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EA's Project Ten Dollar was a good idea, but it has launched us down a slippery slope.

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The phrase "cautious welcome" might have been invented for EA's Project Ten Dollar initiative - a project aimed at discouraging the more egregious abuses of the second-hand market by bundling single-use codes for $10 worth of downloadable content with new games.

Unlike previous attacks on the pre-owned trade, Project Ten Dollar is a fairly tightly focused tool. It doesn't prevent anyone from selling their games, and is unlikely to seriously discourage consumers from selling directly to one another - or from buying from heavily discounted second-hand bargain bins, months or years after the original launch.

With the DLC in question for games like Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age being firmly in the "nice-to-have" rather than "must have" categories, the initiative actually gained some traction among gamers, who understood it to be a gentle but carefully calculated push not against their consumer rights, but against the business models of stores like GameStop and GAME, which often apply huge mark-ups to second-hand product and sell it very slightly cheaper than brand new games.

The negative responses came from predictable quarters, but were no less valid for that. Some people simply don't like DLC, especially DLC that appears at launch - they argue that it should be a part of the game, and that extra monetising at this stage in the lifecycle of the product is a pretty shabby way to treat consumers.

It's not a terribly fair viewpoint, ignoring as it does the most basic financial realities of game development (put simply, if there wasn't a way to pay for the development of those features, they'd never have been made at all), but it's widespread and it's understandable.

Others cautioned against the slippery slope which this initiative could lead us onto. Certainly, Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 handled Project Ten Dollar well - the latter more so than the former - delivering a good quantity of high-quality DLC, without actually detracting from the core game experience in any meaningful way if you didn't have the extra content. Rather than crippling the game, it simply relied on people's completionist instincts and their desire to see the full experience.

That's a delicate balance to strike, however, and many feared that the decision-making process at game publishers - which so rarely errs on the side of being genuinely consumer-friendly - was not conducive to the balance remaining in place. If Project Ten Dollar was successful, its critics warned, publishers would end up pushing it even further - stripping out crucial game systems and selling them back to pre-owned game consumers.

It's a slippery slope argument, scoffed the more optimistic commentators.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the slippery slope, because earlier this week, EA revealed the next evolution of the thinking that kicked off with Project Ten Dollar. In future, the company revealed, the online multiplayer of EA Sports titles will be activated by a code - which will be bundled with new copies of the game, or sold for $10 to those buying the games second-hand.

EA's comments on the decision imply that this is simply the next logical step for Project Ten Dollar - an obvious and reasonable place to go with the initiative. That's either an incredibly disingenuous piece of PR, or a genuinely worrying insight into some of the thinking at a company which has, until now, looked like it was turning a corner in terms of its relationship with consumers.

In fact, the Online Pass represents a fundamental shift in the philosophy of EA's approach to the second-hand market. Project Ten Dollar created bonus content which was given to first-hand consumers for free, and available to second-hand market consumers for a fee. Online Pass, on the other hand, strips out existing, long-established game functionality and demands a fee from second-hand consumers to add it back into the game.

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Rob Fahey

Rob Fahey



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