During a recent interview with Engadget that was subsequently reported by IGN’s Mitch Dyer, Electronic Arts chief operating officer Peter Moore noted that “We don’t ship a game at EA that is offline” and added that “We don’t deliver offline experiences.”
Naturally, that’s not what some gamers want to hear. There are numerous reasons that an offline experience is still exciting, and the threat of an online-only future is most unwelcome. Not everyone has access to a dependable Internet connection, for instance, plus there is also the question of a game’s longevity. What happens to its value when Electronic Arts inevitably kills the servers a couple of years down the road (as it has proven fond of doing in the past)? Essentially, you could argue that your investment in future Electronic Arts titles is just a two-year rental, and that’s if you buy them on release day.
Before we start with the “Well, that’s the end of Electronic Arts” comments, though, let’s remember something. That something is called “reality” and it works differently than a lot of us might prefer that it did. In our minds, Electronic Arts is not delivering the sort of experiences that gamers want, the sort of experiences that justify ballooning development budgets and explosions that pack more pretty into a few seconds of screen time than entire games could ever manage in ye olden days. In reality, though, what Electronic Arts is doing is delivering precisely the sort of experience that could allow it to remain dominant for a long time to come.
If you’ve purchased a big title from Electronic Arts or Activision lately, you’ve already discovered that much of the appeal lies in the online experience. Call of Duty: Black Ops II had an ambitious campaign that included multiple paths through a near-future sci-fi epic. The day the game was released, though, you would have been hard pressed to find most consumers rushing through the story mode. Most of them dove immediately into multi-player, where they proceeded to immediately work on exploring and memorizing maps, the better to snipe people or work toward a quick Prestige. You can play through a typical FPS title’s offline mode in around 6 or 8 hours with ease, and yet the first 20 or 30 hours someone often spends with that game is often done so online. Similar things can surely be said about the people who pick up the latest Battlefield title. Not only that, but the companies can then produce expanded content at regular intervals over the course of the following year, and a lot of people will buy those too. Ever notice how little attention those expansions pay to offline content?
Of course, Electronic Arts publishes more than just shooters. The company is also responsible for the popular Need for Speed series. Those games do in fact feature robust offline modes–or at least they have in the past–and they make a good purchase for a gamer who is eager for that sort of experience. However, the recent entries in the franchise have also benefited from leaderboards and more involved competitive functions, and Need for Speed: Rivals will implement a persistent online world where your race could spill into someone else’s, perhaps with the sort of impact that just wasn’t possible in previous entries.
Consider for a moment what all of this means to Electronic Arts, and consider what it means for the future games the company releases. Let’s say you are standing in front of a display case at the local department store–where many casual consumers do their shopping–and you are about to buy a game for $60. You have narrowed things down and now have two enticing options: There’s a new shooter with a 6-hour campaign and local multiplayer, or you can pick up the new Battlefield for the same price and dive immediately into an online world populated by players from all over the world who will give you competition any time you want it, day or night. Unless you’re trying to make a statement, why would you then choose the former? Even if you only get a few months of regular gaming sessions out of the online content before the servers die, that’s a lot of value. Or perhaps you play Need for Speed and you enjoy races unlike any you’ve ever encountered before.
Electronic Arts knows what it is doing. The company executives have made some decisions that make good business sense, and some of us wish they had chosen differently. The general game buying public is quite happy with the future Electronic Arts has in mind, however. For every 2 or 3 people who say they will never buy another Electronic Arts game again, there are perhaps 10 or 20 who will buy the latest Battlefield or Need for Speed precisely because it offers the experience that the minority finds so abhorrent.
There’s still room for talented developers to provide spectacular offline experiences, and odds are good those will never go away. Electronic Arts has gone a different route, though, and is chasing a massive audience that is only likely to expand over time. That pursuit will almost certainly allow the company to remain relevant for years to come, in spite of the dissatisfied minority, and there’s not much point in pretending otherwise.
The move to online-focused experiences isn’t an indication that Electronic Arts is an evil or lazy company. Rather, that move is proof that Electronic Arts has been paying attention to reality. We should probably try it sometime too…