In Real Life

The State Of Origin: EA's Attempt To Build A Head Of Steam

EA’s new service, Origin, has been at the center of controversy since its announcement – but what is Origin? And what are EA’s intentions? We spoke to EA’s Vice President of Global Online David DiMartini about Origin, Steam, Battlefield 3 and the future of Digital Distribution.

“So what happened with Crysis 2,” I began. “Could you guys elaborate on precisely why you guys removed the game from the Steam service?”

Silence. A hesitation. David DeMartini, Senior Vice President of Global Online, began talking, but Jeff Brown, Senior Vice President of Corp. Comm, interrupted. It sounded like a patient laugh, but it may have been an impatient snort. Over the phone it was difficult to tell.

“We did not take Crysis 2 off of steam – that did not happen,” Jeff said, his tone a little… tetchy. “Steam has some restrictions and Crytek has a relationship with another company, Gamespy, which was in conflict with Steam. The decision to remove that had absolutely nothing to do with EA.”

“Thanks for the clarification,” I said, tactfully.

This interview had gotten off to a great start.

The announcement of EA’s new Digital Distribution service, Origin has raised eyebrows, and more than a few questions. Since its inception Origin appears to be stumbling from one misunderstanding to another. Will Battlefield 3 be releasing exclusively on the service? Why challenge Steam? Will Origin open up the floodgate for other publishers in the digital space?

To get the correct answers, we had to speak to the correct people and David DiMartini, Snr Vice President of Global Online, is among those people. With EA’s experiments in Facebook, Mobile Gaming and Digital Distribution, it’s DiMartini’s job to help piece together CEO John Riccitiello’s vision for EA as a company.

Origin, resolutely, remains at the center of that vision.

“Origin is the centrepiece of what we’re trying to do in the online space,” begins David. “When you think of the pieces that John Riccitiello has, I think, very astutely put in place – we’re the leader in the mobile space, we’re number two in the social space, we’ve partnered with great services – this hasn’t happened by accident!

“There is an overarching strategy. And Origin is one of the cornerstones of that strategy.”

So far, as a result of circumstance and arguably planning, Origin hasn’t quite gotten off to the greatest of starts. The controversy over Crysis 2’s removal from Valve’s Steam service – regardless of who or what was to blame – has only served to highlight one simple fact: Steam is the undisputed leader in the online Digital Distribution space, and it may take a small miracle to dislodge it.

DiMartini’s view, however, is simple: the ubiquity of Steam’s service is hardly a reason not to compete.

“We want to provide choice and choice is better,” claimed David DeMartini. “We have a feeling that with a service like Origin – where we’re providing not only a commerce piece, but a social area that allows people to combine their games with their friend lists – we feel that this service is going to enhance your gameplay experience.

“And when we more tightly integrate this over time with our game development teams, Origin will create a better gaming experience for gamers.

“Although there is some element of commerce in this service, it’s really targeted at the idea that if gamers are having more fun playing games with their friends, then other friends are more likely to participate in those same games.”

There’s no disputing it, competition is positive, but it will be very difficult to compete with Steam – a service loaded with community features, a service that every PC gamer is familiar with. Still, EA and DiMartini appear convinced that Origin will, eventually, find its niche.

“What we’d say about Steam is that, you know, Steam’s been around a long time,” says David, “and it’s certainly a service that people are familiar with. I think that Origin is going to be another service that gamers will become incredibly familiar with, and when they see the exciting things we’re going to be doing over time to create that enhanced gaming experience, I think people will come to love it.”

Of course, EA’s strength lies in its vast array of intellectual properties – Battlefield, Mass Effect, FIFA, Dead Space. As a publisher EA has access to perhaps the most extensive list of AAA franchises in gaming. If the removal of Crysis 2 reminded gamers of Steam’s ubiquity in the digital retail space, it also reminded us of another potential outcome – EA could, if they so desired, simply take their ball and go home.

Could we be looking at a future where EA software is sold exclusively on the Origin service?

“That is not our intention,” states David, resolutely. “We’ve been huge supporters of an open market place and a level playing field, we’ve got great partnerships with retail, we’ve got a great relationship with the guys at Valve.”

But what about the Star Wars: The Old Republic? Isn’t that being released exclusively on Origin?

“Obviously we’ve announced that Star Wars: The Old Republic will be exclusively available on Origin,” he retorts, “but Star Wars is a unique property as an MMO, because you establish a subscription relationship with customers.

“Though Star Wars will be sold at retail, on the digital side, since we are establishing that subscription based relationship with the customers, it was kind of obvious to move in that direction – at least to start with.”

So will key properties such as Battlefield and Mass Effect continue to be released on Steam?

“As it relates to Battlefield and Mass Effect,” says DiMartini, “I think we’re trying to reach as many customers as we possibly can, and we’re trying to give customers as much choice as we possibly can.

“If gamers feel like the feature set of Origin, and Battlefield’s relationship with Origin creates a situation where that’s where they want to purchase and play that game? Then by all means we would encourage that.

“However, if consumers are more interested in purchasing from their favourite retailer, or digitally through other partners,” he continues, “then by all means we would encourage those who earn their business to gain their business.”

In comparison to most other major publishers, EA does appear far more committed to transitioning seamlessly into online retail– as evidenced by its success in the mobile space – but what happens as the balance begins to shift. Does EA expect competition from other publishers, such as Activision and Ubisoft? How long until others begin to focus their resources in a similar direction?

“I guess that would be up to the other publishers,” begins David. “The analogy I would empoy is our use of social networking services. I’m on Facebook, but I’m also on LinkedIn.

“But ultimately, I think publishers that have the kind of IP we have are few and far between. Those on that level potentially could do something similar, but they’d have to commit a significant amount of internal development capability to do so.

“It’s certainly something that some of the significant publishers will explore. Some will have the ability to go there, and others will potentially partner with others.”

The idea of a splintered, publisher based way of shopping for video games online may not be ideal for a consumer base used to shopping on one, unified service – would EA ever consider selling games from other publishers on Origin?

“Well, since we’ve announced the service, many other publishers have enquired as to whether or not we’d be interested in handling their titles,” states David, openly. “We’ve had our EA partners program for some time now and that has thrived and flourished, so it’s not a significant leap to extend that partnership to other publishers.”

But what about local pricing in specific territories? Would EA allow publishers to set prices specific to each region ala Steam? Australians in particular have had to suffer through some rather unfortunate price hikes – would we see similar practices employed with Origin?

It’s a question most likely outside of DiMartini’s specific remit – but we had to ask regardless.

“That’s probably a little beyond the scope of my responsibility,” claimed David “With prices we work with our various territories and our sales people are way more knowledgeable on that matter. The local guys are probably in the best position to discuss that.”

And at this stage, it’s all hypothetical regardless. EA’s Origin, for now, is a service through which you can buy EA’s video games and not much else. What is interesting, however, is EA’s intentions for the service, and how it fits into a strategy that could see EA best placed to take advantage of gaming’s inevitable move towards Digital Distribution.

But Origin is more than just a place for consumers to buy product – EA’s ambitions appear to be far more sophisticated than that. If EA has its way we’ll be interacting, sharing, building our own communities through the service.

It’s a smart manoeuvre. As the move towards online distribution moves ever closer, we suspect that many publishers will struggle to redefine themselves in an industry that will most likely have little need of the middleman role most have been content to play.

EA, it seems, is at least attempting to secure and forge that new identity – proactively. The rest may find themselves playing catch-up.

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