Sony’s Rejection of EA Access Raises Many Questions

Word recently got out about Sony turning down EA Access because they didn’t find it to be a good value. PlayStation Plus was cited in the statement, and that opens up some interesting situations. The first one being that when compared to PS+, EA Access isn’t as good a value. One year of PS+ is $20 more than EA Access by default, but it spans every publisher on a PlayStation platform and covers four platforms counting the occasional PSP freebie that is playable on a Vita.  EA Access offers up a lot of value in a different way, but it’s also only tied to to the Xbox One. Despite the Xbox 360 still being a viable console for the short-term, it’s not part of the EA Access program. While this is smart in the sense that it shows EA is looking to the future, it does burn Xbox 360 owners. Sure, the Xbox 360 may not have more than a couple of years left in it, but EA clearly cared enough about the system’s fanbase to deliver a version of Titanfall for it.

Xbox 360 versions of recent cross-gen games like Need For Speed Rivals still look good enough, and with the focus shifting to the next-gen versions, what would really be lost by making them freebies for EA Access members? Whatever money EA is going to make on them has already been made beyond a $10 Black Friday clearance, and they would engender goodwill amongst gamers by doing it. Right now, EA Access has been a very controversial program. Our own take on its initial announcement spurned a lot of discussion on the matter, and it’s clearly something people are passionate about. The system wars have come back big-time thanks to it, and it’s a shame since it seemed like there was a sense of harmony for a little while. E3 2013 brought the potshots back to a level that hasn’t been seen since the 16-bit days, and instead of countering with immature ads, Microsoft responded by fixing the problems cited by Sony and gamers. The great thing about this is Sony took shots without sacrificing the quality of their own platforms. 20 years ago, Sega took tons of potshots at Nintendo’s Game Boy and SNES platforms, and then followed it up with a year where they launched half-baked hardware in a steady stream.

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The Sega CD was put on the back-burner after a flood of mediocre games, while the 32X was announced, released, and put out of its misery in time for the Sega Saturn’s North American launch in 1995. Originally planned for a September release, Sega launched it in May at E3 to get the jump on Sony. To say this backfired would be an understatement. No companies but Sega had anything close to ready, and Sega’s own games weren’t fully-optimized yet. Now, they could patch them up. In the pre-patch era, the best Sega could do was make up for a sub-par Virtua Fighter by completely reworking it and adding VF 2-style graphical upgrades alongside updated moves as a mail-in freebie. That was a great face-saver, but it had to cost more to do all of that than it would have to do just do Virtua Fighter right the first time. Publishers were upset because they had no notice, retailers were upset because they had no notice and thus no time to actually figure out a store configuration for this brand-new next-gen system, and Sony got one up on them anyway by announcing that the PlayStation would be available in September — and it would be $100 cheaper than Sega’s new console. The end result here were stores refusing to stock the system or its games, and EA deciding that the experience with the Saturn was such a disaster that they wouldn’t even support the Dreamcast.

EA had the ability even then to turn the tide for a console war, but it’s a whole different marketplace now. EA still has a lot of power within the industry, but Activsion has been around longer and is easily on par with them in terms of importance.  The era of patches has changed things for the better in some ways — games that have issues can see them get resolved nearly instantly. However, we’ve also seen games get released in far worse shape because developers and publishers know they can patch things up if they’re needed. There are also far more third parties out there, and digital distribution as a viable means of releasing things has changed the industry forever. Some things remain true forever though — you can’t screw over consumers too often or else they’ll revolt. They won’t picket your HQ, but they will refuse to buy your games. Now one wouldn’t realistically expect EA Access to extend to the Wii U, but it bypassing the PlayStation 4 was a genuine surprise.

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EA Access being an Xbox One exclusive takes things far beyond a timed-exclusivity deal for things like Call of Duty DLC. That’s a short-term thing that Microsoft spends money on and gets whatever clout comes with having the DLC on its system first. If it’s sub-par, then PC and Sony platform-owners know they’re not really missing much and will likely skip over it. In that instance, Microsoft’s money was effectively wasted. EA Access is an interesting program for the Xbox One since Microsoft already has its Deals With Gold and Games With Gold programs — but unlike Sony, they’re not banking a lot on them. They’re programs Microsoft has out there, but they don’t shine as bright a light on them as Sony does for PS+. While it is flawed, Sony can hang its hat on PS+ being an absolute game-changer for consoles.

