Q&A: Linking up with customers, EA style

EA overhauls Downloader, renames it EA Link; digital distribution service will be used to deliver PC games and extras to customers--all over the Internet.

Electronic Arts is preparing itself for a revolution. In the future, most predict that selling games to customers will be done entirely over the Internet--shopping, paying, and distributing will all be done online.

EA dipped into digital distribution with EA Downloader in late 2005, and while it hasn't enjoyed the same success as the industry's staple--Valve's Steam--it did plant the publisher in the fledgling realm.

Downloader has been given a complete overhaul and a new moniker, EA Link. Though the service was launched earlier this week, EA formally announced it today.

EA Link's new look.

While the concept is the same, EA Link will streamline purchasing and serve as a hub for game content, such as demos, trailers, wallpapers, and other files. Purchasing will also be made from within the application via PayPal and Click&Buy, virtually eliminating the need for a Web browser when buying games from the publisher.

Among the games now purchasable from EA Link are Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07, NHL 07, Battlefield 2142. For future titles, EA will use EA Link to give gamers exclusive extras when they preorder games.

GameSpot talked with Chip Lange, EA's vice president of online commerce, about the new endeavor.

GameSpot: Is EA Link strictly a retail and distribution channel?

Chip Lange: No, it's really designed to be an all-purpose link to our PC customer base to serve everything from distribution of product to keeping software current, to messaging key community activities, to allowing people to experiment and try other types of products through demos, trailers, that type of thing. A lot of our customers on the Xbox [360] have been enjoying customizing their systems with pics and gamer themes. We'll do similar things on the PC here. So it's meant to be kind of an all-access content pipeline for our customers, and it's meant to be done in such a way that it's user friendly, convenient, and easy to use.

GS: Can you go into more of the community aspects of the site?

CL: The community aspects are in development, but the tool is designed for us to be able to push an enormous amount of content, different types of content. Like I mentioned, themes, demos, trailers, those type of things. And then on a community side, this will become the content pipeline that will partner with our retooled community Web sites. If you go to EAsports.com you'll get a really good snapshot of some of the features and functionality that are being demonstrated with that. So those two tools work hand-in-hand to provide what we think is a state-of-the art world-class community and content service for our customers. It goes both ways--us to customers and customers back to us. And then probably most importantly, customer to customer.

GS: What are you going to learn from your customers through this?

Link's interface.

CL: I think what this showcases is that we're listening and learning on what they're expecting in terms of content and user experience. So we've heard a lot of feedback on the EA Downloader. I don't know if you've used that, but we've been paying real close attention to the different message boards. The Battlefield customer for example, is a very vocal customer base. And they've had some real specific feedback on how the Downloader functions and how the user experience works. One of the biggest things that we heard about was in-application purchasing.

Last night on the Downloader, if you were going to buy a copy of Battlefield, you needed to leave the application and go to the Web and buy it that way. It was a clunky experience to say the least. One of the things that people expect is to be able to open their Downloader if they see some content they want to buy, you click "Buy It Now," and it just happens. So that was a feature.

Another feature we listened and learned from was PayPal, that it's one of the primary purchase options on the Internet, and our customers were screaming for it. So we built that right into the purchase page of the application itself. One of the things that we are working on, that we've heard loud and clear, is there's a demand for some of our catalogue titles. They're a little hard to find at certain retailers, so we're working right now on backdating some of our content so that we can keep that rolling through the system as well.

GS: Valve distributes other publishers' games on Steam. Is that something that would be an option for EA?

CL: We don't have anything to announce today. My take on this has been I want to get to an experience that I feel personally confident in delivering the world-class content and purchasing pipeline for our customer base before we explore any other options. I'm not ruling anything out but I wanted to walk before we ran. [We want to get] to an experience that customers are happy with, where the feedback is, "Great job, here's a couple of things that we would love to see added to this," as opposed to, "I'm really struggling with how to use this."

GS: So you're going to be the guinea pig for a while.

CL: EA is going to be working through the system to make sure it works, yes.

GS: EA owns distribution rights to upcoming games in Valve's Half-Life series. Are future Half-Life games going to be on EA Link, and does Valve have a problem with that prospect?

CL: I don't know how this connects with our Valve agreement. So I have to defer that question.

GS: Digital distribution appears to be the way games will be bought and sold in the future. Where do you see retail fitting in five to 10 years down the road?

