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Growing pains for EA Sports' microtransaction future

Growing pains for EA Sports' microtransaction future Exclusive

July 6, 2012 | By Colin Campbell

July 6, 2012 | By Colin Campbell
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

EA Sports trots out its major franchises every year, tweaking mechanics and graphics and allying the games as closely as possible with both the tactical realities of the sports, and the actual experience most fans have, through glitzy TV broadcasts.

FIFA 12's tactical overhaul gave the game a Metacritic average of 90 percent and was, for many of us, one of the best games in any genre, of the past year.

Madden 12 managed average 78% ratings, down from the mid-80s of the previous two iterations, and is clearly ready for an upgrade, especially with EA's controversial exclusivity deal with the NFL coming to an end in 2013.

NHL and NCAAremain solid, even while a lawsuit with NCAA players rumbles through the courts.

Tiger Woods has suffered from some perceptions of DLC heavy-handedness and a new swing mechanic that got a mixed reception. NBA Live, after a horrible spell, is back this year after two years away.

And, of course, the company recently grabbed the UFC from THQ.

Strategically, the company is making most of its changes under the hood, as multi-device, DLC-driven models take over.

To take one example, in its most recent financial year, FIFA managed a record $108 million including micro-transactions. In the UK, FIFA Ultimate Team, a pure digital companion, was the second best-selling EA offering in that country all year. This is the sort of news EA needs to keep telling investors, as it faces continued pressure on its stock price.

Clearly, EA believes that free-to-play and micro-transactions will be the dominant model in the future, and the company insists it is ready to make that transition as and when the consumer is ready.

EA Sports chief Andrew Wilson says, "We've been in Asia now for about six years with FIFA [as] a free-to-play experience. All of our iOS games through this year are headed in that direction. Our social games are headed in that direction. But right now gamers are telling us is that there is still a very rich and very robust premium business on console. And that that business model works very well for them today.

"We've already demonstrated we have the architecture and the know-how to facilitate that kind of content delivery, that kind of service provision, in a very positive manner, and demonstrated that at a business level, we can do just as well if not better in that kind of model as we do in the regular premium model."

But it's definitely a case of experimentation as the company seeks to monetize these games - and their ultra-committed fans - without seeming to gouge them.

This is a PR minefield. For example, many of the achievements that players earned in FIFA 12 will be transferable to FIFA 13, but, according to Wilson, there are no plans for players to be able to walk across all the players and stuff they have bought and paid for associated with the previous game.

Clearly, the complex problems of infrastructure are not the only challenges EA faces. Take Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13. In his review for IGN, Mitch Dyer took issue with the game's in-built DLC grab.

"The publisher learned from Tiger Woods 12 that locking courses behind a pay-to-play gate was a mistake, so Tiger 13 tries to meet the audience in the middle. Coins earn players access to new courses, so playing Tiger Woods 13 as normal rewards players with extra content without having to spend real-world money. However, the reality is that EA's new system is a disgusting, well-disguised sham that makes past DLC traps look like charity."

Wilson says that the plan to allow players to unlock DLC through play just didn't work out as planned.

"We are experimenting, we're taking a lead from games on Facebook, from iPhone games, from other digital services in other industries. We're looking at how consumers play and we're trying to deliver a positive output.

"I think sometimes there's an expectation that we are trying to things with negative or malign intent. In fact, our biggest objective is to deliver positive consumer benefit. Because that drives higher engagement and it drives a better business for us.

"We've seen that delivering great products and services in FIFA, and focusing on the customer, gameplay and services, means you end up with the biggest sports business in the world. We're just trying to do that everywhere. So I think that we heard the feedback, absolutely."

EA has talked a great deal about how it will bring its games across platforms enveloping an 'always-on' strategy, and nowhere is this more the case than with EA Sports games, where players are engaged increasingly in MMO-like activities of leveling up and tinkering with strategies and, of course, trading characters, much of which can be done away from the console.

Wilson says, "It's a creative idea, based on how people are playing our games. What we know about sports fans is that from the minute you get up to the minute you go to bed, you are thinking and talking about your favorite sport. Yet for the longest time, the only time people could engage with that sport in our world was when they were sitting in front of their televisions. And that was a big miss.

"A very great proportion of HD sports gamers have iPhones, iPads, Facebook accounts, and they're doing things in that space. We ask them, 'what are you playing on your iPhone?' And they say, 'Aw, just some time-wasting stuff'

"So what we challenged them with was, what if the stuff that you did here actually had meaning to who you are in the game-world? Had meaning to your level, had meaning to your status? It wasn't wasted time. That when you did something there, when you got home at night and booted up your game in front of your 60-inch television, what you'd done actually had meaning. And they said, 'absolutely, that's the way it's supposed to be'.

"There is this nature of connection and omnipresence that is important in the interactions people have with technology. What you end up with is a connected cross-platform world where everything you do counts and nothing you do is wasted."

Colin Campbell writes for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter at @colincampbellx

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