Before it, sales were common for digital last-gen games, but were rarely worth caring about — even with Steam as a viable option on PC. The era of CheapAssGamer changed the PS2 era, and PS+ changed the next one by raising the bar for digital sales on consoles. Microsoft followed suit long after Sony introduced the free game setup by offering up games that were free forever, but were also generally older. While a PS+ sub got you unlimited access to games that were about six months old, and tied that access to an active PS+ account, you could have your Gold account lapse and still play 360 freebies forever. Of course, instead of getting a recent $30-$40 game for free with a catch, you got a years-old $10 game for free, so it still wasn’t quite 1:1. The Xbox One’s Gold account-tied freebies act basically the same as PS+ freebies do, and now that holds true for EA Access as well.

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Sony’s belief that EA Access wasn’t a good value for PlayStation owners is rooted in a bit of reality. Sony wants to be very publisher and developer-friendly, and making a deal with a top-level publisher like that could do them far more harm than good. If you’re an indie developer or even just a small third-party, how important are you going to feel with Sony making a deal with EA and clearly showing bias towards their products? Microsoft finds themselves in that situation now and will have to strike the right balance going forward. They’ve been derided for years for having ads all over the 360 dashboard, and if those multi-media ads change to just being EA ads, they could easily alienate people. There’s a world of difference between making someone aware of something and beating them over the head with it.

If either, or both of the modern Xbox consoles feature tons of EA-specific ads, then both companies look bad. Microsoft looks like it sold out for EA, while those who view EA as nothing but a big, evil company will have fuel added to their fire by the company themselves.  Microsoft has made Xbox Live, and later Xbox Live Gold, feel like essential parts of the gaming experience. However, even a decade ago, people were skeptical about that. After all, Sony offered up free online play for both the PS2 and PS3 on consoles, and with the PSP and Vita for their portables – only the PS4 has required a pay model for online play. Sony hasn’t gotten much flack for that from PS4 owners, and the general viewpoint is that PS+ is an amazing overall value. I was skeptical about the service, but a simple free month of it sold me on just how much of a value it was. EA Access is a much harder sell to PS+ users who are used to top-shelf freebies like Muramasa Rebirth giving them an excellent value for their dollar across all platforms.

There’s a chance that EA didn’t want to make it cross-platform for Sony, and that couldn’t been a deal-breaker. Sony’s in a very pro-consumer mode right now, and that kind of move certainly doesn’t fall in like with that mindset. If Sony went with a business model like that, they would risk upsetting the fanbase they’ve spent years rebuilding. I doubt there’s any amount a single publisher could throw at Sony that would make them betray the fanbase they have now, because that fanbase has given Sony the lead back in the industry that they lost during the 360/PS3 era. Sony had to rebuild trust with people and regain lapsed fans who had a PS2, but skipped the PS3 due to its high initial pricing. Sony was hurt greatly by the 360 being out a year earlier for far less money, and a lot of exclusives either being better on the 360 or not all that different on the PS3. Now, the latter-era exclusives were the proof that Sony’s platform was the most powerful, but by the time all-time greats like The Last of Us and to a more controversial extent, Beyond: Two Souls hit, everyone was in next-gen mode and people who didn’t already own a PS3 weren’t likely to buy one when that money could go towards a PS4.

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EA Access is one of the biggest gambles Microsoft has taken yet with the Xbox One, and that’s with the system’s entire lifespan being defined by them for better or worse. When it was announced, the DRM plan was met with great outrage, so they nixed it. When the Kinect was a clear albatross after months of hype about how essential it was to the platform, it was made non-essential. If EA Access doesn’t prove fruitful for Microsoft, there’s no guarantee (unless it’s in the contract), that they won’t just flip-flop on it and either open the door for it to be cross-platform on their systems, or opened up to Sony. Microsoft has made a ton of long term in theory, short term in execution moves and EA Access in its current form could be one of them. Since the program isn’t even in open beta yet, there’s plenty of time for EA and Microsoft to adjust things to either offer a better overall value (like 360 and Xbox One support), or just say it’s due to popular demand and give in to doing it so they come off better than just doing it because they feel they have to. Either way, Sony seems to have made a smart move by avoiding the hornet’s nest for the time being and just waiting to see what happens.