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The major missing piece in EA’s Netflix for games

EA Access arrives on PlayStation 4 in July, but it’s incompatible with existing Xbox and PC subscriptions.

The major missing piece in EA’s Netflix for games
[Image: courtesy of EA Games]

Nearly five years after launching on the Xbox One, Electronic Arts’ EA Access subscription gaming plan is headed to the PlayStation 4.

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The $5 per month (or $30 per year) service provides dozens of games from EA’s catalog, including the latest Madden NFL and NHL installments and older hits like the Mass Effect trilogy. It also offers 10-hour trials for new EA games and a 10% discount on purchases. The PlayStation 4 version will launch in July.

But while EA says its subscription service will soon sell on “more platforms than any other publisher,” the claim comes with an asterisk: Subscribing to EA Access on PlayStation 4 won’t entitle you to the same service on Xbox One or vice versa, nor will it allow you to use EA’s similar Origin Access service on a Windows PC. In other words, it’s not a cross-platform subscription service akin to Spotify or Netflix.

As the owner of every major game console and a half-decent gaming PC, I’ve dreamed about cross-platform gaming–the idea of paying once and playing on any capable gaming device–for years. Now, it’s finally starting to happen with service-oriented online games like Fortnite and Minecraft and with a small number of Xbox and PC games through Microsoft’s Play Anywhere initiative.

EA, however, says turning its own subscription plan into a cross-platform service would likely be a multi-year effort.

“I think players would be interested. I think EA’s interested,” says Mike Blank, the senior vice president and general manager of Origin and EA Access. “I think there are business complexities and technical complexities that will require us to think about it for a little bit more time and work with our partners to try to enable it.”

The technical and business challenges

Enabling cross-platform play is easier said than done, Blank says.

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Even though Microsoft’s Xbox One, Sony’s PlayStation 4, and gaming PCs all run on the same computing architecture, each platform has its own system for multiplayer, in-game achievements and game saves that would somehow need to be translated back and forth. Control schemes can also differ–with PC players favoring mice and keyboards over game pads–making multiplayer matchups trickier to coordinate.

“Trying to provide the best experience for players when all of these variables are at play is really complex,” Blank says. “And so I think over the next two to five years, we’ll learn more about how one might be able to bring a game to multiple devices and how you might be able to traverse across different kinds of platforms.”

The game industry is only now trying to systematically tackle this challenge. Fortnite maker Epic Games, for instance, plans to let third-party developers use its cross-platform tools later this year, and Microsoft is trying to extend Xbox Live to other platforms (albeit mobile ones, for the most part). Blank demurred on whether EA might adopt those tools or build its own but says that cross-platform will become a bigger consideration when developing new games. (Apex Legends, EA’s surprise free-to-play hit, will eventually allow multiplayer across different platforms, but early design decisions will preclude it from ever letting players carry their progress across consoles and PCs.)

The business side brings its own challenges. When a PlayStation 4 owner signs up for EA Access, Sony gets a cut of the subscription revenue, just like it does when someone buys an EA game outright or pays for additional in-game content. It’s unclear how that model would work if a single subscription applied to all platforms.

“They all have different terms, and they provide different offerings, and I think as a result, trying to find a one-size-fits-all solution from a business standpoint–which you sort of need if you’re going to buy a subscription on Sony and play it somewhere else–is not an easy problem to figure out,” Blank says.

Meeting the expectation

Even if it’s not happening anytime soon, Blank acknowledges that being able to play a game across different gaming platforms–with the same list of friends and the same in-game progress–is starting to become an expectation.

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“Netflix has set the standard–as have Spotify and others–that you can get a subscription on one platform and be able to use it on other platforms,” he says. “So what we hear from players, and what there is a narrative around, is ‘I should be able to do that with my games as well.'”

The evidence is more than just anecdotal. According to Lewis Ward, IDC’s research director for gaming, 27% of U.S. households that owned either an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 reported playing at least an hour per week on both platforms in Q3 2018. (That’s the last time IDC did a survey of this kind.) Meanwhile, 12.3% of gamers reported playing across both PC and console for at least an hour per week.

I’ll speculate that those percentages would be even higher if players could take their game collections and friends lists with them. As Blank points out, people tend to play more when they have access to a subscription catalog, which is part of why Sony eventually welcomed EA Access on its platform after dismissing it in 2014.

“Ultimately, players playing more is a good thing,” Blank says. “It’s a good thing for the players, and it’s a good thing for the platform.”

If traditional publishers and console makers don’t figure out cross-platform play, perhaps the emergence of cloud gaming services like Google Stadia will provide a kick in the pants. These services, which stream high-end games to lightweight hardware from remote servers, will inherently iron out some of the technical challenges that Blank cited, because every device will run the same instance of a game. And even if a service like Stadia isn’t welcome on traditional consoles, it could easily be accessible on smart TVs, streaming boxes, phones, and computers.


Related: Microsoft is the right company to build the “Netflix of gaming”

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Blank says it’s hard to predict exactly what will happen, but he’s encouraged by what’s already happening with games like Fortnite being available virtually anywhere.

“I think it comes down to, ultimately, how we demonstrate value to players and what players ask for,” he says. “I think if players demand more of this, companies will need to respond in kind.”

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