CL: I've been in this business for 20 years, and one of the things I've learned is it's really hard to forecast this business five years out, especially how quickly it's changing now. But here's the thing that I see on the radar. I see the emergence of connected consoles, so I'm paying real close attention to the fact that over 50 percent of the 360s have Ethernet connections. I think Sony will see similar uptakes. And I think the Wii is going to have a surprising level of online connectivity as well.

So I think there's a major industry transformation that's happening with the emergence of the connected console. I think when that happens is you see new gameplay opportunities, new distribution opportunities, and new business models starting to take shape, and I think that is all beginning in earnest right now. I don't think any of this replaces our traditional business. I think it expands and complements it. So I think that there will continue to be an active and compelling retail business for as far in the future of this business as I like to look.

But I do think that that retail business will be supported and complemented by a more robust content pipeline online, which will manifest itself in full product, additions to product, whether it be smaller versions of expansion packs or microcontent. New business models that will enable us to release different types of customer propositions. And I think all of that is in its infancy right now. And the world will be substantially different in five years, but I don't think it will be so different that there's not an active and successful retail business. But I do think that business will be complemented by a more active and successful online content business that manifests itself in a number of ways.

Xbox Marketplace, EA Link, Steam, all the retailers will have their own equivalents to this, and it's something that the customer expects, and I find that successful businesses tend to meet customer expectations and even exceed them, and I think that's what's going to happen here.

GS: EA has really jumped headfirst into microtransactions, especially for Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07, Need for Speed Carbon, and Madden NFL 07 on Xbox Live Marketplace. Is EA going to use the same sort of strategy with the PC market? It seems like PC users aren't used to paying for extra content.

CL: It depends on where you are in the world. You go over to Korea and it's reversed. So you go to Korea and games like Kart Rider are [microtransaction]-based and they're hugely successful. We have a game over there called FIFA Online that is entirely microtransaction-based. One of the things that the industry is keeping a real close eye on is, will that model migrate to the West. It certainly has migrated West on the Xbox 360. I think it's still presumptive to say it's going to migrate West on the PC. But there will probably be a form of that business that shows up here in North America. It's just exactly what shape it takes. On the PC, that's still to be determined. I don't think we're going to have a microtransaction SKU plan to talk to you about in the next, you know, three months on the PC as a result of this service. That said, the service is built to be able to handle a product like that if the need so arose.

GS: So as of now there are no current plans to charge for microtransactions for PC content?

CL: No, there aren't plans to that scale. We do have microtransaction content available for Ultima Online, and that's something that our customers love. We put little bits and pieces out here and there. But no, certainly not to the scale that you're looking at it, at something like Xbox Marketplace.

GS: Thank you, Chip.

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Discussion

48 comments
_Sam_
_Sam_

I was wondering why it was suddenly renamed on my computer

RavenBlade_9
RavenBlade_9

its competition for Steam. The future of digital distribution, and the competition between services, will be very interesting to witness.

Murpheus007
Murpheus007

This is the way it's going to be. Brick and mortar will never completely go away, but things are going to change.

cjcr_alexandru
cjcr_alexandru

Not to much to say. I had an "encounter" with Valve's Steam and... let's say it didn't end as expected.

pauldarkside
pauldarkside

What's the point in paying more money to download a game and back it up? We can buy the retail package cheaper and often have it delivered for free within a couple of days. Apart from custom/exclusive content (BF Euro Force, etc) it doesn't make sense. I much prefer to have the physical product where I can see where my money has gone. I'm not about to start buying virtual clothing...

bobreturns
bobreturns

i like going into a shop handing over money and getting the box

5thhors
5thhors

there is no reason for it if you own a PC . it's marketed towards console playing noobs all they need is a good working website. downloaded it and it didn't work. why? because it's blocked and considered spyware/adware and tries to open several ports . huge hunk of garbage. there's no reason why I can run a p2p program more safely than I can run a program designed to actually purchase products . this program must be designed for dipshi t console users with new clue as to what the program is trying to do. EA stock is up due to the fact they have huge control in the console market but in the PC market there basically a bad joke . Id software and activision kicks there ass in every dept.

