Electronic Arts and the free-to-play future of NBA Live

nba live free to play

“[We] made a commitment to deliver a high quality experience—this is what our fans expect and what we demand of ourselves at EA Sports,” said the publisher’s VP Andrew Wilson in the Thursday announcement of NBA Live 13’s cancellation, “But making great games is not easy, and we’re just not there yet on NBA Live 13.” For Electronic Arts, fans of the classic NBA series still holding a torch even as NBA 2K has risen to replace it, and especially Electronic Arts’ investors, the cancellation is a bitter pill to swallow heading into the holiday season. In 2010, when EA cancelled the release of Live successor NBA Elite after the game had already gone into production, CEO John Riccitiello pegged the ensuing loss at around $250 million. With two years of development on the new title wasted with no promise of return coming, what can possibly resuscitate EA’s demolished NBA gaming business?

Three simple words: Free to play.

While Electronic Arts’ announcement suggests that it will swing back around with NBA Live 14 for consoles next year, that isn’t a likely future for the series. Budget pricing and cross-platform play are NBA Live’s survival tools based on Electronic Arts’ current business strategy. Consider first Electronic Arts’ broad shift away from traditional pricing for its games. Command & Conquer: Generals 2, originally announced as a full-price retail game, has been transformed into a free-to-play only release. Star Wars: The Old Republic, EA’s struggling MMORPG, has also turned to free-to-play models to survive.

Consider also COO Peter Moore’s focus on cross-platform play experiences for EA properties going forward. “The company has a vision and a mission,” said Moore in June, “The mission is to build the world’s best digital playground with fun for everyone, anywhere, anytime. We think that the future of gaming is cross-platform play, always having something with that’s a gaming device, but everything you do connects.”

These changes in strategy are relevant to NBA Live because of the changing state of the broader video game market. By fall 2013 comes, Microsoft and Sony will be preparing to release Xbox 720 and PlayStation 4. If any work done on the current version of NBA Live is to be saved and used to create revenue for the company, it will have to support those platforms as well as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, in addition to accommodating PCs with modest horsepower. Since the game won’t be seen as a cutting edge product, it makes the most fiscal sense for EA to release the game as a digital only product that’s either free and supported solely by microtransactions (team equipment, player trades, etc.) or with a budget pricing augmented by microtransactions. There are hints that EA was already considering this path with NBA Live 13.

EA is committed to the NBA. “We want to be in NBA forever, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure we are a proper player in the space,” Wilson told ESPN in June. This is how EA will stay in the game.