This is a fun one. You might have noticed from EA’s E3 showing that, well, they didn’t have that much to show. Outside of a run of EA Sports titles and Battlefield Hardline, it was a pretty curious run of concepts and the ghost of Criterion showing how when you have less people in a studio you can put your desks together as there’s nobody in the way or something.
At first it seemed like a bit of an odd thing to do but maybe symptomatic of EA’s shift towards putting microtransactions in all the things. Yeah, they prefer to call it “games as service” but let’s be up front here, we’re all grown ups, it really means “we’re putting microtransactions in everything”
And in a lot of ways it is just that. What are they supposed to show to an E3 audience? Remember when they thought Garden Warfare was a really good thing to load up a showcase with and everyone went “is this what Popcap are now?” and we all took solace in Peggle still being left intact then they added microtransactions to the mobile version of that and we got a bit sad?
On mobile, the days of EA duking it out with Gameloft over premium games (on sale often) are behind us. Now, it’s freemium and paymium all the way. And so, on desktop and console, the days of EA duking it out with Activison over premium games are over. This E3 cemented that more than ever before.
Of course, none of this should be news, right? We’ve seen EA cling to Origin, they tried season passes (horrible, horrible term that we should never have let anyone get away with) and it turned out they didn’t turn enough money, not compared to microtransactions so let’s do that instead. This isn’t new.
So what do you show at E3 when you’ve all but transitioned to this stuff entirely? What can you show? A patch for Battlefield 4? The Simpsons Tapped Out 2?
Ah, turns out there is something. You can show people concepts, in dev stuff. An early glimpse of games being developed.
Why concepts? Well, about that Early Access stuff, right? Here’s Polygon with the news. Tucked away amongst a lot of fluff speak is the news that EA want to shift to Early Access models too. It makes sense. After you’ve embraced the idea of games as service, where else is there to go other than let’s see if we can sell games in development too?
It’s why they want to show you the faces of developers saying how passionate they are about making the videogame that they don’t really have much to show of. It’s why they’re comfortable saying that whilst there might not be much to see, they’re not years away. Because they won’t be when you can buy in early. Sure, losing vertical slices and going iterative isn’t exactly dumb but that’s not stuff the public generally either need to know nor care about so why load up a conference with it?
Early Access existed to help games that couldn’t get made any other way exist and thrive. Let’s get past that though, that idea has been dead for ages now. Over time we’ve changed that to paying for beta access to larger games, we’ve changed it to paying to test a game, paying large amounts to keep people out, paying large amounts to match Kickstarter tiers and all manner of corruptions of the original idea and after all these years in the games business it should come as no surprise to anyone that it’s something that would also be co-opted by big box in some way. And this is it. EA are bringing their own EA. (Handily, having Origin in the wings means they don’t have to worry about how they’re going to work this too, right?). Sure, indies can quite happily mess this stuff up (have been?) all by themselves but sometimes there’s nothing quite like a big corp wading in to really change how we view things.
And that’s why we get a glimpse of the beauty of development at E3. We’re expected to buy into it with money soon. As if by magic not having much to show and loading a conference up with concepts makes sense, yeah?
It’s kinda funny, right? At the moment there’s all this talk of Steam about to ruin everything and all the problems of the App Store will be upon us when they open the floodgates to a bunch of indies who just want to sell their game in exchange for money. Whilst everyone is complaining about this, EA (And to be fair, plenty of others who aren’t big box. Have you seen all that lovely IAP RSI are selling with their 40 million dollar plus crowdfunded videogame?) are bringing all of the parts of the App Store we’re supposed to be afraid of right in though the front door as bold as anything and with a cherry on top.
All the worst problems of the App Store are already here (race to the bottom, IAP loaded games etc…) and they haven’t been normalized through indies (not that a few haven’t profited from it, obv) and a flood of games won’t make this any the worse. Storefronts can be sorted to accommodate new games, they won’t put the IAP, free to play, freemium and same-game-churn back in the box.
With big companies now willing to go Early Access on us and expecting us to join in paying for the development of their games before they reach the market we’re in for interesting times. We’re already seeing free to play games charging an up front fee for Early Access, we’re already seeing microtransactions become more pervasive in games that cost fifty quid, now we’re heading towards a future where we’re shouldering the risks of development for multi billion dollar companies too. When Square Enix are happy enough to try and get you to put 50 grand into a project they won’t freely put 50 grand into, we’re already there to a degree. And I dunno, something something DOTA 2 or something.
As the pool of big box development continues to shrink and those at the top look to the public for funding because they know that the public will fund games, as the mid tier gives way to indies with multi-year developments, where else do we expect a regular supply of paid-up-front-games to come from? Look at what Activision are now compared to only a few years ago. Yeah, the money is up but the roster of games is down massively. Look at what EA are now. Remember when they used to release a load of games outside of mobile? Look at how many studios you loved are gutted or gone and how many genres would be dead without indies.
Obviously indies are far from the only hope for a future of pay up front games and I’d be a maniac to try and claim that. R* and similar actual-AAA studios aren’t going anywhere soon, right? Maybe. BUT! I’m going to go out on a limb and say indies are the best hope we’ve got right now for a future with any sort of choice and variety in pay up front normal transactions for normal human beings. Increasingly, big box is showing little interest in that particular space and why not, right? They go where the money is and all the numbers point to games as service being where the big money is and/or with a few large scale conservative bets. There’s life in big box for hard cash yet but how many games from big box have been released without DLC, microtransactions or whatever else you can think of in recent times?
I won’t pretend it’ll be smiles and roses. There will be plenty from all corners who go with free to play and there will be games that fit that model well and mainly ones that won’t, plenty who’ll go early access and some will need to and do it right by the people who pay money and some will be there because they don’t care, there’s plenty who’ll flunk early access, plenty that will be rubbish but unlike with big box, there will be thousands ready to offer games up front in exchange for cash still because they don’t need to chase the money and plenty of those games will be good.
If we don’t open the doors now and help indies survive, think of what the future will be like now we’ve looked at where big box is, think about how it’ll be in no time. In all our videogame futures, a load of small developers getting a chance at selling their wares gives me hope. It gives me hope that we can avoid the videogame future that some quarters of big box want because unlike indies who need big box alongside to thrive, the reverse isn’t true. I’d like a future where more than just a handful of indies can survive in and more than ever before that choice, that hope, seems vital.
EA’s E3 conference shows us where influential parts of the industry wants to go next, they’ve already brought the mobile mindset to big box and the future of games as service is where Gabe Newell predicted it would be all those years ago with people paying towards the development of games. Except we still get microtransactions and IAP and DLC as well for good measure because why not, right?
Let’s be smart and keep our futures vast and broad not narrowed by a few and be more careful where we take aim. The best future for me is one where we have big box and all below it able to thrive happily, the future where we get to keep a choice of how and what we buy.
There’s plenty who’d be happy for that choice to disappear so be careful what you wish for, y’know.