Origin of War

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

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 POS 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 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.

Yet regardless of the technical reason for the withdrawal of Crysis 2, the reality remains the same. Whatever EA chose to do with the game, it did in the full knowledge that it would result in it being pulled from Steam - Valve's terms may be strict in some regards, but they're hardly labyrinthine or difficult to understand, and it's extremely unlikely that there was no communication between Valve and EA before the title was dropped. EA may not have pulled Crysis 2 from Steam directly, but it took an action (what action, we don't yet know) which it knew would have that consequence.

Consider the sabers rattled, then. You don't pull a key title from the market's most successful digital retailer without being filled with confidence and belligerence in equal measure. Misplaced or not, EA's intentions are clear - it wants to fragment the PC digital download market and tear a chunk out of Valve's dominance.

On the face of it, that should be good for consumers and developers alike. More competition in the market is generally seen as a positive factor, so delivering a fresh challenge to Steam's dominance should improve service and prices for consumers, as well as the terms offered to developers. Yet that assumption ignores the nature of the service which EA is proposing with Origin.

The basic hurdle to entry, the need to install proprietary software, is still a high one

Origin won't actually be competition for Steam - not in any real sense. As a store front for EA's own products, Origin isn't designed to attract customers away from Valve's service - rather, it's a new client that you'll install alongside Steam, using Origin for EA games and Steam for everything else. Rather than introducing competition to digital distribution, a single-publisher service like Origin will simply distort the market. Its objective isn't to inject healthy competition and win market share through a better offering - it's to create a walled-off service that gives EA more control than before over its customers and pricing, as well as boosting the firm's profit margins.

In fact, while plenty of people bemoan the dominance of Steam, the reality is that Valve's service is the closest thing to a healthy competitive market for digital distribution that we've got. PSN and Xbox Live control their prices with an iron fist, ensuring that no hint of competition ever enters the marketplace. Single-publisher services like Origin (and, it should be noted, Blizzard's service, although digital distribution is arguably something of an afterthought there at the moment) do the same thing, keeping prices inflated long after a competitive retail environment would have let the gas out of them.

On Steam, while competing retailers don't knock prices downwards, publishers themselves are at least exposed to competition from one another. Pricing a mediocre game at 40 when a rival is offering a great title for 30 on the same page of the same service is obvious commercial suicide, and while it's not exactly a fully competitive environment, examples like that do force publishers to price realistically and entice consumers with sales and special offers.

Steam itself, too, is open to competition in some regards - the likes of Direct2Drive and Impulse do exist, after all. This is by no means a perfect situation, and competition between download stores is a bit of a dodgy area in general, given how locked in customers tend to be to a store after a few purchases. It is, however, undoubtedly a healthier situation than having a market made up of walled gardens where each publisher exerts complete control.

Is this cause for concern? Perhaps not quite - not yet, at least. Origin has yet to launch, and bluntly, it seems very unlikely that it'll ever achieve the kind of success that will have Valve seriously worried, or EA's publishing peers scrambling to emulate it. The basic hurdle to entry, the need to install proprietary software, is still a high one, especially for gamers who are perfectly happy with the Steam client they've got - and it's hard to see EA's resolve to keep its titles exclusive to Origin holding out for very long, as the missed revenues from Steam mount up.

However, it's a worrying glimpse of a future that some publishing executives would love to impose upon their consumers. In the wake of the PSN fiasco, especially, does any consumer really want a world where every publisher whose games you ever play has a software client installed on your computer and your personal data tucked away on a dubiously secure server somewhere? I sincerely doubt it - and any publisher wishing for such a world would do well to remember that making it more difficult and annoying to pay for or access your content has rarely been a productive business model for any creative industry.

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Latest comments (18)

Sergey Galyonkin Marketing Director, EMEA, Nival Network6 years ago
Can't see a difference between having 10 accounts at various independent e-stores or 10 accounts at publishers stores actually. So, while EA's Origin is no competition to Steam, I can't see how possibly that could be a worse idea than some Impulse-locked games, for example.

On a bright side - you don't need Origin to run all the time to play your games,while Steam became sort of a resource hog recently. So I've deliberately purchased several games on EA DM service instead of Steam before - just so I can play them without friend list popping all the time (I know about offline mode, but you have to turn it on every single time you launch Steam).
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Jaakko Heinonen Student - Computer Science 6 years ago
And if you wish to Origin exclusive games on Steam, you can just add them as Non-Steam games, which should work.
And indeed it is a bold move to make several titles, including American McGee's Alice: Madness Returns, BioWare's Mass Effect 3 and DICE's Battlefield 3 Origin Exlcusive, since that possibly (or, perhaps likely) means that they will not be released on Steam.

