Suggests EA’s attitude to its customers is improving – gradually
The rise of The Sims is inextricably linked to the rise of its publisher. The first game in the series was an experiment by Will Wright that found extraordinary success with a far broader demographic than EA would have normally reached. The Sims was in many ways a precursor to social games, to browser-based strategy and the other incredibly lucrative forms of the medium that largely fall outside of what hobbyists concern themselves with. Its formidable popularity has meant it has passed through every business model that EA has experimented with over its long, long history of asking slightly too much for slightly too little.
This begins with the era of the expansion pack, of continual boxed iteration that maintained a game’s presence on shelves, and continued – with The Sims 3 – into the era of microtransactions and downloadable content. The Sims Online used a subscription-based model and, in its later incarnation as EALand, spawned an experimental user-generated content store. The series expanded onto Facebook, console and mobile, as part of an EA-wide attempt to spread its successful brands as broadly as possible and then monetise them down to the nuts and bolts.
The middle section of The Sims 3’ s lifecycle coincides neatly with arguably the lowest point in EA’s reputation with players – the years following the acquisition of BioWare when Battlefield became an annualised answer to Call Of Duty, Dragon Age was disastrously retooled as a fantasy-action game, and dayone DLC and extensive preorder promotions became the rule. In this period, which arguably lasted until the end of 2013, it became impossible to buy an EA game unless you bought it on EA’s terms, particularly on PC where download service Origin gradually became the publisher’s sole method of distribution. EA’s customers were tightly corralled into purchasing decisions that left them feeling both mugged and legislated against: if you didn’t buy a specific version of a new BioWare game at launch, you’d miss out on entire companion characters, storylines and expansions further down the line. It’s this that fostered the sense that EA’s primary aim was to drain, rather than serve, its customers – and EA’s favourite developers – of everything they had, and saw the publisher crowned Worst Company In America two years in a row.
The Sims 4 marks a slight but tangible improvement to the status quo – a change in the company’s attitude that should, hopefully, put the worst of these damaging monetisation experiments behind it. At launch, the game’s preorder and special-edition bonuses are meagre. Purchase the digital deluxe edition and you’ll receive a few new pieces of tikithemed furniture, a couple of hats and a downloadable soundtrack; nice to have but not something the average player will miss. Furthermore, there’s no sign of a premium content store in the game at all at launch, which seems like such a shocking omission for the company that we had to check twice.
The Gallery, which could have been a prime platform for microtransactions, is simply a way for players to freely share the things they’ve made. This level of connectivity could have been used to justify making an alwaysonline game with all of the attendant benefits to repelling piracy – but no, it’s entirely optional. There will, inevitably, be expansions, but they will at least be a known and quantifiable cost to the player, and can be sensibly assessed on individual merits.
If it seems odd to praise a company for its decision to not do something awful, consider that this is the cynical position EA has left its players in over the past couple of years. The Sims 4 marks a positive shift away from those attitudes, in all regards except price: the digital deluxe edition costs £60, and the standard edition – which costs a heaving £50 – is hidden in a submenu on Origin.