With EA Access, Microsoft brings Xbox One vision back from the dead

It's been more than a year since Microsoft began course-correcting its vision for the Xbox One. Now, with the EA Access subscription service, the company has a way to salvage it.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

EA announced a bold initiative on Tuesday called EA Access, a Netflix-for-games subscription service that will cost $5 or £4 per month or $30 per year for access to full titles like FIFA 14 and Battlefield 4. Even in its infancy, the service represents one of the more profound business model shifts the game industry has undergone in the last few years.

Not coincidentally, EA Access is arriving only on Microsoft's Xbox One console for its public beta launch. Microsoft, which once championed the digital-first future found at the core of subscription services, has found a way to partially revive the Xbox One vision that it painstakingly buried piece by piece since the unveiling of the console in May 2013.

The Kinect motion controller may be unbundled from the console and the Xbox One now operates very much like its predecessor. Yet Microsoft, with EA at its side, has found a way to promote a disc-less future far more attractive than what the Xbox One tried to sell gamers.

The promise of subscription services

Like it or not, the game industry is moving away from selling consumers physical products that they own and toward services that we subscribe to out of convenience and added value. While Spotify and Netflix addressed the rampant piracy of music and television, the video game business has long battled the drag of high price tags that drive gamers to cheaper alternatives: used games, rentals, and bundles.

In the ream of PC gaming, consumers have become accustomed to Valve's Steam application. The marketplace requires a log-in and Internet connection to play your library of purchased titles, yet has converted gamers by relying on batch-selling, frequent bargain sales, and a consumer-friendly mentality. Console game makers and publishers do not have that luxury. Buy a console game and you can do whatever you want with it, including sell it back to GameStop, which marks up the price, flips it, and takes all the profit.

EA Access is finally a way around that -- and it's not only likely to catch on with other publishers, but may potentially prove to be the future of traditional console games. If the beta proves as successful as streaming services have for other media formats, "Netflix for games" won't be an isolated phrase for long.

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EA

EA Access not only preserves choice -- publishers won't stop producing physical discs for the foreseeable future -- but also illustrates just how pleasant the environment can remain even when EA and Microsoft design the landscape, set all the rules, and lease you the entertainment. For $30 a year, you're getting access to four games whose stand-alone value is more than $100 (and more to come). In addition, you're getting a 10 percent discount on digital purchases made on the Xbox platform, a perk EA and Microsoft hope you'll become accustomed to over time.

That subscription fee then becomes a renewable annual revenue stream tied directly to accessing the titles you no longer bought outright. In the process, the publishers redirect a fraction of the gamers who would have bought a used copy of Battlefield 4 at GameStop. Even better, it turns consumers who may have only bought one game into a player of four -- with each dollar saved on purchases potentially funneled toward digital add-ons like Battlefield Premium or FIFA's "ultimate team" fantasy soccer league service.

Most importantly, however, is that we slowly but surely stop thinking of games as products we own. That process is the hardest, yet most valuable, to an industry that has long fought for a way to get us paying on the publishers' terms.

Microsoft goes back to the future

Originally, Microsoft promised us the future of gaming with the Xbox One. The console was unveiled last year as a device that would -- if the company had its way -- be required to authenticate your system over the Internet once every 24 hours. It was a tactic, many critics assumed, to get players to stay online at all times, surfing the Xbox store and playing online games that, by their nature, require paid subscriptions to Xbox Live. Microsoft also aggressively pushed progressive sharing and family plans to promote the direct download of games from its Xbox store instead of buying physical titles online at Amazon or in-store from GameStop.

"We're trying to do something pretty big in terms of moving the industry forward for console gaming into the digital world," Yusuf Medhi, Xbox's chief marketing officer, said at the time. "We believe the digital world is the future, and we believe digital is better." Larry "Major Nelson" Hryb, Microsoft's head of programming for Xbox Live, proclaimed, "We're also confident that gamers are going to love our vision of the future."

Gamers did not, in fact, love the vision. Backlash was so immediate and fervent that Microsoft reversed its stance. It removed its sharing and family plans for digital titles and rolled back the mandatory online check-in. The Kinect, originally designed to be plugged in at all times for the console to function, became just another optional peripheral. The process was drawn out and peppered with mishandled messaging, resulting in an image problem Microsoft has struggled for months to overcome.

The final nail in the coffin came in May, when Microsoft decided to unbundle Kinect from the Xbox One and sell a cheaper version of the console at $399.99. The device that was heralded as the remote control to Microsoft's all-in-one entertainment hub had been rendered an unnecessary accessory. Microsoft made the cut only in the face of sluggish Xbox One sales compared with Sony's better-performing PlayStation 4.

Now, more than a year after the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo that set Microsoft back, the Xbox One is suddenly a destination for one of the most forward-thinking distribution models in the industry. It's unclear what kind of deal-making was required from both ends, but it's evident that both Microsoft and EA wanted to join forces over a shared vision for where the industry would travel next.

We don't know how this will pan out yet. Gamers have been quick to wonder whether this could all be some kind of elaborate money-making trap that will come with all sorts of unwanted stipulations and schemes to get us to sign up. More moderate voices have expressed fear regarding a future of relinquished control over our games, especially considering Microsoft's troubled past with its Xbox One online policy mandates.

EA, too, has a worrisome track record with customer satisfaction. The Consumerist runs an annual -- albeit not very scientific -- poll every year letting readers vote for the worst company in America, which typically includes Comcast and fellow cable juggernauts, Monsanto, and a handful of other corporations we love to hate. EA happened to win it twice in a row in 2012 and 2013. (Comcast took it this year.)

That's mainly because the game publisher has run into pretty much every quagmire the industry has to offer: accusations of rushing franchise games to launch despite crippling connectivity issues; attempts to push micro-transactions into unwanted spaces; and last year's SimCity, arguably one of the most fumbled game launches in history, to name a few.

In what is perhaps a more telling illustration of how EA Access must prove itself, Sony reportedly rebuffed EA's offer to host the service on its PS4 -- partially on its competitiveness with PlayStation Plus, Sony's own free game offering. "We evaluated the EA Access subscription offering and decided that it does not bring the kind of value PlayStation customers have come to expect," Sony told Game Informer Wednesday. "We don't think asking our fans to pay an additional $5 a month for this EA-specific program represents good value to the PlayStation gamer."

So the marriage of two companies over the future of game distribution should necessarily raise concern. However, as it stands now, the deal is less "too good to be true" than one offering a moderate balance between exchanging ownership for value and convenience. Time will tell if the balance will be upset -- and gamers now know that Microsoft and EA tend to listen when the voices get loud enough.

The game industry won't change overnight. Microsoft learned that the hard way. Now, the company and publishers who share its goals have their sights set on a more manageable milestone: getting gamers to start thinking of titles less like disc-based products and more like digital-first creative works we pay to have access to -- and not own.

 

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