Digital Distribution: Some thoughts on EA’s Origin

Competition is needed fullstop. It has to be said that the good value currently experienced in the digital distribution market is only due to Valves experimentation with pricing models that has led them to offer the value that they do rather than competition in the marketplace. Given the recent sales, this is something I am sure we are all most appreciative of.

I am fully aware that services such as Direct2Drive, Good Old Games and others offer digital distribution and do a good job too in terms of service and pricing in comparison with Steam however EA is looking to go toe-to-toe with Valve in terms of providing an offering that holds exclusivity for anticipated AAA titles, provide an online community and communication platform as well as digitally distributing games from multiple publishers. EA, being one of the largest publishers of video games across all formats have the connections, the games portfolio and the funding to be a credible threat to Steam.

Unlike Microsofts poorly conceived Games For Windows Live, first impressions would suggest that EA have looked at what has made Steam popular as well as some of its biggest critisisms and have attempted to build a platform to rival that of Valves and it has to be said that from a user experience perspective this has largely been achieved.

There are a few teething issues which should be expected from a new platform however the experience of buying, installing, playing a game and communicating with friends feels very familiar and largely intuitive.

It could be argued that EA have missed an opportunity to innovate here and are simply building on the success of the already established valve platform unlike services such as Onlive who offer a genuinely unique service however given the amount of investment that has been required from EA to build this why rock a stable boat.

For the last six months EA have slowly and relatively quietly been withdrawing titles from the Steam platform. All other digital distribution platforms seem unaffected so far however Steam is now seeing fewer and fewer EA titles with the highest profile absentee being Battle Field 3.

EA have cited a number of reasons surrounding this gradual withdrawl, blaming valve, blaming legal requirements, miscommunication and various other factors however the shift is clear. If you want EAs future AAA titles, you will need to have an origin account.

This in itself is not neccessarily terrible as Valve themselves adopt the exact same approach with their own titles which has relatively recently got the backs up of store retailers however this was initiated in a world where there was no established alternative digital distribution platform and as such the long term effect of this on us as consumers needs some consideration.

To play valves games you have to have valves platform, the play EA’s games you have to have EA’s platform. Whats to stop Activision, SEGA, Ubisoft and others all adopting the same route? The future of your PC could well be that you will be running a plethora of distribution platforms with different groups of friends, communities and games. Worse still, should this occur rather than creating competition it actively avoids it. There is no competition if you can only buy a product from one place and therefore you can charge what you like.

PC Gaming for a long time has enjoyed comparitively cheap prices in comparison to buying a game on a console which given the investment required in the PC has always historically felt justified. As time passes however, PC hardware has become cheaper and consoles more expensive (at least at release) to the point where there now isnt a great difference in the price. Games too are seeing price hikes where before £20-25 was common and £30 was high, more and more AAA releases are seeing price points of £39.99 and even £45 at release taking them on a par with their console versions.

Back to my initial point then, competition. Should steam be the only route to digital distribution? No it shouldnt. But similarly a marketplace where everything is segregated and pricing has no competition will do far more to damage the PC games community that we currently know than the apparent monopoly we exist in.

Does Origin indicate the downfall of PC gaming? No it doesnt and it certainly shouldnt be claimed that it does, however by avoiding the aspects of competition and capturing an audience as well as the somewhat dubious terms and conditions that need to be agreed to for registration it has to be said that Origin represents a good example of what a global publisher wants you to accept rather than neccessarily what is good for you as a consumer which I think will become more and more relevant as digital distribution furthers its expansion. Its down to us to shape the service we want to receive.