" put in its place.

Let's take Tiger Woods 13 as an example of this brave new model, and by "brave" I mean "shitty."

Believe it or not, there are more DLC courses available for purchase than there are included with the game. At $5 a course, basically, although you can buy "packs" and get to the $4 range. Oh, and guess what? None of these course purchases carry over, so YOU'LL BE BUYING THE RIGHT TO PLAY THOSE SAME COURSES NEXT YEAR.

Oh, wait, says EA. You can actually earn other DLC and those courses by playing the game. Yes, you can, if you're fourteen and homeschool. But I guarantee that fewer than 10% of players (and I bet it's closer to <1%) will ever unlock any sizable amount of content.

Plus, if you're not signed in online, when you play, you can't get those coins. You don't get coins for offline play. Oops.

I always buy NHL, because it's great. Then I buy another game every couple of years from EA Sports because I fall for the preview hype and bullshit. This year, I fell for "full Kinect integration" with Tiger Woods.

Great idea, in a design sense. In an execution sense, not so good. It's clunky to the degree that I would be amazed if anyone plays that way on a regular basis.

The entire game feels more like a comprehensive attempt to sell DLC than it does a golf game, unfortunately. And Tiger Woods on the PC back in the 2004 era looked better than the 360 version does now (nice use of the Vaseline filter, guys).

If you want the full experience, you're going to outlay $100+, and what you get for that money just isn't that good of a golf game. Incredible, really, and how many people are going to be willing to pay more and more just to get the same level of content as in the past? How in the world is this model sustainable?

The answer: it isn't sustainable, not even remotely. Maybe someone would pay $100+ for the "full experience" for a great game, but the problem is that too many of the EA Sports games just aren't that good. They suffer from Tiburon syndrome: everything works, to a degree, and everything works better after a few patches, but the experience just isn't cohesive.

Think it's just EA Sports games? Wait for the DLC list for Sim City 5. Just wait.

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