A video game subscription service in the vein of Netflix Instant Watch will make a company very, very wealthy. But it probably won't be Electronic Arts.
Today, EA announced Access, a subscription plan that provides "access" to a limited number of EA games, with the promise of discounts and early access to content, like the EA Sports slate and Dragon Age: Inquisition, down the line.
Access will launch as a beta today on Xbox One and expand soon to all Xbox One users willing to pay $4.99 a month or $29.99 annually. Incentivizing players to buy digital copies is a smart business move, cutting into GameStop's billion-dollar trade-in market, which makes money for the retailer but not game publishers like EA.
Access intends to cut into GameStop's billion dollar trade-in market
But EA's plan for Access is too complicated and lacks the abundance of choice that makes Netflix, its obvious inspiration, so popular.
Netflix's offer to customers is simple: Pay a nominal monthly price for thousands of film and television options delivered instantly to almost every screen and platform in your home. Its success stems from the expensive cost of purchasing DVDs and Blu-rays at $20 to $30 a pop.
EA Access will offer four games at launch (others are reportedly in the works), with the service supplemented by the aforementioned incentives, like discounts and early access.
People love Netflix because it offers choice. It doesn't even have to be undiluted good choice. Half the pleasure of Netflix is surfing through the sea of oddball videos you otherwise would have never crossed paths with. EA Access is limited to the EA brands.
For perspective, let's imagine what Netflix would look like with EA Access' business model:
For a monthly fee, you would only be able to watch a limited number of older shows and films made by Netflix. To watch new shows and films on their release date, you'd purchase them — at a slight discount. Who would subscribe to that?
This isn't the first time EA's tried something like this. EA Sports Season Ticket, which ran quietly from 2011-2013, gave players three days early access to the company's sports games along with a variety of discounts and bonuses. It cost $25 a year.
This isn't the first time EA's tried something like this
Both EA Sports Season Ticket and EA Access have the same problem at their core: They favor EA and not the player. They are intended to motivate additional purchases, not be the purchases in and of themselves.
Netflix works because the company's number one goal is to get more people to use Netflix. EA's goal with these subscriptions — and you can see it in the offering of last year's sports games and Battlefield as the "free" games — is to hook people on properties, then convert them into annual buyers. The tacit assumption of a discount program being attached to a subscription service is that the subscription service isn't satisfying enough.
Netflix has had the advantage of making a service first and content second; EA will have to replicate that success in reverse.
Somebody will figure this out. A company like Humble Bundle, which has developed relationships with the indie game community, and which has already made strides in alternative payment structures, seems primed to make a go at it. But EA's Access program, as it stands, does not look like the subscription service players deserve. If the company hopes to win over a Netflix-like user base, it will need to start thinking like Netflix, not like EA.
EA has options, namely its rich back catalog of games. If EA found a simple solution for porting or emulating older games on modern hardware, it could probably persuade many longtime gamers to try the service off nostalgia alone. The option to buy a game once and play across all consoles indefinitely — maybe even allowing players to stream high-end games on less powerful mobile devices — would also be an audacious move, benefiting both the company and the consumer.
But for now, the difference between the two companies is simple: Netflix uses subscriptions to tear down the traditional retail model; EA uses subscriptions to buttress it.