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Toll Booth

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

In short, Project Ten Dollar was designed to reward people for buying new games. Online Pass is designed to punish people for buying second-hand games. That's a subtle but extremely important difference in approach.

Online Pass also raises a number of awkward questions both for EA and for the console platform holders. For example, is it now reasonable to expect that EA Sports games will have significantly longer life-spans than previously? That seems reasonable - after all, there will now be an ongoing revenue stream from people paying for online access, and those people should be able to play the game for a decent amount of time before being told that the servers have shut down and they should buy a new version of the game.

Additionally, what's the status of Xbox Live Gold in this arrangement? EA Sports boss Peter Moore was in the hot seat at Microsoft when the company launched the Xbox Live Gold and Silver service tiers, so he knows perfectly well that Xbox 360 gamers already pay a monthly fee to Microsoft to play online. The understanding was always that games which charged an additional levy (such as MMORPGs) would be accessible to Silver members - you wouldn't have to pay twice.

So will EA Sports games, with their paid-for online service, now be available to Silver customers? Or are customers to reach into their pockets twice, once for Microsoft and once for EA, simply to play a game of football against a friend in another city?

Of course, this is a calculated decision on EA's part, and a cynical one at that. They know that the customers who buy FIFA and Madden every year aren't the same as the customers who bought Dragon Age or Bad Company 2. EA Sports' customers are less likely to read magazines, websites and forums which discuss Online Pass; the kind of consumer backlash which would have been witnessed had "core" games adopted this strategy is unlikely to gather steam within the wide-reaching sports game fraternity.

Unless the story gains traction in the mainstream press - which it almost certainly won't - then the first that most consumers will know about Online Pass is when they discover that the resale price of their copy of Madden is significantly lower than they expected.

By itself, that's hardly the end of the world - but there's no arguing against the slippery slope vision of this initiative now. If, as is exceedingly likely, Online Pass succeeds in its objectives - sustaining first-hand sales of EA Sports titles, discouraging the second-hand market and providing some revenue as recompense for second-hand sales - then it will become a much more widespread strategy, extending beyond EA Sports to other genres of game and other publishers.

This scenario bears echoes of the debate still ongoing around Ubisoft's controversial DRM measures. As we've learned more about the Ubisoft system, it's become clear that it definitely works - unlikely any previous system, it has the potential to protect PC games from piracy for weeks if not months after launch.

The cost, however, is high - restrictions on consumers and damage to the relationship between consumer and publisher are dangerous things at a time when the boxed-game market is already under unprecedented pressure from new forms of interactive entertainment.

The same calculation must be made for EA Sports' Online Pass. It will almost certainly work, achieving its business objectives admirably - but at what cost? The most elementary miscalculation made by even the biggest businesses is to underestimate the value of strong consumer relationships and goodwill in the face of a chance to increase short-term revenues.

EA has undoubtedly considered that balance, and may even have reached a sensible conclusion, given the nature of the EA Sports consumer base. However, this looks like becoming a more widespread model for publishers' engagement with consumers.

The risk is clear. Faced with new threats from unexpected quarters, should publishers really be hardening hearts against the industry, driving even more gamers away from the traditional business models which they are so desperate to prop up?

If you work in the games industry and want more views, and up-to-date news relevant to your business, read our sister website GamesIndustry.biz, where you can find this weekly editorial column as soon as it is posted.

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About the Author

Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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