It is not surprising that many people now are shifting to buying their games on the internet. Along with the decline of sales of physical CDs and a not substantial mainstream return of vinyl recordings the sales of physical video game copies have also declined significantly. For many gamers the internet is a ubiquitous part of their lives, and it is not only more convenient and faster to buy games from it, but it is also increasingly becoming cheaper to do the same. Huge sales in terms of scale accompanied by equally huge discounts from Steam and GoG along with other online retailers means that buying games online is an incredible affordable option. With Steam sales at least, Valve relies on the staggering numbers of unplayed games that players buy in sales to make money off impulse buys, and it is likely that GoG and others employ similar tactics. When so much of what we buy is unplayed, is there not a case for subscribing to the games that we want? With EA recently announcing Access, a subscription service that allows players to pay a monthly fee then gain access to certain EA games, along with bonuses of discounts on other games and early content access, it seems that they at least are keen on transitioning towards a subscription based future. Is this a good idea?

The point of Access, currently a beta on the Xbox One, but with potential for expansion, is to make money for EA. This almost goes without saying, but EA wants money, as do all companies. A company’s public relations staff may try to present their company as some kind of paragon of charity and goodness, and some companies definitely are great places to work and have a good sense of humour, but the bottom line is also an important factor in business decisions. EA faces the console market, which is still dominated by physical games. Whenever I have tried to use Microsoft’s curated online store on the Xbox I found their prices to be extortionate, especially if I compared them to the same games on PC. Their sale prices were also ludicrous. With such high prices, and with so little depreciation with age – a juxtaposition especially noticeable with Steam on triple-A releases – Microsoft’s store is unfriendly. It also requires a Gold subscription to get anything remotely resembling a good deal. My experiences with the Windows Store on my Surface 2, which runs Windows 8.1 RT so necessitates its use for the acquisition of any additional software at all, were similar. That is to say, Microsoft gave the impression that the only reason either store existed at all was the thirty percent cut of the profits they take (until $20000 in profits have been reached on the Windows Store, then it’s twenty percent). With a pseudo-PC, which often feels and I certainly use like a normal PC for everything apart from gaming and programming, it is a strange experience being forced into an app based ecosystem, when normal PC usage is free from a profit cut.

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With Access, EA hopes to give Microsoft’s Xbox store some competition, and also the retail market, by providing a select few games for a monthly price. By paying for Access you have all the games, and then you can selectively play what you want to, but the price of $4.99 is low enough, especially compared to Gold itself, that people will buy it without much inclination beyond playing maybe one or two of the games. It comes across as Netflix-esque, yet without the quantity of choice that makes Netflix popular. But perhaps they are targeting different areas after all. Netflix is bought for a series in most cases, and then people expand out. EA have no reason to take that same attitude here. They are probably aware that their biggest sellers like Battlefield will be the primary, if not the only, reason people are purchasing Access, and that they are unlikely to branch out beyond that much, because of the lack of quantity, and the way that people are less likely to experiment with games in the same way that they do with the oddballs that appear in film recommendations. This is not a problem though. As long as people purchase the service, the fact that all revenue comes from EA games means that there is no need to rely on recommendations and spreading interests to give all shows their chance at being viewed as Netflix has to. All the games are made by EA; all money goes to EA; all money is supposed to go to EA.

If such a service comes to the PC market, should you buy it? Perhaps. A Kotaku survey came up with some interesting numbers about people’s Steam libraries, namely: the average gamer has not played forty percent of the games they purchased in the past year, a number that is somewhere between eleven and twenty-five games. When we have so many games unplayed, should we not just move to system that is designed to support this, with a fixed monthly fee, that most likely will be too hefty given the fact that the average gamer also plays for fifteen hours a week?

Of these, I only played two for more than half an hour.
Of these, I only played two for more than half an hour.

The problem with the EA service is that it is too restrictive. Many gamers appreciate the ability to choose and find new games, and when not all games have demos, the ability to simply download it knowing that you’ve already paid for it, albeit in a roundabout way seems like a good idea. The idea of the Humble Bundle, of spreading purchasing to games that you might never play because you want something else and because the money is going to a good cause, means that it’s always worth considering buying. A subscription service offers that same surplus title amount, but without the charity. It would not be a bad deal.

There are few reasons not to consider making the switch to such a service, as its direct competition outside of the console sphere comes from other online retailers using the traditional buying and selling model. With physical copies of games, such as old GameBoy cartridges, there is a heightened sense of nostalgia. There is also the collector’s appeal, and also usefulness the extras that come with games, like manuals, some of which are interesting and informative, and maps, which can really increase a game’s presence as you play it. With an online game there is no such pleasure in finding your old copy, and there is no value or uniqueness in something which has already been copied a thousand times and stored on torrent sites and others’ hard drives. A game is just a game, and whether you get it through a subscription service or not doesn’t matter. With a potentially huge backlog of games to choose from, a subscription service would still appeal to those who crave the reminiscing of older titles.

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In the end, the reasons to make the change will be down to money, much as with the implementation of such a service in the first place. If it appears to be a better deal than Steam sales, and the bonuses offered appear good, then people will buy it; otherwise they will not. With a small catalogue available at the moment and the lack of oddballs that would come from including indie games, it doesn’t seem like EA’s Access is quite ready to take the PC gaming world by storm, and Steam has too much going on right now to give it much room to experiment with subscription services. Maybe later, once other companies like Ubisoft and Bethesda start experimenting, then we’ll see the emergence of a powerful service. For now though, it’s perhaps best to wait and see how the console-bound Access beta fares.

Source for Kotaku survey: http://kotaku.com/were-buying-more-pc-games-than-we-can-play-1493402988