I really liked the initial idea for Project Ten Dollar. Here was a forward thinking initiative that had everything we've been banging on about with regard to consumer relations:
- Incentivise people to buy new, thus helping the industry grow
- Reward loyal early fans by essentially making them feel like premium customers
- Turn the used-games market into something that works for everyone
It was a brilliant plan, and one that EA actually delivered upon to an impressive degree. Ok, so the free little extra bits of DLC that we were privy to in the likes of The Saboteur (boobs) or Mass Effect 2 (Zaeed) weren't mindblowing, but they were enough. Actually, in the case of Project Ten Dollar, the first game to utilise it -- Dragon Age: Origins -- provided us with one of the best characters of the entire series in Shale the Golem. She wasn't essential, but she was awesome, her storyline was meaningful, and she didn't cost us any more than we would have paid normally.
Contrast that with Mass Effect 3, where EA decided that new buyers could actually cough up an extra tenner to receive From Ashes. It doesn't make sense. EA screwed the pooch, and they only have themselves to blame.
It All Went Horribly Wrong
The online pass can be boiled down to a simple rhetorical question on the part of THQ, EA, Ubisoft, and Sony: how much can we get away with? It started with sports titles and spread further across multiplayer games, and proved to be much more insidious than the origins of Project Ten Dollar. Instead of rewarding the buyers of new copies with a little something extra, these publishers forced a slight change in the dialect, and said simply to the pre-owned market, "we're coming for you".
Whereas Project Ten Dollar was couched in positive consumer psychology, aiming to reward new buyers and boost consumer confidence, the online pass took that confidence away, stuck the finger up to retail partners, and was a very adversarial move indeed. Taking away an optional, but attractive, extra is one thing. Taking away a fundamental component from games such as FIFA and Battlefield is something completely different.
I won't go into why used games remain a cornerstone of this industry for consumers (listen here, or read here), but early on in Project Ten Dollar's life, the carrot became the stick, and then the stick got wrapped in barbed wire and shoved into a place where the sun don't... you get the idea.
But now it's gone, and I think we can all say "Thank Christ for that!"
Excuses and Hypocrisy
Yes, we’re discontinuing Online Pass," EA senior director of corporate communications John Reseburg confirmed to VentureBeat. "None of our new EA titles will include that feature."
“Initially launched as an effort to package a full menu of online content and services, many players didn’t respond to the format. We’ve listened to the feedback and decided to do away with it moving forward."
But that's almost laughable. The phrase "full menu of online content and services" is a complete lie in a world where Season Passes, on-disc DLC, and exclusive pre-order incentives now exist. Online passes simply charged us for access to a entire modes of certain games that had always been considered part of the overall package before.
EA, and they aren't the only ones, have always hidden behind altruistic ideals when it comes to their attacks on pre-owned games, promoting the image of poor, starving developers who see nothing of the money that gets spent on pre-owned games. And it's impossible to argue against that last point because it's fundamentally true on a basic level: every used game sold potentially equates to a new game not being sold, and therefore a dip in revenue.
"The whole idea is that we're paying for servers, and if you create a new account there is a big process on how that is being handled in the backend," said DICE's Patrick Bach back in 2011. "We would rather have you buy a new game than a used game because buying a used game is only a cost to us; we don't get a single dime from a used game, but we still need to create server space and everything for you.
"We want people to at least pay us something to create this because we're paying for it. It was actually a loss for us to have new players."
Of course, surely if you trade in your old game, that's one less player who's going to be playing online, so really Bach's comment makes little mathematical sense. However, we want creatives getting paid for the work that they do, and even if developers have already been paid a fixed rate, publishers need to recoup cash too in order to fund new projects.
But telling us that online passes are for OUR benefit?
"We think it’s a great idea, we think it’s going to build our business, and we think it’s a positive consumer experience,’ said (now ex-) CEO John Riccitiello, back when the online pass scheme launched. "Invariably, the consumer is getting a boat load more content to experience than they otherwise would. We used to literally pull our teams off of a game within four to six weeks pre-ship and they’d go work on something else because the game was done [...] Our teams are being held in place up through and beyond ship to continue to create content to entertain the consumer with the franchise they like best."
First of all, you're victimising pre-owned customers. That's not a positive consumer experience. Secondly, the sentence "the consumer is getting a boat load more content to experience than they otherwise would" is complete fallacy. Everyone would have had the same content before the online pass came along. As for moving teams around, working on DLC costs less than starting up a completely new project.
That was then, of course, this is now.
What Lies Ahead?
EA have already said that they'll be heavily exploring microtransactions in their games. In theory, that's fine, but you have to worry about the way in which they'll implement in-game purchases. Dead Space 3, as it turned out, was actually pretty good at this. We weren't peppered with adverts to remove, and the game didn't suffer at all if you simply chose to ignore the monetisation features. Looking towards FIFA, Ultimate Team would seem to be the perfect mode to give away to new players for free, and then pitch as DLC for pre-owned buyers, with a microtransaction model that has worked for a year or two should players wish to buy booster packs.
Scrapping the online pass is a good move for EA. The company needs to start from scratch in building up a rapport with its consumers, but they have to go the right way about it. Flogging games at a top RRP and expecting gamers to shell out money to combat a poorly implemented microtransactions model that cripples game design and puts obstacles in players' paths is not the answer.
Jon's already written a very forward-thinking speculative piece on what EA might do to successfully give consumers more power over when and how they spend their money on a big franchise such as Battlefield that essentially boils down to pricing up individual components and allowing players to pay for what it is that they want. DICE's series has been a massive success with its digital offerings because they've really taken time over the expansions, and have provided opt-in gameplay experiences that justify their premium DLC price tags.
Newsflash: consumers will pay good money for quality products, especially when attached to a brand that big.
While we dance on the grave of the online pass, and pray that the likes of Ubisoft and Sony will follow suit, let's not read too much into the "we've listened to the feedback".
No you didn't EA. We've been saying this for three years. On the plus side, it perhaps shows that "voting with your wallets" can actually work. It might take some time, a hefty amount of internet cynicism, and a lot of shouting on sites such as this, but we got results! Eventually.
It's not enough, though. Reversing a controversial business practice that gamers have been railing against for years, though an admission of failure in and of itself, is but the first baby step on the road to redemption. No, it should not be forgotten that it takes a while for a corporate behemoth such as EA to implement change, but there's never been a better time. We should celebrate, certainly; but it is what comes next that will determine whether or not EA are really ready to listen to their enormous consumer base.