EA: A good idea taken a step too far

May 14, 2010, Author: Andy Corrigan

A few weeks ago I had a pretty vague idea in my head for an article focusing on how I felt that EA had probably stumbled upon the perfect incentive to encourage their customers to purchase brand new copies of their games rather than resorting to cheaper pre-owned copies, of which they’ll never see a penny. Since that original idea formed in my supple brain, what was going to be a fairly positive take on a new idea has quickly turned into a horror story following some recent revelations, especially concerning the future of titles coming out of EA Sports Studios.

We all know that the second hand market has always been something of a problem for developers and publishers alike, and from a purely business perspective it’s quite easy to see why. While stores such as GAME offer companies an avenue to make money from their consumers on one hand, they potentially prevent greater profits by allowing trades and sales of second-hand copies, without a single penny going back to those who invested in it. A lot of developers out there are viewing pre-owned sales to be more damaging than piracy, especially if recent comments from Blitz Games Andrew Oliver are anything to go by.

Personally, in a lot of these cases, I think it’s fine for these guys to be uncomfortable about it. I mean it’s easy to be against it as a consumer. Before researching this piece I myself was often usually found to be outraged at comments from industry leaders bemoaning our basic right to trade amongst ourselves, despite the fact that the second hand trade has been affecting other media and even hardware manufacturers for centuries. When considered with the roles reversed and putting myself in a business mindset, I think a developer also has the right to ponder how much cash they could be raking in when a newly released game could be selling for just £10 less in the same store, with none of that sale amount going back to them. This is made worse when more and more companies, such as HMV, Asda and Tesco, are all jumping in on the second-hand bandwagon.

So, with my purchase of Dragon Age, and later Mass Effect 2, I felt EA were offering the perfect answer to this problem. You want to buy it second hand? Fair enough, that’s your choice, but you don’t get access to a code that unlocks some of the perks that you’d get with a brand new copy, such as occasionally free DLC or other content for your game. The Cerberus Network in Mass Effect 2 was the perfectly executed example of this, offering the user enough content to warrant paying the extra and it wasn’t as ‘in your face‘ as they made it in Dragon Age. Should you buy the game second hand and still want those extras, it’ll cost you up to an additional £10, which is just about a fair price for the content they’ve provided thus far, meaning they get a cut that was previously lacking and you should go away happy with your additional content. More recently, this tactic has proved successful again, with Battlefield Bad Company 2 offering a couple of free map-packs for dubbed ‘VIPs’. This is a strategy that really has legs in my opinion, offering a clear choices that suits everyone, but rewards those who bought the title brand new.

It would appear now, though, that EA have been over-thinking this set-up a little, and blinded by the limited success at this point have now taken the idea a tad too far. No longer are you potentially just losing out on some nifty content by not paying full price, should you want to take a future EA Sports title online and you’ve bought it second hand you will have to pay an additional $10 for an ‘Online Pass’ to allow you to do so. We’re not just talking about some extra kits, a few new stadiums or a new game mode; we’re talking about a major component of a game that will be unplayable for people who bought the game in an entirely legal fashion. Unless of course they allow themselves to be strong-armed into paying.

This is what getting online will actually be like in the future.

I could even understand this somewhat if it was a timed implementation, for example if you purchased the title second-hand within the first three months, you’d be liable to pay for an online pass, but to make it an absolute is ludicrous. It’s about that time where people will call for their fellow gamer to vote by keeping their wallets closed upon release, but the game is just too mainstream and popular for it not to sell well regardless. You only have to look at the number of idiots… people who paid over the odds for a mediocre map-pack for one of the most over-hyped games of all time to see that people will always part with their cash regardless of the uproar.

EA had been building themselves a fantastic new reputation over the last few years, changing their direction and taking more risks, but this just reeks of the EA of old trying to squeeze every possible penny. As punters, it’s not our fault that the second-hand market exists for us to take advantage of; we’re simply buying a title in a legal fashion, and that in no way means that we should accept paying more cash once the game is purchased or face owning a severely gimped product as a result.

If you were to ask me the solution to the second hand problem? They’re missing the obvious answer and targeting the wrong people, I mean it’s the retailers that are giving our developers and publishers the headaches, right? Companies like GAME need to be able to purchase new stock for their own survival, but they also need second hand trade to thrive. Surely, a more suitable option is for publishers to negotiate directly with the retailers by agreeing a license system that allows them to sell their titles pre-owned. By implementing a licensing model between the two companies in this way, industry giants such as EA still make a share of the money from pre-owned sales, and it also prevents the second hand market from diminishing completely in a way that would lead to severe financial issues to certain retailers. Let’s face it, the latter is already happening, with GAME having been feeling the strain this last year. If the retailers refuse to pay a licensing fee, then the publisher has simply to stop supplying them with new titles; they’d only be hurting themselves further in the process, and can’t carry on as they have been doing thus far in any case.

As it stands, radical moves like the one EA are currently trying to pull with their sports titles aren’t really solving the root cause of their problems. If more companies decide to follow suit, it will only serve to punish those who they wish to appeal to the most; the people who they want to buy their future products brand new on day one. Severely disabling your own product just to spite those who might play the second-hand field is like cutting off your nose to spite your face, and is quite simply the worst suggestion to keep or win new fans that I’ve ever heard.

If you want to read up some more on EA’s new policy you can do so here.