EA thinks gaming subscriptions will lead to weirder, more creative games

Nearly every video game publisher wanted to talk about subscription services last week at E3, but some top executives know some will inevitably fail. In an attempt to stand out, however, more game publishers may rely on developers to make innovative, experimental games designed for these services.

Mike Blank, EA’s senior vice president of player networks and the man who oversees the game publisher’s subscription service, is one of those executives thinking about the industry’s pivot. EA’s premium subscription service, Origin Access Premier, is one of the more established platforms in the space. Akin to Netflix or Hulu, Origin Access Premier collects a bunch of games from EA and third-party developers the publisher works with, and offers them to players for $14.99 per month.

At $15 a month, Origin Access Premier is more than a Netflix or Hulu subscription, but it’s on par with other subscription services entering the gaming sphere. Ubisoft’s new subscription games service, set to launch in September, will also cost $14.99 a month, as does Microsoft’s new Game Pass Ultimate. Then there are individual subscriptions for specific games, like World of Warcraft from Blizzard, that complicate the space further.

It’s overwhelming — and while Blank thinks having a space that’s “ripe for innovation and experimentation” is a good thing, some of the offerings will inevitably fail. Most companies are only beginning to announce and launch their offerings. That buys publishers some time to try to figure out the space, but as the entire industry seems to pivot toward subscription offerings, it will eventually become oversaturated.

“There aren’t 50 gaming subscriptions in the market right now,” Blank told The Verge. “If we do reach that point, I do think people will have to choose. That means some of us will succeed, and some of us will not.”

Blank isn’t the only one who feels that way; Xbox executive Phil Spencer told The Vergelast week that he doesn’t “think we’re going to end up with 100 successful subscriptions out there.” Publishers and platforms are fighting for a piece of consumers’ monthly entertainment budget. It’s a facet of the industry’s imminent future that both Spencer and Blank are astutely aware of, but consider themselves in good places.

“When I first started at EA and tried to convince the company to take on subscription, there was trepidation, there was some anxiety,” Blank said, adding that there was an internal push within the company about five years ago to try to adopt a streaming strategy. “Our view of the world is that the migration happening toward subscription based services and this is happening everywhere. This has preceded us in every industry.”

The gaming industry is still figuring out what makes the most sense for players. What Blank and his team at EA recognized about five years ago was the shift in relationship between people playing games and the companies supplying titles. It’s something that he refers to as a “mutual relationship.” People want to get the most value out of their dollar, and subscription services offer players with the option to play top-tier new releases, but also sort through an assortment of back catalogue titles they can try out for the first time or return to.

EA’s big advantage in a quickly crowding space is being far ahead of the competition in collecting data about what players want and don’t want out of a subscription service. The company says it has learned that subscribers need access to new games that people are talking about, but that players will also try or revisit older games simply because they’re available. This allows EA and the company’s various development studios to take a chance on titles that otherwise may have been considered too experimental for a retail release. (EA already runs its own indie publishing label, EA Originals, which announced a trio of new titles last week.)

It’s the Netflix strategy — and that’s an aspect of gaming’s move into subscriptions that Blank is most excited about. People are “playing more games than ever before because those games are there to try and they’re there for free,” he says. Instead of having to create games that need to sell in large quantities — blockbusters like Red Dead Redemption 2need to sell millions just to break even — having a constant, built-in revenue from subscription fees allows developers and publishers to take more creative risks. It’s why for every season of Stranger Things, Netflix has a couple of offbeat TV shows and movies. The same thing could eventually be true for games.

“The value of a subscription is ultimately, from a business standpoint, how much do players engage with the subscription,” Blank said. “If you can provide them with new and different experiences they might stay for longer. I think we will build new and different games that will fit within the subscription itself.”

Keeping players happy and engaged with the subscription itself will be what decides whether a platform succeeds or fails, according to Blank. Ubisoft, EA, Microsoft, and any other publishers looking to get into the space will have to figure that component out as they fight for customers’ limited time and budget.

“Those [services] that they do not engage with, they just won’t continue,” Blank said. “Money doesn’t grow on trees. Consumers will have to be discerning about where they decided to spend their money. They’re going to have multiple subscriptions from multiple industries, and they’ll choose the ones that are most meaningful to their lives.”

Blank is confident that Origin Access Premier is one of those services. But so is Spencer about Game Pass. As is Brenda Panagrossi, vice president of platform and product management at Ubisoft. Much like the streaming wars happening between traditional entertainment companies entering the fold, we’ll have to wait to see which subscription services come out on top.