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Release dates are the newest way to influence how, and where, you buy games

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Release dates now have to serve many different masters

Anthem - four freelancers near a rock formation BioWare/Electronic Arts

It can be challenging to figure out when I can play a video game these days.

Publishers now release betas and demos, although my progress might carry over into the final game. They may release games earlier than expected for subscribers, and there may also be different subscription options depending on the console you own.

I used to be able to mark release dates on a calendar, but now I have to decide on which platform I’d like to play the game, whether I want to subscribe to the publisher’s online service, whether I’d like to pre-order, and even then I have to decide which version of the game to purchase before launch. Each of these variables may impact when I’ll be able to actually play the damned thing.

There isn’t a single reason for this shift in how publishers treat access and release dates, and each of the different dates on which I can get access to a game serves a different master. Each release date, and the associated staggered access to each game, is now a chance for the publisher to influence player behavior. Being able to play a game early is a powerful tool that can be used to get players used to the idea of not buying games at all, in fact.

Anthem is the most recent example of what we can expect from release dates in 2019 and, like Battlefield 5 before it, the many different ways to get access to the game give us a hint about what EA values out of its players right now. There is an exclusive demo for players who have pre-ordered the game or who subscribe to EA Access on Xbox One or Origin Access on PC, and then an open demo that’s available for everyone who wants to play.

Note also that these are being called demos, and not betas. The difference between the two things can feel mostly semantic lately, but EA seems to be signaling that this these two periods are a time for players to try the game to see if they want to buy it, not for players to test the game and offer feedback.

Although, of course, both things will be happening. The VIP demo gives players an excuse to pre-order or subscribe to be among the first to play the demo, while EA is also given the opportunity to test the servers with a relatively small number of players.

PC players will be the first to get full access to the “finished” product — as much as these living game can be considered finished — as Origin Access Premier subscribers can begin playing the full game on Feb. 15. EA Access or Origin Access Basic subscribers will get 10 hours to explore Anthem on PC or Xbox One as well, while PlayStation 4 players will have to wait until the “actual” release date of Feb. 22 to play the full game.

Let’s look at all the things these dates, demos, and incentives accomplish for EA:

  • Controlled, staggered access to the game as the servers are tested
  • Incentive to pre-order or subscribe to get access to the demo and early access to the game
  • Incentive to buy the game or subscribe to Origin Access specifically on PC to play the full game before anyone else, with no time limits. It’s probably just a coincidence that EA doesn’t have to share revenue from the PC version with anyone else.

This is what I mean when I argue that release dates and access are increasingly used to shape player behavior. The best way to get the most access to Anthem the earliest is to subscribe to Origin Access Premier on PC. EA is probably happy to get your money and time through other methods, but that subscription on that platform is the perceived ideal situation for the publisher, and thus the incentives are likely meant to nudge you toward that outcome.

Players are used to release dates being a very simple thing: The time at which they can buy and play a video game. But publishers are increasingly seeing them as ways they can push subscriptions, drive pre-orders, manage the number of people online at any given time, and even try to influence the platform on which you play each game. There’s going to be tension in the short term as players get used to navigating all the ins and outs of how publishers want them to interact with release dates compared to how they would like to do so themselves.

And never forget that players still hold the power in this relationship: Publishers need to sell games to survive, and these updated tactics to push subscriptions or to encourage play on specific consoles are a test to see how the players will respond. The loudest vote you have, and the most important, is the one you cast by deciding how and when to spend your money.