Edit: Mr. Galyonkin, you could just change your Steam Friend's mode to show you Offline, if you wished to not be bothered.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jaakko Heinonen on 17th June 2011 9:13am

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Sergey Galyonkin Marketing Director, EMEA, Nival Network6 years ago
Thank you, I've tried it, but for some reason next time I launch Steam, it automatically reconnects me :(
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Show all comments (18)
James Boulton Owner, Retro HQ Ltd6 years ago
Why we need intrusive digital distribution services like Steam is beyond me. Digital shopfronts like Direct2Drive are spot on and provide exactly what a shop does without having to install additional software.

Personally I cannot stand Steam, and find it extremely irritating when I am forced to install it to play certain games (such as Fallout New Vegas). I don't want it on my machine, simple as that.

Apple has the right idea with the App store for the Mac. Get a proper shopfront integrated at the OS level (like XBLA or PSN) and put everything there.
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James Prendergast Research Chemist 6 years ago
"Can't see a difference between having 10 accounts at various independent e-stores or 10 accounts at publishers stores actually"

I think the point is that people won't have 10 different accounts at various e-stores. I use four - Amazon, HMV, Game and Play - and already that's too many if you're thinking about possible hacks and exposure of your personal details and data. I often never trawl through all four for a deal. With Digital distribution i only have three - GoG (by far my favourite system), Steam and Impulse although i did used to have an account with SoE for Planetside so i presume that's still active... however, two of them don't have game parity so often there's no reason to be looking across them with regards to price.

I'm not signing up for any more accounts or opportunities for publishers and marketers to capture my data and money without a damn good reason and frankly, the way the games industry is going my money is better spent on independents who don't use DRM or tie your purchase to yet another digital service.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game6 years ago
On the one hand if this ends up being a mistake for EA, they may relent quickly, but on the other, I'm guessing a lot of money has gone into Origin, so they may doggedly pursue it longer than they should, even if it ends up being a turkey. I would question the timing of cutting ties before Battlefield 3, it could improve take up of Origin, but alternitively it could help sales of Call of Duty.
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Benn Achilleas CEO and Founder, Playabl6 years ago
Did anyone go to E3 and see how many awards Mass Effect 3 picked up? That is going to shift some serious volume and is a great title to run as exclusive. I'll be getting the console version but if I was buying the PC version it would be enough for me to sign up :)
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Jaakko Heinonen Student - Computer Science 6 years ago
I didn't go to E3, but I watched some footage, but didn't see how many dozen awards it got.

Mr. Galyonkin, I believe there is a tick that says "Automatically connect Steam Community" or something in the settings, if I remember correctly. I am not sure.

Personally I believe the best thing would be to have a 3rd party digital store, not directly affiliated with anyone (eg. being owned/part of VALVe, Electronic Arts, Gearbox, or any other company) who would manage the store, and the servers, and it would act like any other digital store, except no video game related company would have control over it, and... I lost my trail of thought. I guess it was something alon like Steam, without the personal favouritism or something. I don't remember.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 6 years ago
Steam's problem is it will not release sales figures for its games. So that puts a full stop on expanding the kind of financing options that game developers can make use of. Steam is anchored in Game Dev 1.0 techniques of game financing. Techniques that make life brutal for indie developers, and ensure they can never raise more than few hundred thousand (i.e. they have to self-fund everything), unless they sell their studio to a big publisher. Steam will never allow developers to go beyond this.

That is a big opportunity for another digital distribution platform. Allow sophisticated methods of financing through pre-sales, minimum guarantees and exclusivity. This would open up a vast world of possibilities for creative game development.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 17th June 2011 2:21pm

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Gary Lucero QA Analyst, Advanced 6 years ago
I do wonder why EA couldn't have just redesigned the existing web store and called it good? It was awful before, but I used every once in a while, especially to buy expansion packs for my daughter for The Sims series of games.

Fragmentation on the PC platform is definitely an issue, regardless, as you already have Steam and Impulse clients to install. And Impulse is currently the only one to offer Stardock published games, while Steam is the only one for Valve published games, so they are essentially at least partially walled gardens anyway.

In other words, the PC platform is somewhat of a mess. Too many sources for digital content, which should be a good thing but is confusing and requires a great deal of work by the consumer to keep it all straight, especially when you start to think about if/when some of these digital stores go out of business. What if you didn't back up your games? What if the game used DRM?

