Shooting Yourself in the Foot: The EA Access Problem

By Mark Delaney, 23 days ago
There's no publisher in the history of video games that has received more or harsher criticism than Electronic Arts, today better known simply as EA. From being voted worst company in America in back to back years to the uproar they create whenever they shut down servers to years-old games, they've had a target on their backs for as long as gamers have been able to organize in online forums and rouse some rabble. Whether the vitriol targeted at them is well deserved or way over the line — death threats are simply stupid — the publisher has long been under the microscope. While not agreeing with the over the top tactics some use to complain to and of the publishing giant, it seems many if not most people do agree EA deserves a great deal of criticism for their anti-consumer, bottom line driven practices over the years.

It was a bit off-brand in the eyes of many when they launched EA Access a few years ago. EA Access, if you don't know, is a subscription game service that gives its users several perks for as long as they're buying into the service's reasonable fee of $5/month. With it, players get unlimited access to any games in their vault, which is to say many games they've released roughly nine months ago or more. The vault even includes several backwards compatible titles. The library alone is fantastic, especially for those who are going to wait on buying fully priced AAA titles anyways. Additionally, subscribers get 10% off all related EA digital sales of games or in-game content, but it's the service's third attribute that has caused the publisher trouble as of late, despite being designed as another great perk.

EA Access is the rare beloved practice from the publisher.EA Access is the rare beloved practice from the publisher.

With EA Access, users also receive pre-release trials with most upcoming releases a few days before they hit stores. Typically allowing for ten hours with each game, the program lets subscribers dive head first into forthcoming EA titles before anyone else. It's like getting your own demo of EA games a weekend or several days ahead of anyone else, with multiplayer and even achievements enabled. The feature is meant to sell players on the many games making their way through the system, of course. We're meant to feel enticed to buy them after putting in several hours of gameplay and hopefully getting sucked into the experience, but in 2017 it's had the exact opposite effect.

The whole gaming landscape was ablaze with fiery opinions regarding the Star Wars Battlefront II fiasco this past week. Those playing in the EA Access "Play First" trial were quickly discouraged last weekend when it became apparent that the game's online design was deliberately skewed to make microtransactions feel almost mandatory. A Star Wars gaming site, SWTORStrategies.com, calculated that it would take players $2,100 or, if you're opposed to spending even a penny on the game past its retail price, 4,528 hours of multiplayer to unlock everything in the game.

This was the big headline all week, and rightly so, but it's indicative of several other related issues the game had too. There's its attention to pay-to-win loot boxes and the in-game currency, crystals, or the prices of the heroes and villains that would take several hundred hours on their own to unlock in full. Then there's the story mode's apparent maneuvering to feel like a tease for players once they finish the story and move into multiplayer, to make them want to chase the heroes with either hundreds of hours or, more happily for EA, lots of money.

EA has since launched the most rigorous damage control campaign I've personally ever seen in video games. I'd love to know if another has ever been more desperate. They've reduced the cost of heroes by an enormous 75%. They've also gone so far as to disable all microtransactions in the game. These maneuvers can't completely wash away the stench of the game's initial design; in a prepared statement, DICE did ensure that the microtransactions will return when they reorganize the game in some crucial ways. There's no doubt that Disney has been pressuring EA to straighten this matter out. Here in the States, news networks had picked up the story and regarded it as a potential gambling in games issue. The House that Mickey Mouse Built was not going to stand by and let EA dirty the Star Wars name just a few years after Disney's massive purchase of the IP.

Without EA Access, many players wouldn't have become fed up with the in-game content until they'd already paid for it.Without EA Access, many players wouldn't have become fed up with the in-game content until they'd already paid for it.

To EA, even if they get back in the good graces with gamers, Disney, or both, this Star Wars issue was really a self-inflicted wound. Without the Play First trial EA Access users received, this backlash likely would have occured but only after purchases were made and pre-orders were fulfilled. The company received so many pre-order cancellations online that their 'cancel pre-order' button was removed from their site for a short while, and this example doesn't account for the many more who surely cancelled with Microsoft or other retailers. EA Access caused this. It's actually a good thing that we as consumers were given this trial to find out for ourselves before it was too late, but "good for consumers" is not typically synonymous with EA.

What's worse is this isn't the first time this has happened. Earlier this year, subscribers got to play the Access trial of the much anticipated Mass Effect: Andromeda. The fallout was a bit different in this case, but ultimately similar in the level of fan disappointment. Andromeda, in the hearts of many, is a shell of the franchise's former self. This would be true on launch day and it's true today, so it's not like removing the EA Access trial would've fixed the long term problems for that game, the same as Star Wars. What it would've done, however, is keep players and potential buyers in the dark, which is really an ideal scenario if you're out to make money through pre-orders.

Because the furor over Battlefront II has been relentless, few may have also heard that two other games have had similar disasters go live on EA Access this week. Need for Speed Payback released a few days ago to middling to poor reviews, but gamers with the Access trial found out last week just how ugly the series had turned this year. With characters that feel written by children, an inconsistent driving model, and a bevy of in-game purchases teasing players to take shortcuts, of course, Payback is a shell of its former self. The Need for Speed series has long been one of exciting highs and disheartening lows, but this year's title feels especially poor. How many racing fans cancelled their pre-orders after getting to try that disappointment? We'll never know, but EA surely does and it's foolish to expect them to take that in stride.

Also this past week came the port of The Sims 4 for consoles, at long last for series fans. Unfortunately for those fans, it bizarrely feels like an actual 1:1 port with maybe no changes at all. These changes are most needed in the game's UI and control system that feel like they're still built around having a mouse and keyboard. Put plainly, it's frustrating and almost entirely broken. This port needed to be altered for consoles. At launch it was not. Maybe it will be down the line, but in the meantime my partner and I are even among those who changed our minds about this game. She was ecstatic to get a new Sims in her life, as we don't play games on PC, but when we sat down a few nights ago with the EA Access trial, we were dumbstruck.

Of course, this week isn't the first time EA Access has spoiled a huge launch.Of course, this week isn't the first time EA Access has spoiled a huge launch.

Without EA Access, we'd maybe have been none the wiser. I don't read a lot of reviews and she reads even fewer. We may have never been exposed to the game's problems until we bought it, unwrapped the plastic or finished the download, and then learned of its near game-breaking state. Fortunately we have EA Access, and like many people have discovered this year, the Play First trials have saved us money by revealing to us that our excitement for particular EA games was no longer warranted. It's truly a fantastic tool for consumers and that's exactly why it could be on its way out.

Will EA continue to allow subscribers to find out their games are problematic sooner than when they've handed over their money? I don't see how. They've taken blows from the gaming community before, really almost non-stop over the past decade and then some, but those criticisms have always come after the point of sale. If their beloved subscription program is so consumer-friendly to the point where it's publisher-unfriendly, expect something to change. Maybe EA will alter their trial periods to commence on the day of release for each game. Maybe they'll do away with them completely. I can't see Access as a program being shelved as I have to imagine it's an asset for the company overall. Of course, doing away with trials is merely a half-measure.

Can EA continue to take these PR hits by way of EA Access? They've certainly absorbed most criticism before and there's been plenty. But as varied as their recent games' struggles have been, they've all shared one common denominator: they were revealed ahead of launch. If this is having any sort of measurable effect on EA's bottom line, I expect them to fix that for themselves even to the detriment of consumers. They'll still deal with the fallout of launching bad games whenever they don't launch good ones, but in their eyes, if we're going to find out that their games have major problems, they'd probably prefer we pay them first.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.