EA's Project Ten Dollar was a good idea - but it has launched us down a dangerous slippery slope
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 life-cycle 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 DLC. 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 for them 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.
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?