Opinion: EA Access may mark a shift in retail model

The newly-announced EA Access isn't entirely forging new ground, but the publisher-exclusive subscription model could have a huge impact on how we consume games.

The primary impact could come not from EA itself, but from its industry clout. Love or hate it, the company tends to be a market leader, and that means where it goes, others follow. Its Origin digital distribution platform launch in 2011 was followed shortly by Ubisoft's revised Uplay store in 2012. It helped to popularize Season Passes, which are still in use today.

The track record hasn't always been successful, of course. EA's code-named "Project Ten Dollar" became the basis for Online Passes starting with Mass Effect 2. For a while, it was a widely used industry trend to stave off the threat of trade-ins. Gamers weren't fans of the scheme, though, and EA was forced to drop the idea. It was particularly candid in this instance, stating damage to its reputation and player frustration as factors, but it had still led the industry for years before the change of heart.

You can rest assured that other publishers are carefully watching this move from EA, and considering a similar model. Not every publisher could follow suit. As in the case of opening a distribution network, this is ideally suited for larger publishers. They would need the infrastructure to support a model, which costs money, and an annual library large enough to justify the all-you-can-eat model to consumers. A company like Ubisoft and Activision would fit the bill, but it's not a viable idea for publishers with only one big tentpole release per year.

Regardless, even if only those two publishers join up with similar ideas, it could mark a sea change for the industry. EA has set the de facto price at $30/year by being first out of the gate. At that price, two such subscription services would equal the cost of one game. For $90, you could theoretically have access to large swaths of the libraries of all three major publishers for as much as it costs to buy one "Limited Edition" version of a game. Gamers could potentially get quite a bit of value out of the prospect.

That value makes Sony's reaction to the news rather odd. In a statement, the company compared the service to PlayStation Plus and said it didn't determine that the service was a good value for gamers. Putting aside whether Sony was right, that's a question for consumers to answer for themselves. It's more likely that Sony wanted to avoid conflicts with its own subscription service, while Microsoft was not as protective of its less developed (and to most, less popular) Games with Gold program. If gamers embrace the move, however, Sony will eventually be forced to relent. 

Besides, EA has found at least one smart way to give a value-add to the service: early access. The announcement mentioned that subscribers will gain access to newly released games like Dragon Age: Inquisition and Madden NFL 15 five days early. It's a small window of opportunity, but it might be just enough to convince those who remain only slightly reluctant to pick up the service. 

We can't say how EA's experiment will work, but we do know a few key factors. If it is successful, other publishers will follow. Even if it isn't successful, others might jump on-board early as they did for online passes. That means we could be approaching a day when publisher-bsaed subscription services are the norm. As long as they remain a value for the gamer, it could radically alter the way we purchase games.