Thursday, May 27, 2010

More With Less

It's hard to believe it's only been a few short years since the airlines all jumped on the checked bag fees bandwagon. Remember the incredible consumer outrage as this was becoming an industry-wide practice? The vitriol from the legions of weary passengers, already sick and tired of cramped legs, $14 prepackaged sandwiches, screaming babies, cancellations, delays, layovers, suspicious looks from TSA agents? The absolute despair that this one last perk of air travel - free luggage - was now, like those complimentary peanuts of old, being so heartlessly snatched away, with the perverse justification that this of all things was the only solution that would keep fares low?

Yeah, me neither.

The very fact that Southwest has an entire ad campaign based around the fact that they're the only major airline still not charging baggage fees should tell you all you need to know about how resigned we've become to paying extra for stuff we didn't have to pay extra for last week.

Which brings us, of course, to this EA Online Pass thing.

If you're reading this, you already know what the Online Pass idea is. In order to play your new EA Sports Game online, you need to enter the code found in the box. Bought it used? Just $10 will get you a fresh new code. Yeah, you used to be able to play a used copy of Popular Annual Football Franchise online for free, but come on. Maintaining those servers is expensive for the 18 month grace period before EA shuts 'em down forever.

Look, I get it. Like the airlines, publishers are in kind of an impossible situation. By nature of the business, operating costs are astronomical and getting worse, often due to factors out of the company's control. Yet customers still demand low prices, plus all the perks they've been accustomed to for years. It's the old do more with less cliché. There has to be a trade-off somewhere if the company is to stay afloat, let alone be profitable.

Publishers and developers have to find a way around the Used Game Problem. We know that. We're getting used to being incentivized with pre-order bonuses and Day One DLC and weird reward systems. We've known for a while that those peanuts won't be complimentary forever.

Problem is, we're still getting screwed.

GameStop says the Online Pass will actually help their business. Color me unsurprised. So not only will they only discount used games by their typical pitiful $5, they'll also stock EA Online Pass code cards on the neighboring shelf. For your convenience.

I'm not upset that EA or GameStop want to make money. That's why they exist. You could argue that both companies are taking proactive measures to protect, and even grow, their market share. If I were an investor, I'd be glad they're addressing these vulnerabilities - used game sales cutting into profits for EA, and new game sales cutting into obscene used game profit margins for GameStop.

That said, the Online Pass is still a pretty lousy idea. Both Mike Schramm and Bill Harris lay out some pretty convincing reasons why. You should read their posts. Check out the May 11th Giant Bombcast, too, for a great discussion on this topic (skip to about 1:05 in).

These gents all make a variety of excellent points, but what it comes down to for me - yet again - is the difference between reward and punishment. The Online Pass doesn't feel like a reward for buying new. It enables a feature that should already have been enabled. It adds no value for new game buyers, but instead removes value for both used and new game buyers, who might, as is their right, wish to resell the product sometime in the future. This is a punitive measure, not an incentivizing one. And that's kinda dumb, considering that gamers - never the least entitled-acting people in the world - tend to be just a little sensitive about feeling "punished."

I have really mixed feelings about EA lately. They've released some absolutely brilliant games across different genres in the last year, from The Beatles: Rock Band last September to Dragon Age, Mass Effect 2, and Bad Company 2 more recently. I can't imagine any of those titles were cheap to produce. I've already written about how much I liked the value-add propositions for buying ME2 and Dragon Age new. Hell, EA even emerged a winner from the Infinity Ward/Activision fiasco, inking the new Respawn Entertainment studio and trumpeting their EA Partners division as a peace-and-love alternative to Activision's overbearing evil corporation.

This is even more ironic considering how widely vilified EA was just a few years ago. Honestly, I can't decide if I like EA's or the NBA's image-rehabbing more.

So, EA, why'd you have to go and pull a Gilbert Arenas on us?

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