Leavemebe
Leavemebe

Another EA application designed to 'push' content upon the user. His words, not mine. That's right, push. I don't like pushy people or things. Do you? Also, anyone who uses the word 'connect' in any other context than "... the dots" is a brainwashed, unintelligent bozo who thinks people are no more than peripherals. EA thinks they are going to be so clever with micropayments and underage gamers using paypal since they do not have credit cards, impulsively buying whatever digital junk they think will give them an edge. Good for them. I suspect they will be a prime target for vandalism and fraud. EA is the very worst of the PC gaming business, it's all about money to them, nothing more. Money money money money money. You know what EA? You're never getting any more of my money until you learn to respect your customers and employess. I'll buy two of your competitors products, as a reward for not being you.

VegetaMaelstrom
VegetaMaelstrom

It sounds to me that at the end of the article the EA rep is trying to hide the fact that EA is just salivating at the chance to bend over PC gamers just like they are currently doing with 360 owners when it comes to microtransactions. If EA does try to pull this strip- features-out-of-a-game-and-then-try-to-charge-for-it-crap, they will find that PC gamers are much, much less tolerant of that BS and we will stand by our guns and won't give in. It's almost too late for those naive, willpower-challenged 360 owners now that EA has it's meathooks in their wallets but I'll be damned if they pull the wool or spyware over my eyes.

GoldenSurfer
GoldenSurfer

I prefer my boxed games. In that way if I do not play a particular game anymore or get bored of it. Then I can trade them in for a new release. With a digital copy I would not be able to do so. What if there is HDD crash then you have to repeat the whole process of re-downloading your whole collection again and that will take time.

sangoanuta
sangoanuta

cmon people let's see the brightside here. steam can be pretty crappy sometimes, it's like it has it own will. sometimes it work, some it takes 10 minutes to open. i think ea link can be a good thing. digital distribution is nice, if you don't care having a good dvd to burn the game later, or if you have tons of hdds. is digital distribution the future? yes, who say digital distribution is not the future is full of sh*t, because it happenned the same way if regular shopping, now most of what i buy its online.

imprezawrx500
imprezawrx500

"who the f cares. I will never buy EA crap again. EA is bringing this industry down". How? ea makes great games burnout anyone? The new downloader looks great but will have to try it out to see if its any good.

cowbrains788
cowbrains788

I always buy discs, less space taken, no risk of bad downloads, no multi-day download time, and finally, no risk of losing everything!

jeebs213
jeebs213

digital distribution is for hardcore gamers, and hardcore gamers don't like EA, so I don't see this working out. this is especially true if they're going to try and get away with charging full retail price.

darkdaej
darkdaej

SCPsyWarrior much as I don't like EA I will still buy their games if they are suitably entertaining. I'd rather be playing a new game than sitting, cursing EA for having their name on a game that I do want, but won't buy on principle. Completely right. I bought BF2142 because of the game, not its publisher. I do avoid huge franchise games like madden, but for shooters, EA does bring good products. The one thing is, I'll never buy an EA DEVELOPPED game...

SCPsyWarrior
SCPsyWarrior

Well, I've already switched over to buying Valve games on Steam so that I can avoid having to buy the EA Published versions. As much as I'd like the physical disk and manual, I'd much rather support Valve than EA. Having said that, much as I don't like EA I will still buy their games if they are suitably entertaining. I'd rather be playing a new game than sitting, cursing EA for having their name on a game that I do want, but won't buy on principle. It's an interesting development. I had hoped that direct distribution from Devs such as Valve would spell the end for super-mega-publishers like EA, but it seems that they may find a way to survive and even prosper in this new marketplace. Pity...

Lokara
Lokara

This is one thing that really annoys me about people as a general rule, the whole mentality that 'someone has done this particular thing before, it may never be done again.' Look, if it works, it will be done again. If you like Steam, or at least the idea of Steam, why comlpain if someone does something that generally serves the same purpose? Oh, and please, please, please stop judging games on the companies that produce them. Also, stop saying that since a company may have done something wrong in the past that everything they do from there on out is crap. Give people a chance, folks. The developers didn't get their job from consistently making the same mistakes. I'm not saying that you shouldn't judge them, just that you should judge each game based on its own merits.

Deepfreezed
Deepfreezed

who the f cares. I will never buy EA crap again. EA is bringing this industry down.

Sociologist
Sociologist

After the BF2142 adware debacle, I am done with EA Games period. Anything that they publish or develop, I will not buy. If they buy out all of the other game developers/publishers, then I will stop playing videogames. For those of you who bash EA and are unhappy with the direction they are moving the industry towards, don't buy their crap either. Stand for what you say and don't go out and support garbage. F### EA.

strick25
strick25

ea cant take it in the &nal hole.

