EA Access Marks the Beginning of the End for Your Physical Game Library

By Gerald Lynch on at

Back at my mum’s place, I have a chest that documents nearly 25 years of my being a gamer. From big-box Amiga games to NEO-GEO handheld titles (yes, I owned one), through to more modern PS1 and PS2 classics, I’ve been able to hold onto many of the games that I’ve enjoyed throughout my life. The unveiling of EA Access, the gaming giant’s Netflix-for-gaming subscription service, may mean that this generation will see the last physical entries into that chest.

For £3.99 a month, EA Access will give Xbox One gamers the option to play a number of EA titles without having to buy them at a store -- digital or brick-and-mortar. Launching to select users in a beta mode today, titles so far confirmed as available through EA Access include FIFA 14, Battlefield 4, Peggle 2 and Madden NFL 25. However, EA has hinted that this will quickly expand to include brand new titles (Dragon Age Inquisition and FIFA 15 have been specifically mentioned), and it will also take in early-access offerings and discounts to DLC packs.

On one level, this is excellent for the cash-strapped gamer -- you’ve access to what looks set to be the majority of EA’s game catalogue for little more than the price of one game over the course of an annual subscription. Then there’s the convenience of early access and pre-loading titles, as well as discounted incentives to stick with your most-loved games.

For Microsoft it’s a coup too. It, and the Xbox One, has enjoyed a close relationship with EA since the beginning of the current console generation, and EA Access will act as an added incentive for gamers to jump onboard with the Xbox rather than the PS4. Alongside the Xbox’s own Games with Gold service, it’s now got a comprehensive subscription gaming offering to trump even Sony’s PS Plus.

But, and this is potentially a massive but, you’ll never actually own anything on EA Access. Your access to the games it offers will be limited to you keeping up a continued subscription. A single game purchase is quick money for EA, but if it can convince you to pay a monthly fee for continued access to one of its games years after launch, it may pull in considerable amounts more. This is not unique -- we’re not buying as much as we used to in this digitised internet age, and so companies are increasingly turning to services rather than product offerings. Any Spotify subscriber has no ownership over their playlists, nor any Netflix subscriber ownership over the movies they watch. Longterm ownership has been sacrificed for convenience and bite-sized affordability.

The real worry for me then is the shift towards a completely digital-only gaming catalogue. More than any other entertainment industry, gamers have embraced digital purchases -- Steam in particular, with its ridiculously good sale offers, springs to mind. With reduced distribution costs and control over the resale market and the profits it steals, games developers can certainly see the benefit to digital services like EA Access -- to the point where the physical game increasingly seems anachronistic.

More than music or movies however, games are particularly reliant on the technology that serves as their backbone. What if EA suddenly decides to pull the plug on the server that provides gamers with access to Dragon Age? Or internet services for the Xbox One are killed some years down the line, cutting access altogether? I can strum my favourite Dylan song on a guitar if the internet blows up, but games you play via EA Access will always need a tether to the matrix. In the days of cartridges and disc-only offline games, this wasn’t a problem -- I can enjoy a trip down memory lane with my N64 and Ocarina of Time any day I please. But in the future, as we continue the transition to a digital-only time, a nostalgic gaming session will be at the mercy of those whose services provide access to once-loved, now ageing titles. If your favourite game is no longer a monetary draw, it may be lost forever.