Friday, October 06, 2006

Pay As You Go

Well, we saw this coming. And if you think this post is about EA Sports, it is to some degree, but it's also about what's coming from the gaming industry in the future.

EA Sports is going big into the Xbox Live Marketplace. IGN had an interview this week with Chip Lange, "VP of Online Commerce for EA Sports," as part of a rollout for what appears to be a huge Xbox Live Marketplace initiative.

Let's look at the timing of this announcement. We paid $60 for one camera angle in NCAA and Madden. The U.S. version of Madden 360 "feature" a fatigue bug which took over six weeks to patch, even though it was a "top priority" of the development team. The European version of Madden features the quarterback throwing the ball backwards in Superstar mode. NHL 07 (360) is the shell of an excellent, excellent game, but unfortunately with almost zero offensive and defensive A.I.

Then there's NBA Live 07. Here are the average ratings from
360 version (7 reviews): 65%
PS2 version (7 reviews): 68%
Xbox version (7 reviews): 69%

Those are incredibly low review ratings for a game released by a major publisher. And if you're wondering why there are so few reviews for each platform, it's because EA didn't send out any copies for advance reviews.

They don't do that if the game's good.

There are already compilation videos on You Tube showing the incredible number of bugs in the game. There was an open letter from members of the NBA Live community this week taking EA to task for the terrible quality of the game.

Oh, and every 360 sports game they've released since the launch of the console last November has been feature-anemic compared to it's last-gen brethren. The most recent example? Fifa 07 for the 360, which has less than 1/3 the leagues and 1/2 the stadiums of last-gen and handheld versions.

In other words, it's not a great time for EA Sports in terms of customer satisfaction.

So it's the perfect time to roll out a program to give the customer the "opportunity" to pay more!

Let's take a look at what Lange had to say.

The development teams have started to look at supporting the premium content market on the Xbox 360, and frankly, I think people are hungry for it.

I think I just threw up in my mouth a little. Is that hunger? Because if it is, I'm really, really hungry.

...I look at it like this: I'm a Madden 360 gamer, I have my game, and we have all this content. The pipeline we get this content to customers after we finish the game is the Marketplace.

Can I buy a camera angle?

Here's the thing: this is the beginning of the gradual erosion of content on the original game disc, and it's not just EA who's going to use this strategy. Soon, when you pay $60, you won't be purchasing a complete game--you'll be buying the right to purchase the complete game. And the price for that "full" game won't be $60--to get all the available content, it will be $80, or $100, or more.

That might look like one additional revenue stream, but it's not--it's two. It also creates a revenue stream from people who bought the game used.

And it's not just incidental content like uniforms or stadiums, either. Here's what I see happening in the next two to three years, and not just from EA: you buy a game and it comes with $30 of "free content" via the Marketplace. In essence, that additional content finishes the original game, but it's free to you, so you don't care.

However, anyone who buys that same game used doesn't get that "free" content. They have to buy it--and it's going to cost them $30. And without it, they're going to get a very half-ass experience.

Here's a very simple example. Let's say (strictly as an example) that NCAA comes out in 2008, and for $59.99 you get the ability to play single games and Heisman mode only. You also get a code that lets you download $30 of additional content.

The only content available, though, is Dynasty mode, which conveniently costs $30. Again, no big deal to you--it doesn't really cost you anything extra--but to the guy who buys the game used, it's going to cost him $30 to play in Dynasty mode, because those "content coupons" can't be re-used.

Oh, and if you want all the additional content that's going to be released for the game in the two or three months following its release, it's going to cost you another $30-40 on top of what you already paid. Sorry about that.

Let's get back to the interview.
IGN Sports: I read how your strategy for Tiger Woods includes the ability to buy new courses. Does that mean you're holding courses back intentionally from consumer who buy the game in order to force them to purchase courses separately and spend more money?

Chip Lange: The Tiger team is taking a creative approach to it. You can either unlock or buy the courses, depending on your gaming preference. We look at this a lot like other stuff that goes on in the industry. IGN does this with premium subscriptions where there's a subscription service and you can get guides to games. I can pay for a subscription in order to unlock some stuff so I don't have to play the game all the way through, or now I can go this route. It's just another way to allow gamers the choice on how they want to play the game. That's the way the Tiger team is approaching this.

In other words, for $60 you buy the right to play the game for an unspecified length of time to unlock content. Convenience costs extra.

$60 isn't enough to pay for convenience? Really?

Lange's analogy is completely inane, by the way. Gaming websites are not games. And it's not "another way to allow gamers the choice"--it's another way to charge us.

Just wait. This content that is already on the game disc is going to become more and more difficult to unlock in subsequent years. This is going to be every gaming company's dream scenario: include an additional revenue stream on the game disc itself. In a business sense, that's genius--multiple future revenue streams are given to the customer when they make the original purchase. Never mind that we're already paying $60 for the game.

Here's more.
IGN Sports: What about things like updated rosters? Will people be forced to pay for these updates as well in the future?

Chip Lange: That's not on our plan. In general, our strategy is to find stuff on the next-generation games that the customers don't have today and figure out how to get it to them.

Here's the translation for that, and based on Madden 360 this year, I believe it's accurate. EA doesn't need to charge for roster updates: they just need to remove your ability to edit player ratings. There was no rating editing in Madden 360 this year, and I don't think that's a temporary change.

Why? Because if you can't edit player ratings, the fan community can't create roster updates. And since EA won't support non-current versions of their games with roster updates, if you want to play with current rosters, you'll have to buy the game every single year.

Don't think that's not going to happen. With Madden on the 360 this year, it already happened, and I'd be willing to bet that NCAA will be exactly the same next year.

We will get squeezed and squeezed and squeezed.

Here's the last excerpt:
IGN Sports: How does the ESPN integration tie into Marketplace? Are the ESPN features something we'll have to pay extra for in the future?

Chip Lange: Not that we're announcing today. Again, I think if we're going to leave you with something, it's that EA Sports is paying real close attention to the marketplace right now and we're staring to roll out our content for it over the next 18 months.

That's very easy to read: ESPN features will have to be purchased at some point in the future. That's not a big deal, really, because the ESPN integration in EA titles right now is absolute crap, but it's another example of "buying the right to buy the game" instead of buying the game.

I find it hard to believe that anyone is going to care about any of this, because sports gamers, by far, have the lowest expectations. We buy it and buy it and buy it, even when "it" is complete rubbish. But this isn't a situation where the original game is great and additional content is offered (like Oblivion). This is a situation where core gameplay in almost every single EA Sports game is screwed up, where there are framerate issues, lack of options, and (at times) major bugs.

In other words, NBA Live might be an absolute train wreck, so bad that EA wouldn't send out advance copies for review, but fixing that is totally unimportant to EA. What's important is to make sure we can buy the fourth alternate unis of the Pacers.

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