So while XBLA and PSN might seem like terrible ideas, especially when they often charge far too much for older titles, they at least provide a single source for digital content for their respective platforms. From a consumer platform they are dead easy to use and seemingly safe.
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Aidan Fitzpatrick Artist 6 years ago
"Pricing a mediocre game at 40 when a rival is offering a great title for 30 on the same page of the same service is obvious commercial suicide"

And yet that's what we get, even on Steam. Crisis 2 was priced at 34.99 on steam, it's priced at 34.99 on Origin... None of us as customers should be paying 34.99 for a digital copy of these games.
34.99 is a high street Retail price - that pie gets carved up into many different portions for different people.
Posting on this site i'm sure I dont have to detail the specifics, its more or less common knowledge.

EA and the rest (including those still selling through steam) see nothing wrong with charging the same price as 'a high street retailer on launch day' for games - and keeping that price inflated long past when a game could be considered new or even current. In fact it's often more expensive buy these titles digitally than to pop over to amazon or and order a boxed copy.


From Origin:
Dragon Age(TM) II
Available as Direct Download
34.99 incl. VAT
Platform: PC

From Steam:
Dragon Age(TM) II
29.99 incl. VAT
Platform: PC

Dragon Age(TM) II
Platform: PC

Dragon Age(TM) II
Platform: PC

There are plenty more examples.
Do they assume we are all idiots? Do they believe are so averse to waiting on the post that we will pay their hugely inflated prices? the so called 'convenience factor'?
There is barely any pre-owned PC game market even worth mentioning - thank you single use CD keys (assuming one is averse to cracking the software). They keep all the revenue that comes in from digital sales. I have no idea how much of a cut valve demand on steam sales... but one would assume that EA could do better with a store that deals exclusively with EA titles.

/End Rant.

sorry :)
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Tom Hunt Game Developer, neocade6 years ago
Awesome. Now I don't have to look at another EA game again!
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Isaac Doub Studying Computer Science, University of Bristol6 years ago
Personally, I don't buy games unless they're on sale. Just can't afford them. So if EA starts strictly controlling their prices on Origin, chances are I'm not going to buy another EA game again. At least for a very long time. Wonder how many other people out there are like me. Enough to effect sales? I doubt it, but I'm sure it would be a better idea to offer games on several digital distribution services, and give bonus content if you download through Origin. They'd keep their players who are dedicated to Steam and get a (fairly?) large number using Origin. Don't know really, just thinking out loud here.
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I'll still never forget Steam, and our business dealings with them: for them to be able to arbitarily decide that our game could not be launched on Steam (after we jumped through all the hoops required, and did all the integration work) for no reason ("Doesn't match our demographic") did untold damage to our studio, and destroyed any faith we had in the PC/online market - in the end, the same game was good enough for Nintendo.

The more competition in the online/PC market, the better - it will stop like Steam abusing developers and their market position.
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Shaun Farol Studying Computer Information Systems, California Polytechnic State University6 years ago
Steam wasn't always PC gaming's golden child. Back. When HL2 first came out everyone LOATHED it. Read some old reviews, everyone hated it, just as they will EA's coming forced install. That being said I have my hopes with the now Gamestop owned Impulse as some neutral 3rd party competition to Steam, as it is owned by a major retailer, not a publisher. Plus I have heard nothing but praise in how they treat their indie, self published games.
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Barla Von Designer 6 years ago
You do realise that you can buy EA games at retail and register them on Origin, therefore you have both a physical and digital copy!
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Stuart Fotheringham Managing Director, Analysis Success Ltd6 years ago
To those commenting about the client, it's about the money money money.

It's all well and good EA upping their game with their digital store, it would be good if they competed with Steam and Direct2Drive et al with higher quality services and flexible pricing models, but what is bad news is distribution exclusivity.

Publishers already set high prices on Steam when compared to retail, but then as we know they don't control the retail price. When the control the retail price as with Origin PC games it is extremely likely that games will be sold at full RRP (as Aidan Fitzpatrick points out above) and remain that way.

What is more, as retail sales of PC games are now a smaller percentage of the pie compared to downloads. I wonder how long it will be before EA cease physical copies of PC games altogether and thus sales through retailers like Amazon and Play and despised high street retailers like Game.
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Nigel Knox Software Engineer, Slant Six Games6 years ago
Having watched the "BBC Click" interview at E3, with a senior EA exec (I forget which one), I would say that this is about more than just another download service.

EA are hoping to bring cloud computing to mainstream gaming. The advantages are huge, not least of all is the nightmare this brings to the pirates. Whether they can succeed or not seems to depend upon reducing the cloud computing (which is much higher than most people believe).

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