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The Problem with EA’s Online Future

In a recent interview with Engadget, EA’s COO Peter Moore spoke at length about the future direction of Electronic Arts.

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The key points: an increase in online social features and further expansion the Free-to-Play model across all of EA’s major franchises. Moore said “We’re seeing more and more of the online experience being part-and-parcel of every game. We don’t ship a game at EA that is offline; just doesn’t happen.” Last month, Moore also expressed dissatisfaction with the Wii U for feeling like “..an offline experience right now”.

Moore has subsequently back-peddled a little on this stance, reaffirming EA’s commitment to the offline consumer, but there is no doubt that the course is set. The last few years have seen a huge push from EA in the mobile market and titles such as SimCity have ably demonstrated the benefits(?) of an ‘always online’ future. It’s hard to say if this is a bad business strategy. These games have to be paid for somehow, so it makes sense for publishers to try to turn purchasers into subscribers. Not necessarily in the form of a monthly fees, but into users of persistent game services that continually tap our pockets for loose change.

A glittering example of the 'always online' future.

A glittering example of the ‘always online’ future.

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Many believe that this will beckon the end of the triple-A experience, but of that I’m not so sure. Big budget, story led experiences will always be part and parcel of the video game landscape. But the form they take could well change. My concern is around the impact that these business models will have on the structure and mechanics of gameplay, both now, and in the future.

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Of immediate concern is that the nature of narrative led games will be changed by the inclusion of social features and micro-transaction pay walls. As we have seen on mobile, Free-to-Play games are often anything but. A lack of imagination (or deliberate stifling) on the part of game publishers and developers means that many titles resort to the same old tropes of grinding, number crunching and levelling. RPG elements are easy to monetise and all too easy to shove in. How much fun will a Free-to-Play Mass Effect game be if you have to cough up 50p for each load out change?

mass-effect-load-out

‘The M96 Mattock V comes at a reasonable £1.99, Sir.”

Longer term I also worry. Sure, retro gaming is a relatively niche market, but if it was that niche why would Nintendo still make sure that Balloon Trip was available on every possible platform. What happens in five or 10 years when we find that games are unplayable due to a lack of online infrastructure, or broken because their mechanics don’t stand up to scrutiny without a sizeable connected user base? Heritage is important in any field of art. It’s difficult enough with game technology already, let alone without of having to worry about the ongoing existence of server farms.

The challenge for publishers and developers is to create games that can thrive in this new environment, but still allow creativity, expression and playability. It’s not an easy task, so we had better hope that EA have thought it through.

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Thumbsticks editor and connoisseur of Belgian buns. Currently playing: Paper Mario: The Origami King, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and Pikmin 3 Deluxe.