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Subscription and streaming gaming

A response to a statement Andrew Wilson of EA made about a possible video games subscription service.

"If we look at what consumers have pushed other industries for: if we look at what consumers forced the music industry to provide, if we look at what consumers have driven as a result of television and movie subscription, if you look at us - there's absolutely a time somewhere at some point in the future where the consumers say, 'Hey, this is how we want to interact with you: we want to give you a monthly or annual subscription and we want access to everything you make.' They get to drive the time and place for it, and a lot of it is technology dependent, but absolutely we can see a future where that might be the way we deliver games."

EA label vice president Andrew Wilson

Game releases have been pretty slow lately, so I've spent some time with Netflix's streaming service, which allows users to instantly download movies or TV shows and watch them.  It's an incredibly convenient service, and allows for a very low barrier of entry for today's consumer, allowing them to keep up with popular entertainment (though there's still plenty of shows that make more money off of DVD).  The statement above talks about a potential EA strategy of a subscription service allowing consumers access to all of EA's games for a monthly fee.  While I've seen people complain about subscription fees and "nickel and diming" and all that, I frankly have to agree with this premise.  Gaming can be an incredibly expensive hobby, and lowering that barrier of entry may be all that's necessary to get more of the public into games.

On the surface, video game pricing seems completely fair.  A $10 movie ticket generally gets you 1 1/2 to 3 hours of entertainment, while a good $60 video game gets you 8 to 12 hours.  A $10 music CD has a few hours of content on it, and a similarly priced book can entertain you for a good while.  However, if you spent that ten-dollar bill on a bad movie, it's not going to hurt nearly as bad as if you bought a bad video game at full price.  As a result, customers are unwilling to pay heaps of money unless they're sure the finished product will satisfy them, which is one reason we see such a glut of shooters.  It's easy to justify a purchase when the multiplayer is bound to last you months, or if it's a huge RPG like Mass Effect with dozens of hours of content.

However, this pricing model spells doom for games without the resources for either.  Shadows of the Damned just came out, and while every agrees its good, how many people are willing to pay full price for it, considering it's single-player, it's short, and it's linear?  In a way, it was doomed right from the get-go.  But if EA is really interested in doing a subscription model, I'm sure plenty more people would be willing to play through those more niche titles.  Had Mirror's Edge been given a safer entry point, maybe we'd now be playing a sequel that really makes use of the first title's strong points.  Not to mention, the practice of putting multiplayer in games that don't really need it would finally stop.  All of EA's multiplayer efforts could be focused on Battlefield 3 instead of putting in a short-lived multiplayer component for Dead Space 2.

However, there are still plenty of problems with this model.  For one, games take up a lot more space than movies or television shows.  Some game demos can take an hour to download, compared to the 10 seconds I get when I want to watch an episode of Dr. Who.  For this to work, EA would have to figure out a way to make downloading these games manageable on consoles, which may be out of this console generation's hands (though OnLive is doing a nice job for the PC market).  Not to mention, EA is a huge company, with a gigantic history and backlog of games.  If one model succeeds, we may see all the big companies doing this, and I can say I don't want to be paying tons of fees to play games from EA, Activision, 2K, Ubisoft, etc.  It may be in the best interest to form partnerships, as there's no way smaller companies like Atlus would be able to deliver Catherine through a subscription service.

We've already seen traces of this kind of thing.  Steam has been a great service to customers, offering tons of games at low prices, and the small-scale games on XBLA and PSN are a great way to show people great games at an affordable price.  There are rumors floating around about the next generation of consoles, and up until recently, I had no interest in a machine that could do slightly better graphics.  However, if I had a box that gave me a ton of gaming content with quick and easy delivery, I think I would be all over it, and so would the rest of the market.

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