An Open Letter to Electronic Arts
Hey, guys! So I hear tell you want to kill Steam.
Well, okay, that’s overly harsh; you just want a sweet piece of that digital distribution pie. And who can blame you? There’s a lot of money going through Steam, and if I were a big company I’d be looking for a way to pick up a few extra bucks down that road. You’ve made a good opening move by cutting ties with Steam and putting both Star Wars: The Old Republic and Mass Effect 3 exclusively on Origin. It’s really a good start toward getting a foot in the digital distribution market, and considering how much I like having some healthy competition here, I’m all in favor of it.
Unfortunately, I have a sneaking suspicion you think that’s going to do it, and let me tell you something – it’s not. If you prevent people from getting the collector’s edition through any other digital service, people will just go down to the nearest brick-and-mortar retailer and pick up the game there. Two games, no matter how awesome, are not going to shake the current market up significantly. Remember, when it was first announced, Steam was thought of as the hoop you have to jump through to play Half-Life 2.
You don’t want Origin to be the hoop for EA games; otherwise it’ll be discontinued in a couple years. So I advise you to think about this a little bit and make some steps to keep Origin relevant. Simple stuff, even.
1. Reach outside the core gamer demographic
Right now, the core group of gamers who give a crap about things like digital distribution likes Steam. Steam is good. Steam has pretty much every game a player could want. Trying to tell these people to stop using Steam just for your games is an uphill battle, the sort of thing that mostly just convinces people they don’t want to bother with digital distribution for your games until you decide to get with the program. And until you have the critical mass that prevents you from being ignored, you are not going to gain many adherents in the existing customer base.
Fortunately, you already have an in with a nontraditional customer base. It’s called The Sims. It’s not the sort of thing that is traditionally favored by gamers, and it already has an add-on setup that players are used to dealing with. So instead of trying to compete with the giant on the giant’s terms, start looking smaller. Use Origin for Sims purchases. Push games like the various PopCap offerings, possibly even at discounted prices. Target gamers who generally don’t think about digital distribution so that you will have an installed base that matters.
2. Give us something we can’t get on Steam
If you’re going to compete with Steam via selection, you have already failed. You are marketing your store based on the fact that your company is very large and offers a very wide selection. So instead of trying to compete with Steam by that angle, offer some ubiquity. Start giving people who purchase a doodad in game 1 a corresponding bonus in games 2 through 5.
Yeah, it’s going to be kind of nuts if I buy a floral dress in The Sims 3 and get the same item in Mass Effect 3, but there are people who will appreciate that. Heck, offer cross-game benefits just by owning those two games together. Steam is largely a collection of games made by totally separate companies, so the games rarely work together in any meaningful sense. You can change that. You can even offer bonuses based on the cross-section of games purchase by any given player, reasoning that if a player has bought five sports games and the Mass Effect series, he’ll probably like sports-themed items in the latter and some bonus Salarian teams in the former.
This probably seems like a lot of work for little upside, but there’s something else to be noted here. Namely, that there’s something else Origin can do that Steam currently does not.
3. Be unobtrusive
Steam’s greatest failing is that it’s always there, nagging at you. It’s a chat client, it’s a server framework, it’s a copy protection utility, it’s many things. Origin does not have to be all of that. In fact, if you really want to tout the virtues of buying directly from EA, probabl one of the first things you can offer is a simple promise of just buy the game, download it, and forget about Origin.
It’s fully conceivable that this might lead to a larger number of game thefts, because the copy protection won’t be as tight if you don’t require a constant login. But honestly, guys, you could use the good press as far as copy protection goes. SecuROM certainly hasn’t done you any favors. It also appeals to the crowd who still seems to think that digital downloads aren’t the same as owning a copy of the game insofar as they’ll know once they’ve downloaded it, it’s theirs, and they don’t have to keep checking in to play it.
I’m not saying that without these steps Origin will crash and burn… I’m saying that Origin is already standing on some very shaky ground. You’re expecting to change the digital landscape from “I’ll buy it from Gamestop or Steam” to “I’ll buy it from EA electronically,” and that’s not a change that happens overnight. And if you want to make it work, it’s going to take some doing.
Or you could just deal with players walking down to the local Gamestop to buy your games until you stop trying to marry your own distribution service. It’s all up to you.