Origin of War

EA rattles its sabers at Steam - but Origin's strategy is a throwback to the bad old days.

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When it first became clear that digital distribution was going to be a big part of the future for game software, one often-stated fear was that the industry's big publishers would never be able to co-exist on a single digital distribution platform. After years of duking it out for prominent positioning in bricks and mortar retailers, with little other than mounting point of sale marketing budgets to show for it, the temptation to do in the digital world what had been impossible in the physical world would be too great. Every publisher would build their own store, with their own products displayed in the shop window and their own direct relationship to the customer. Problem solved.

Problem solved, that is, for everyone except the consumer. The put-upon PC gamer would end up having to install a digital distribution client for every single publisher whose games he wanted to play. He'd need a unique login for each of those stores, he'd need to trust each of them with his personal and financial details, and to make matters worse, he'd probably end up having to maintain separate friends lists on each service, since the chances of inoperability didn't look high.

Oddly, one of the worst culprits of this kind of anti-consumer thinking seemed to be Valve, whose announcement of Steam seemed to bring a whole new level of ridiculous to the scenario. Steam wasn't a digital distribution system for a publisher - it was a system entirely focused on one developer, and a developer whose track record for regular software releases wasn't exactly brilliant, either. In effect, it was an entire digital distribution system demanding installation on your PC for one game only - Half-Life 2.

EA's intentions are clear - it wants to fragment the PC digital download market and tear a chunk out of Valve's dominance

It looked arrogant and silly. It was, in fact, a stroke of genius. Half-Life 2 is about the only game in the past ten years which had a broad enough appeal among PC gamers to build the installed base of a digital distribution service to critical mass in one fell swoop. Whether Valve ever quite planned for Steam to evolve in the manner it did is another question, but the end result is clear - Steam emerged as the driving force for PC digital distribution, its immense success effectively cutting off any chance of competition from publishers' own platforms.

Yet even so, it's clear that the dream isn't quite dead, and it lives on in the boardrooms of some publishers, at least. The most notable torchbearer is Electronic Arts, which has this week been making plenty of noise around its Origin service - in particular, implying that upcoming titles from the company will be exclusive to Origin, forcing anyone who wants a digital copy to become an Origin customer.

In one regard, what EA's doing now isn't far off what Valve itself did with the launch of Half-Life 2. EA knows that it has a rare PC title on its hands at the moment in the form of Star Wars: The Old Republic, an MMORPG which, while its long-term success is far from guaranteed, does seem certain to attract vast interest in its early months. Many, many gamers will install the game just to see what it's like, and while EA's clearly hoping that they'll stay and play for years, the publisher has a consolation prize lined up for itself if they don't - even those who cancel their subscriptions will presumably still have an Origin account.

Yet of course, for all that Frank Gibeau is trotting out fighting talk about Origin - touting EA as a future "worldwide leader in digital publishing" thanks to the service - the offering here remains a slightly peculiar one. It's no different to the walled garden services which we feared would proliferate from every publisher when digital distribution first came to the fore - essentially a piece of software which you have to install, and a requirement that you create an account with the publisher and trust them with your personal and financial details. In return for this, you get access to EA's games - and nobody else's, meaning that Origin's catalogue will never have the breadth or depth of something like Steam, or even of lesser rivals like Impulse or Direct2Drive.

The rhetoric around Origin was bumped up a notch when EA-published title Crysis 2 disappeared from Steam, prompting most people to assume that EA had pulled it from the rival service in preparation for offering it as an Origin exclusive. Yet that, apparently, isn't what happened here. Rather, Crysis 2 violated Steam's terms of service, and Valve dropped the title as a consequence. EA presents this in terms which suggest a power-mad Valve imposing harsh terms which no other service demands. As I write this, Valve hasn't commented yet - but undoubtedly has a rather different take on the issue.

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