The next phase of Electronic Arts’s push into free-to-play gaming began this week as the company consolidated its digital businesses. Play4Free.com, EA’s web portal directing to early free-to-play games like Battlefield Heroes, is no longer an independent entity. Now it’s a part of EA’s digital game platform and network Origin, renamed appropriately as Origin Free To Play.
“Why change to Origin Free to Play?” reads EA’s press release, “The main reason is convenience for players—Origin now becomes your single destination for paid download PC games and free-to-play games alike.”
Of course, that’s not the main reason at all. The main reason is branding. Electronic Arts wants all of its toys in the same cabinet, so that it can entice the diehard Battlefield 3 PC player to potentially try out a free game like Battlefield Heroes if they’re looking at both games through the Origin user interface. Tightening its efforts is essential for a sprawling business like EA, and the switch jives well with EA’s goal of pushing its products across multiple platforms.
Electronic Arts has spent much of 2012 aggressively fortifying itself for a world where video games are not single $60 purchases but games downloaded for free and paid for piecemeal by players that want new content. It’s done this with varying degrees of success. Just take the company’s studio brand BioWare. Word that BioWare’s PC strategy game Command & Conquer: Generals 2 would be free-to-play but would lack a single player campaign, fans revolted and EA decided it would, after all, build single play content.
The company also recently recast BioWare’s MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic as a free-to-play game. The initial changes proved so disastrous that EA had to scramble to change the game yet again within days of the relaunch.
Electronic Arts has left no stone unturned over the past few years, investing heavily in social, mobile, and casual games. The company spent an alleged $1.3 billion on Plants vs. Zombies studio PopCap Games in 2011. Even as its digital business has grown thanks to free-to-play games and casual titles, real financial growth has eluded EA.
Origin Free To Play may be a crucial part of EA’s business at some point, but for the time being packaged products like Madden NFL and FIFA will remain its bread and butter. After all, only 10 percent of the $50 billion in revenue generated by the games industry each year comes from casual players. EA is tilling the soil but there’s no guarantee it will bear fruit.
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