Hot Topic: EA Sports... It's Not In The Game
Written Monday, May 31, 2010 By Martin Gaston
UFC Undisputed 2010 came out this week, so plenty of ardent UFC lovers spent their weekends practicing arm bars, leg locks and guillotine holds - and in the game, too! Resident X360A reviewer, Lee Abrahams, gave the game an 86 and declared it to be “a fine addition to the blossoming franchise”.
THQ want to wrestle some profits out the retailers.
The only problem with Yuke’s latest brawler seems to be if you rent it or buy it second-hand and decide you want to play it across the information superhighway, as each new copy of the game comes with a single-use code to enable online play. Those without this code will need to cough up 400 MSP. Are THQ right for doing this? And is this going to become standard practice across the industry?
Signs certainly point to yes for the latter. Alongside THQ’s online entitlement scheme, EA (who coined the scheme last year as ‘Project Ten Dollar’) have extended free online for new copies only to their Sports products but we’re yet to see the extent of that. Ubisoft has said they’re considering it, too.
Let’s take a step back and look at how the content has been handled with regards to EA’s pioneering Project Ten Dollar scheme. The bonuses given to Dragon Age, Mass Effect 2 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was certainly nice to have, offering up some decent quests and characters for the first two and opening additional multiplayer maps for the latter.
The dynamic changes slightly in the case of UFC or an EA Sports game, though. Whereas you could quite comfortably play through the entirety of Mass Effect 2 without poking around the wreckage of the original Normandy or having seasoned space mercenary Zaeed in your party, THQ and EA Sports are going one step further by yanking out central features if you haven’t purchased the games new.
It comes as no surprise to see this in annualised sports games, either, which routinely get traded in by the bucket load within 12 months to make way for next year’s shinier iteration. The move will surely lower the trade-in value of products that have notoriously poor resale value in the first place, driving the pre-owned market for sports games lower than it already is.
Statue of Liberty says, "you want online, you pay"
This move is also clearly aimed at customers who don’t necessarily demand that their sports games be bang up to date - I used to see plenty of people like this when I worked in a retail store a few years ago. By making the perceived worth of a second hand copy of Tiger Woods 11 lower than it already will be in the summer of next year, EA hope to convince customers that would have just saved £10 and bought an out of season copy second-hand, to instead make the jump to a new copy of Tiger Woods 12.
Many people have cynically predicted that this trend will spread across the gaming world like wildfire: that their next copy of Call of Duty will come with a single-use code to enable online. But is it really a new thing?
Eventually, publishers will have to step away from their clever branding exercises and just admit that console games are now coming with serial keys. As other parts of PC gaming have found their way to consoles - online play, patches, game installs - it should come as no real surprise that mandatory registrations are starting to make the transition.
Serial keys have existed in PC gaming for many years, with some more outlandish attempts in the eighties and nineties leading into plain strings of characters in the noughties - notably in games like Battlefield 1942, Half-Life and Quake 3 Arena. Serial keys have created the general consensus that purchasing a keyed second-hand game and expecting to play it online was like spinning a roulette wheel, and they effectively destroyed the second-hand market for PC games. That’s exactly what the publishers want.
In comparison, EA and THQ’s online entitlement schemes are much fairer than regular serial keys, as you’re not locked out of playing a second-hand copy online. You just have to pay your way to get in. When a friend of mine purchased a second-hand copy of Battlefield 2 many years ago and found he couldn’t play online, he was £20 out of pocket: in the case of UFC 2010, he’d just need to stump up an extra 400 MSP.
GameStop are surprisingly supportive over these new methods.
Microsoft and Sony are unlikely to oppose the move, either. Much the opposite - this inexorably raises the importance of sticking with the same XBL/PSN account and will subsequently make users feel more attached to the respective console brands. It’s been rumoured that retail chain Gamestop have even started pushing points cards on top of affected games - no, you won’t hear a peep out of Microsoft and Sony.
The trend definitely looks like it’s here to stay, but again, is this the right move for modern gaming? Or just a clever attempt by publishers to try and claw back some profits after a year of upsetting financial reports?
At the heart of the battle are two forces: publishers and retailers. Game publishers want to make customers see pre-owned games as nefarious and damaging to the industry. Retailers want customers to see pre-owned games as bargains.
It’s worth remembering that pre-owned games aren’t evil - they’re just pre-owned games. On the same note, there’s nothing insidious about the Project Ten Dollar scheme. Both are simply ways of getting you to swap your boring old money for shiny new content.
Publishers demanding payment for online modes in pre-owned games is designed, primarily, to attack retailers who make huge profits from selling games second hand. Retailers do this because it gives them far more tempting profit margins - around the 50% mark after buying back and reselling the game, as opposed to the 25% they’d get from selling a game new. That’s not including the money they already made on the initial purchase either.
That means a store could make an estimated 150% more from a single disc with one used game sale, while the publisher stands to lose another potential sale. For instance, on a copy of Bad Company 2, the retailer makes 25% on its first sale (£10), buys it back for around £15-£20 and then resells for £34.99 as pre-owned. Not only do they make their original £10, but they also make an additional £15 roughly at the publisher’s expense. And that’s a bare minimum off one disc, how many times that cycle is repeated remains to be seen. Not bad for just sticking it on their shelves, whilst the publisher has to fork out development costs and take on all the risk.
GameStop's advertising gets everywhere! It's like sand.
Retailers generally sell pre-owned on the following logic: it’s cheaper for the customer. That makes sense, and anyone who’s purchased a new game from a brick and mortar store in recent months will probably have had the cashier asking them if they’d like a pre-owned copy instead. “Would you like to save ten pounds on this game?” Many people will respond favourably to the proposition.
Games publishers don’t like retailers doing this, as they would (understandably) like a slice of the tasty profit pie as well. By trying to punish the customer who purchases the game second-hand, they’re hoping to dissuade them from buying pre-owned ever again - in the same way as the retailer is trying to cut out the publisher with aggressive sales techniques at the till, the publisher is doing the same with aggressive design techniques embedded in the game itself.
It’s the customers that find themselves caught in the crossfire. The most immediate casualties are people (siblings, housemates etc.) who like to buy one game and share it across two or more machines. Anyone who likes to take their game’s to the house of a friend and play it there will also be affected, too, unless they go to the effort of lugging their XBL/PSN profile around with them at all times.
At the end of the day, both publisher and retailer assume one thing: that you’re going to keep buying games regardless. The sad truth of the matter is that they’re probably right. Especially in the lucrative sports market, which is comprised of gamers who tend to not focus so much on these specifics and just buy the latest copy of FIFA once a year no matter how bad it might be - I’m looking at you, FIFA 06.
It will be interesting, then, to see if this trend spreads over to genres that tend to elicit a more tech-savvy player-base. Ultimately though, most of us are just going to have to get caught up in whatever blows the publishers and retailers try and throw at each other.
Ten dollar is here to stay. The only realistic way to stop it would be if publishers thought it was eating into their profit margins - but has anyone chosen to not purchase a game because of it?
Editor’s Note: Hot Topic is an all new experimental monthly feature here on X360A, where we take one of the month’s talking points and discuss it until your eye-balls bleed through sheer delight. Now that's intense! How experimental you ask? If it's popular, we'll keep them coming.
Martin Gaston is a freelance writer and a long-term friend of the site. His work can be found over at MegaDerived.co.uk where he spends most of his days weaving words into a wonderful illuminating basket of awesomeness (my words, not his).