15th Feb2012

Origin of Something Cool?

by Chris Maeurer

As a PC gamer, I am no stranger to some fantastic deals on digital distribution platforms.  Having a love for Valve’s Steam service, it’s an understatement to say that there was much trepidation when EA decided to break from the pack and form it’s own service, called Origin, during 2011.  Amid rumors of malware and spyware packaged in with their new service and a storm of controversy with the reasoning behind their titles disappearing from Steam’s digital shelves, EA and Origin stayed the course, pressing through to the release of one of it’s biggest titles, if not the biggest from EA in 2011—Battlefield 3(which required Origin for PC play).  Now EA is on the verge of releaseing it’s 2012 juggernaut, Mass Effect 3, and they seem to have pulled a really unexpected move out of their hat—giving away copies of Battlefield 3 with PC preorders of Mass Effect 3.

Why Is This A Game Changer?

As gamers on any platform, we are certainly used to pre-order bonuses.  Get a new map, special weapon or character skin when you buy my game from this retailer that I’ve partnered with!  It’s even customary to get an older game when buying a new release, I can remember getting a free copy of Psi-Ops with my pre-order of Mortal Kombat : Deadly Alliance.  EA’s own Battlefield 3 gave away copies of Dead Space 2 to those who pre-ordered BF3 on Origin.  This is no 8 month old game that can be found for $10 or $15, though.  This is Battlefield 3, still priced at $59.99, still ranking, currently, as one of the most played online multiplayer games.   This is no retail flop, with storehouses of unsold copies to be given away or stacked in a landfill.  I’m reluctant to pull from my memory another time when a publisher has danged such a sizable carrot in front of it’s prospective customers.  Battlefield 3 shipped 10 million units and reached the 8 million sold mark before the Christmas holiday.

Behind The Veil

Sure, we get it.  I could wax poetic about why the choice to giveaway BF3, over a game like Bad Company 2, was such an unprecedented move, but what is really pushing this sudden generosity from a company famous for infuriating it’s fans?  Well, I believe there’s a few good reasons why this was a well-played gamble.

1 ) Origin is still an underdog – Console gamers may be busy arguing about the impact of EA’s Online Pass and Season Ticket marketing plans, but without Madden and NHL on PC, we are left out of that argument.  What we do have to tolerate is EA’s digital distribution platform, Origin.  Yes, Battlefield 3 sold well, but not as well on PC.  With fantastic sales numbers on console in the month it launched, BF3 was struggling(and failing) to hit 500,000 sales on PC by the end of that same month.  One has to wonder if the problems and rumors surrounding Origin were to blame.  I know of a few people who made the decision to purchase BF3 on console for that exact reason.  I suspect EA had imagined BF3 would have given Origin a more favorable sendoff, and noticing that ship has barely left port, they are looking to make more of a splash.

2 ) Modern Warfare 3 - Let’s not beat around the bush, there is definitely a rivalry here, and the clear winner in 24 hour sales, as well as first week and first month sales, was Activision’s Modern Warfare 3.  On the surface, this is clearly not just an attempt to broaden the install base for EA’s Origin service, but also an attempt to compete for some gaming dollars that may have been put in Activision’s pocket in the last couple months.  I don’t think that giving away BF3 was thought by EA to  be a sordid “Modern Warfare Killer”, but I am not naive enough to believe that it wasn’t a topic on the table.  EA wasn’t trying to drop the bomb on Modern Warfare 3, but it definitely knew that a portion of it’s players would get caught in the blast zone.  Modern Warfare 3 is now a few months old, the PC platform has not made the same strides, with features and DLC, that the console versions have.  With PC players bored with the current content and potentially frustrated over a lack of features and DLC timeframe announcements, this is what I call a target rich environment, Goose.

3 ) PC Sales and Gaming Are Not Where They Once Were – Pick you jaw up from your lap, yes, I said it.  The data does not lie; PC gaming is doing very well, but it is far from the primary choice of many gamers today.  Sales figures of any cross-platform title will support that statement; it is the reason we see shoddy ports on PC, or sometimes no ports at all.  Game sales and profits fall on the console side, by far.  The succulent cherry on top of this sundae of carnage is the fact that BF3, and every PC port, seems to undersell.  By targeting the PC for this promotion, EA knows that many players who desire to import their Shepard, will be doing so on XBOX 360 and PS3, in greater numbers than on PC.  Knowing the the sales numbers will be less on PC, and knowing that Battlefield 3 may not have sold as well as hoped on PC, this is a fantastic and less expensive way to sweeten the pot, push a few more PC sales out of Mass Effect 3, and widen the install base for both Battlefield 3 and Origin.  Let’s not forget that with giving this version away for free, digitally, EA is also avoiding any fees in retail packaging and shipping.  I haven’t liked a lot of the choice EA has made in the last couple years, but this is a brilliant move to push two of their premiere game franchises and their new digital platform.

4 ) The Fourth Quarter Push – If it’s somehow eluded you by now, we are less than a month away from the launch of Mass Effect 3.  If we are to believe the figures on this VGChartz website, illustrating pre-orders sold per game in the US, we can see that most of the core Mass Effect fans have probably already handed over their money for ME3, far reducing the pool of remaining pre-orders.  Couple that with the fact that we know that the PC will already offer less pre-orders for the game, and even less late pre-orders for the game, we see exactly how shrewd a business move for EA this was.  Now even if the number of pre-orders is inaccurate, with 654,132 copies pre-ordered for 360, 156,534 on PS3 and a paltry 76,734 on PC, I would hazard a guess that a similar ratio will be seen between those platform sales numbers.  Once again, we started with a small pool of PC sales, 3 weeks from launch that pool has drastically reduced, and now EA knows that the loss it will take on giving away BF3 copies is small compared to the potential benefit of multiplying the install base for Mass Effect 3 and Battlefield 3 on PC, and the install base of it’s Origin system.  Very tricksy precious!

What Happens Now?

Know that Mass Effect 3 would require Origin to play on PC, there is a rich crop of gamers that are committed to buying the game and dealing with Origin anyway, even though that percentage is not as high as that on the 360 and PS3.  That being said, why not take your gaming dollars to Origin?  If the PC is your platform of choice and you somehow have not picked up Battlefield 3 by the time of this writing, then what reason would you have for going to another retailer to pre-order your copy?  I’m sure that I am the minority for not just playing on PC, but for not having pre-ordered by now, so this is a deal that I simply cannot pass up.  I will be very interested to see statistics on this deal, should EA ever choose to release that information.  This is a fantastic deal on the surface, it looks like a brilliant PR move that is trying to recapture some fans who have been potentially soured on EA and Origin.  Yet, if we look at all the data on hand, this really isn’t that much of a gamble for EA, it’s really a Win-Win proposition for them that won’t take much out of their pocket at all.  If anything, it may amount to some extra DLC sales number for both game titles on PC.  In addition, pull people into the Origin system and show them that it’s not the dark evil that the gaming blogs have made it out to be, and EA may snag some game sales for other titles, within Origin, from their new subscribers.  I have to say, I am very impressed by this move by EA.  I don’t pretend to think that we are seeing a change of heart, but any choice that favors the consumer is a winning choice for me.  If you are interested in seeing this for yourself, or reading about the pre-order, head on over to the site here.  The only catch is that you must not already own Battlefield 3, and you will also have to wait until Mass Effect 3 launches to redeem your free copy of Battlefield 3.  Good luck in the battles of this era and the future clash against the reapers, I hope to see you on Origin!

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