EA’s Worrying Free to Play Future

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Rory Galvin looks into the recent announcements from Electronic Arts

Electronic Arts (EA) have had a pretty middling history recently, but not as bad as some of their previous years. While not as horrendous as Activision Blizzard, we have had an unfinished and abandoned Battlefield 2042, a half-baked F1 2022 and another entry in the FIFA series that has done absolutely nothing different. The only saving graces for them are their efforts with the EA Originals program; games like Knockout City and It Takes Two are entirely fun and not predatory in how they operate, as well as their sprinkling of single player, offline games, however rare they may be. Unfortunately, things don’t look too bright for their future. Alongside very exciting announcements are free-to-play asterisks that could greatly affect the average gamer in the near future.

It all began with an announcement people have been dreaming about for a decade, a brand new entry in the Skate franchise. To say the internet exploded was an understatement; all it was was a simple confirmation, but people (including myself) went wild. Drips of info would fall onto us - an exciting new parkour system, a promise to keep the original feel and even very early looks at the game in development. Eventually though, an asterisk had to arrive: the game was announced to be more of a free-to-play platform rather than a fourth entry, even dropping the number in the title to display that. The news was met with plenty of criticism and disappointment. There are benefits to this system (being free is a big one), but it was clear that most people wanted a typical release rather than another Fortnite-chasing metaverse. The developer, Full Circle (whose heads worked on previous entries) stated that any microtransactions will be purely cosmetic, nothing pay-to-win and will not lock anything like maps behind a paywall. This is kind of the base expectation nowadays for these kinds of games, but the main question now is how the game will work as a complete package. Will it be like Skate 3? Can you play offline? We’ll just have to wait to find out.

developers don’t find reason to support their game as much and the content drought begins,eventually snowballing into the servers being shut down - and all of your progress deleted

EA also recently taken the surprising decision to make The Sims 4 base game completely free for everyone. It’s a cool idea, the game has been out for years at this point, so now they let you get in the door for free - and new players will then generate money by buying the numerous amounts of DLC released. Still, it’s a consumer friendly move that I think is setting up something not quite so nice. The next Sims game, which we can assume is The Sims 5 but for now is called Project Rene, was announced to be in early development. All that was shown was the new changes to building: you can really fine tune bits of furniture and get your home to look exactly how you want, and leaked footage of a playtest shows it off well. The only problem is, a lot of the language they’re using to talk about the game is similar to how they talked about Skate before saying it was free. This includes the mention of having the same game on multiple platforms - both Skate and Project Rene are aiming to also be on mobile. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but how many successful mobile games operate on anything other than a free-to-play model? The only thing that comes to mind are games that operate under a subscription model such as Apple Arcade or Google Play Pass, but those are usually subsidised by Apple and Google to make money.

The free-to-play, always online, games-as-service model has been a trend for the past few years. In a perfect world, these games last forever and are always there for you and your friends to hop on and have a good time. In reality, very few titles have hit this mark, like certain MMOs. More often than not, as soon as the player base starts dying off, the developers don’t find reason to support their game as much and the content drought begins, eventually snowballing into the servers being shut down - and all of your progress deleted. Most gamers know this feeling, and that’s why the big juggernauts in the industry stay big - your time somewhat matters there and things won’t end soon, making it very difficult for newer games to find success. Who’s to say that the new Skate game will even be operating after 10 years? Skate 3 would’ve been shut down along with the old studio if it wasn’t made two generations ago - and the game still has a dedicated fanbase. Another issue is the inability to use mods with always-online verification, something that could severely impact the success of the new Sims game if it goes in that direction - more so in the eyes of the audience.

So, why would EA even consider this monetisation method for some of their future games? Well, they’ve already had proven success with other titles, and specifically: Apex Legends. Respawn Entertainment’s hero shooter battle royale has been a runaway success, and stands tall alongside other popular games in a very crowded genre. Since its launch in 2018, the game (now on about 7 platforms including a mobile spin-off) has made EA over two billion dollars in revenue. This is very impressive; for comparison, Battlefield 2042 (which tried to be a multiplayer-only title) did so poorly EA didn’t even give the exact sales numbers in their last earnings call. It wouldn’t be shocking to assume the game would’ve been more of a success even in its broken state if it was free and filled with cosmetic microtransactions à la Call of Duty Warzone. The idea that big franchises like Skate and Sims (especially Sims let’s be honest) could be so ubiquitous and long running as games-as-service - the amount of money to be made on mobile alone would be too good to pass up on. One big issue with these types of games is the state they launch in: Halo Infinite still has a massive content drought that does not justify its cash shop or battle pass. They need a lot of support because they live and die on their post-launch content - on Steam, Apex Legends has been having well over 300,000 concurrent players. On the new Halo, there’s about 4,000…

You should be excited for the new games from EA, but you have to be aware of the trappings that come with free-to-play services. Thankfully, the company isn’t shying away from single player games: Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is releasing next year, and a recent deal was made with Marvel where their Iron Man game should also be similar. Hopefully, EA do not get too greedy like with some other games-as-services and follow a more traditional system like they do with Apex Legends, but you can never be too sure with games companies these days. Either way, I’ll still be playing Skate when it comes out - and the new Sims - but I’ll keep an eye on my wallet as I do.