Opinion: Subscribing to EA Access will be the only way to sample this year's Madden, and that rubs me the wrong way.
Coinciding with the recent announcement that EA Access is now available to all Xbox One owners, EA revealed that it will not release a demo for the upcoming Madden NFL 15 (as it typically does for Madden every year). EA says this is because it chose to keep its focus on development of the game, rather than diverting resources to the creation of a demo. Given that EA Access offers early access to the company's games--Madden 15 being the first such game--it's going to be hard for fans to buy that excuse, and I can't blame them.
I was really excited for EA Access when it was first announced, and I remain intrigued by parts of it. While I don't think anyone should be crazy about companies' attempts to take ownership out of our hands as consumers, this was positioned in an optional way. Being able to spend $5 per month (or even $30 per year) to play Battlefield 4, FIFA 14, and other games as much as you want doesn't strike me as an awful deal, particularly if you're on a tight budget.
Early access to games is also interesting. Activision revealed last week that preordering Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare will get you the game a day early. For many people, that's a tangible bonus much more likely to encourage preorders than a "bullet-brass" exosuit and gun. The promise of being able to try out most (if not all) of EA's upcoming games before they're released is a nice perk for subscribing to EA Access, even if it's not something that I'd specifically spend money on. EA revealed today you'll be able to play the full version of Madden 15 for six hours with Access, which I feel is a fair amount of time--I was never expecting EA to give away five full days of access to the game before it was released.
Prior to last week's demo news, the most important point about EA Access prior to me was that it was purely optional: If you wanted to go about buying and playing games as you normally would, you could. Up until this Madden news, that made the service--at worst--something you could simply ignore. Between EA vowing to not remove games from EA Access' library of free games (which I am inclined to believe because of the negative PR that would ensue if it started removing games left and right) and some other things it has done recently (like offering free games and refunds through Origin), I was starting to feel like EA had made some real strides in making itself more consumer-friendly.
But this Madden news gives us a distressing glimpse of a future where playable demos (or demo equivalents) are locked behind paywalls. With Internet speeds increasing and things like streaming technology becoming more feasible, publishers should be exploring ways to let more people try their games, not fewer. And yet the latter is exactly what's happened with Madden: as EA Access is only available on Xbox One, players on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4 have no way to sample this year's Madden. And when you consider their respective install bases, those platforms represent the majority of Madden's potential audience.
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Particularly in the case of an annual sports game like Madden, having a demo available is incredibly important. A perception continues to exist that sports games change very little from year to year, and a demo is the best way to prove that isn't the case. It's also an opportunity to hook people who didn't plan on buying the full game; I know that has happened with me more than once, where a Madden demo convinced me to take the plunge with that year's game.
While EA can say the lack of a demo is the result of focusing on development of the game, it's not as if EA Access is something it threw together in the last few weeks; whatever the reason, EA had to know how it would look to skip a demo of Madden 15 and then begin offering a paid subscription program that will (among other things) let you try Madden 15 ahead of release. It's all the more off-putting that this is happening with a game like Madden that has no real direct competition, as opposed to FIFA 15, which is getting a demo but does have competition for EA to worry about in PES 2015.
EA has a history of being perceived as a money-hungry behemoth, and while I find it absurd that anyone could have ever considered it the worst company in America, there exists a sizable group of people who hate EA. Rather than offering a service that could have won some people over, it now seems likely that EA Access will be considered the direct cause for Madden not getting a demo. Even if EA's official explanation for why there is no demo is believed, it's likely to draw ire: People will see a company that could make the necessary bid to lock up the ESPN and NFL licenses (depriving us of the NFL 2K series, which many felt was far superior to Madden) but won't spend what's necessary to create a demo, which it's been doing every year since at least 2005's Madden NFL 06.
I don't like to make assumptions about how much work goes into making a game possible, but it's not as if sports game demos usually do much more than let you play a limited portion of the full game. This isn't a situation where a demo experience has to be handcrafted. If EA didn't want to spend time making a demo, it could have done what it's doing with EA Access: provide a limited amount of time with the full game. Instead, because that's a selling point for the subscription, most people won't get to try the game.
By not offering a demo at the same time as it launches EA Access, EA is potentially shooting itself in the foot on more than one level. In terms of Madden 15, a strong demo won't convince someone planning to skip the game that they should buy it. (A study has suggested not releasing a demo can be a boon for sales, but that's a questionable conclusion because many of the industry's biggest games never receive demos.) At the very least, those people on the fence might decide to wait until after launch to buy the game, at which point they may opt to pick up a used copy--which EA doesn't directly benefit from--or to not buy it at all. With so many games coming out this fall, it won't be hard to find something else to play.
And in terms of EA Access, what seemed like it could be a good program may suddenly be looked at with contempt. People who were considering subscribing may have ruled out the prospect altogether for fear that doing so will send EA the message that they're okay with missing out on the demos we're accustomed to seeing.
I know I, for one, am not okay with that, and I sincerely hope this is not a sign of things to come.