MikeySSH
MikeySSH

dunno about all you guys but i like having my disk and manual with me. How else are you going to get together with friends and share the experience.... Sure online gameplay is all fine and dandy but we are replacing socializing with people in person with socializing with others over a headset. Its just like talking on the phone or talking face to face... being face to face is a lot more engaging then over the internet... and microtransactions are just a way to take even more money from us, the consumers... EA is taking a lot of our money slowly with all this mombo jumbo

TintedChimes
TintedChimes

I wonder if they have the microtransaction stuff there too...oh well..

Warlypwnage
Warlypwnage

and what happens when your hardrive crashes? (it will happen to EVERY pc eventually) its bye bye software download.

KingofTrolls
KingofTrolls

No original boxart, no original DVD, no original Instruction Booklet - Fly the Fock off EA

Archias
Archias

Really, it's just another profit gimmick. I can GUARANTEE it costs more to ship out and keep shelves stocked at all the Wal-Marts, Targets, EB Games, etc. than to provide bandwidth and to pay extra EA employees (by the way, EA is notorious in the industry for underpaying its employees) someone to download a file. Yet, they charge full price (sometimes more for it). Digital Distribution is not catching onto "consumer trends". It is publishers creating and fabricating "consumer trends" to maximize their profit margin. The fact is: let's say it costs more to run a digital distribution service than standard retail, but let's say customers refused to bear the burden of that extra cost by increased game prices. Digital Distribution would be no where to be seen. Edit note: The above message is expressed by a user who overwhelmingly prefers boxed, hard copies of a games with a pretty instruction manuals to browse through while sitting on the can. This may or may not have induced prejudice on his opinion of Digital Distribution.

rotten_bowel
rotten_bowel

**** EA, nuff said...i'll never buy their crap unless i'm forced to (like if they publish a good game that isnt really theirs)

CheddarLimbo
CheddarLimbo

People want own the things they love. Pure on-line distribution will never happen. Too many people enjoy the idea of holding their games, their music, their movies. It's not in our nature to view pure data as a substitute. Furthermore, the pure data is a lot more fragile, in my opinion. Consider how easy it is to have your hard drive wiped, or to delete a file, versus losing or damaging a physical copy of something you own.

joeamis
joeamis

Great EA is going to charge the same prices for games, but we won't get a hard copy, the packaging, etc. And they plan to give things they withhold from the games' release as microtransactions. Wow, things are getting worse every day.

Maxer9
Maxer9

EA Link is fine.

doolies
doolies

In reply to MAD_VD. Making a downloader service like EA Link, doesn't really cut the middle man out, it just puts another section of EA as the new middle man. EA now need to employ additional people who programed the application, and for upkeep and maintenance. As well as covering the additional servers, server space (HDD) and server upkeep.

MAD_VD
MAD_VD

EA would love it if everyone got there games on-line due to the fact they will make a lot more money that way .A few things i don't understand why does it cost as much to download the game as it does to get it from the shop sometimes more. When you don't even get the chance of trading or taking it back to the shop if you don't like or play it any more . i would of though the costing would of been the other way round like half the price to download because they will have cut out all the middle men i remember reading not to long ago software houses saying things like 60% of the price of a game goes to the shop owner ? there are so many minus points to downloading games for me i could go on for hours about it so it will be easyer just to say "NEVER"

doolies
doolies

You US people should import from Australia if your looking to get BF2142. Aussie version, due to our laws, is ad free, spyware free. We don't get the extra crap they bundle in the US version :)

YaR222
YaR222

After BF2142 I will never buy my from EA not in stores not online

yacbos
yacbos

and who said steam idea was good if the games werent that good i wouldnt ever buy it from steam i would rather buy it of the shelf as mentioned form another gamer and to be honest EA started to do some freak games lately which will surely make their sales go down more then they alreay are :( wake up EA ubi,valve and atari are goin to eat you

TruB
TruB

Gabe ftw.

matt1888a
matt1888a

If you have 2142 or BF2 DO NOT DOWNLOAD this PIECE Of Sh** It will give you an AWESOME "INVALID CD KEY" problem.

doolies
doolies

So another Steam? No thanks EA, too little too late. Just more bloatware to add to peoples PCs.