EA Sports MMA was conceived as a two-year series, alternating publication years with its Fight Night cousin. No one thought it would be getting a sequel after its major licence, Strikeforce, was acquired by the UFC. But pulling the plug on MMA's servers shows the first edition's lifespan fell far short of EA Sports' expectations.
Then-boss Peter Moore admitted as much to me back at E3, saying that missed marketing forecasts were to blame for EA's faceplant with the new venture, not the product's quality. At any rate, so few players could be found online that this became one of the fastest, if not the fastest, EA Sports title to be completely shut down.
But it was also the first EA Sports title using the hated Online Pass to be have online access deactivated. And that adds a little tension in the push-pull in the gamer-publisher relationship, which is seen every year in sports video gaming as annual titles are retired.
What carries primacy? A customer's expectation of service — for a minimum amount of time, anyway; or a publisher's expectation that a worthwhile product is actually used?
One commenter on Operation Sports, who said he preferred EA Sports MMA to UFC Undisputed conceded that he never saw more than 10 to 20 players online on the PS3 version. If EA Sports was seeing numbers like this, it's been sent a rather convincing message by the marketplace: We don't care for your game.
However, customers were sent a very clear message in June 2010, when EA Sports published its first title with an Online Pass gateway: Maintaining these servers costs money; users need to pay for that.
And yet we have an outcome that proceeded under the old rules of online support: It can be taken down at any time, with a 30-day notice, which is a reasonable prerogative if the support is implied to be free.
It was, technically, for EA Sports MMA, if you bought the retail version of the game. Those who did likely did so very early during the game's release, and moved on from it long ago. In any event, terminating the servers, however swiftly, doesn't really affect them.
It does affect those who bought the game used and then bellied up for the Online Pass, giving EA Sports what it sought, a cut of the used transaction. Though maybe they, too, played it and tossed it long ago. I am sure there is at least one person out there who bought an Online Pass for this sometime in the last six months. I'd love to talk to him.
The lawyers would hate this, but it would seem that the existence of some kind of paid online support deserves the decency of a commitment to a period of time supporting it. It doesn't have to be in writing, or a EULA that no one reads anyway. It could simply be an internal policy. 2K Sports, for example, does this.
It keeps online support active for at least the current title in any existing series — and the last title of a cancelled series. All-Pro Football 2K8 and College Hoops 2K8 were both sales disappointments, yet you may still play either of these five-year-old titles online. It's more than finding a ranked match, too. Shared customisation options like rosters and sliders also depend on online support. This is why our Biff Tannen's Sports Almanac simulation uses College Hoops 2K8 and not NCAA Basketball 10, whose online support was closed out sometime last year.
But there also has to be some concession and perspective from gamers. We saw a lot of heat from PC gamers on this particular subject, which is amusing because MMA was never launched on that platform. A real-world store isn't a great analogy, because while a gamer has paid money for a service, he's not continually doing so in the Online Pass case. Consider a free or subsidised community resource, like a library. If that's not being patronised, it's going to be shut down, disappointing as it is.
Gamers have to understand their moral argument is weakened if they're going to war over something they stopped playing long ago. But that doesn't diminish, whatever its contractual ones, the moral obligation for EA Sports not to cut and run so soon.