When you offer someone a service you’re offering to do something for them. Giving a shoe shine. Towing a car. Giving a lapdance. Demolishing a building. Giving a palm reading. Performing a concert. Giving a massage. Fixing a sink. Having sex for money. Giving a haircut. Assassinating someone. Business consulting. These are services. (Note that not all of these services are legal in all areas. Please consult with your local regulations before performing any of these services. Especially business consulting.) These are all activities that take place at a specific time. The videogame business began as a service. You’d go to the bar or the arcade and put in your quarter and the machine would give you a few minutes of amusement. When it was over you didn’t have anything to show for your quarter except whatever memories you’d accrued while the machine was in your employ.

But then came home gaming consoles and games went from being a service to being a product. Suddenly when you bought a game you were buying an actual thing you could hold in your hand and say, “I own this. It’s mine.” This is how games have worked (arcades aside) for most of my life. Once in a while you’d have an MMO game that would be a service, but for single player games the deal was straightforward: Pay money and get a tangible thing in return.

Thirty years after home consoles turned games into a product, Valve Software introduced Steam and began trying to turn games back into a service. You may have noticed that this was a little controversial. Over the years I may have written a word or two about it myself.

The idea of “games as a service” is a bit odd to me because when you buy a game you still get a few physical objects like a disk and a manual and a box covered with hilarious exaggerations, which makes it feel like a product. Calling it a service seems strange because the service is open-ended and doesn’t take place at a distinct time. You know when a haircut or a lapdance or a concert ends. But when does your videogame service “end”? Supposedly the service goes on forever, although most of us know better than to take that at face value. (Of course there are ongoing services – like Cable TV – but those require ongoing payments to maintain.)

But you can’t argue with success. Aside from suspicious old curmudgeons like myself, gamers are ready to embrace the service of gaming, as long as it offers them a good deal.

It’s been a slow process, but other publishers have been moving in this direction as well. EA CEO John Riccitiello recently gave an interview where he used the “s” word when describing his company’s products.

Unfortunately, the non-Valve publishers are still murky on what this new service is and how it should work. I’m not sure why. It’s not like Valve’s business model is a secret. Valve offers us universal access to the game from anywhere, an unlimited backup service with cloud saves, free unlimited multiplayer, achievements, and (for a few titles) full Mac / PC support so that you can buy a game once and play it on either platform.


(It should go without saying, but the entire previous paragraph should be accompanied by a gigantic asterisk disclaimer “As long as you have an internet connection.”)

Now let’s compare the Valve service to the Electronic Arts service and see how EA is serving gamers:

Riccitiello pointed out that games are only 50% complete at launch. (Or more accurately, only 50% of the work has been done.) The rest of the game comes out post-launch in the form of patches and DLC. So I guess the new gaming service is getting half a game, and getting the other half later. Except… don’t they normally charge money for extra DLC? So the EA gaming service is really buying half a game at full price and getting the other half in additional $10 increments? That’s not a service. That’s just a really expensive product.

Riccitiello talked about the EA Online Pass program, where you pay $10 to be able to play online. This is a pretty unpopular move, although it makes sense from EA’s standpoint. Servers cost money to run, and so it probably seems reasonable to get the funding from the people that actually use it. To me this is preferable than the day-one DLC that requires you to go online to get maps or characters, since it doesn’t punish or exclude the single-player types who don’t have their consoles online. On the other hand, people already pay a fee just to play online through XBox Live, and they’re not going to be happy about having two toll booths between themselves and online play.

EA might say that the game itself is the service, but that’s not likely to go over well with consumers. We used to get the game by default. Why should someone have to provide something we should already have? The game feels more like a hostage than a service.

Are games a product or a service? With EA, the answer seems to be highly situational:

Gamer: Why is my game missing key characters and items?

EA: Games are a service. You need to connect to the internet so we can provide you with the day one DLC.

Gamer: I scratched my disc and my game no longer works.

EA: Hey, games are a product. You should have taken care of your stuff.

Gamer: I want to loan my game to a buddy so he can try the online multiplayer.

EA: Games are a service that you can’t transfer to another party. Your friend will need to purchase an Online Pass for himself.

EA is in a tough spot. When they need to, Valve can do business through the Steam store and bypass retail entirely, but EA still has to worry about the used game market. EA is also limited in what they can do by the confines of XBox Live and the Playstation Network. (The only people really in a position to rival Steam are Sony and Microsoft, who could turn their console platforms into full digital stores. If they don’t attempt this in the next console generation, they are idiots. Not that I would be happy with this move, but it would make business sense and let them neuter the used game market. Plus, I’d get to write so many long angry screeds about it!) EA has tremendous power over the developers in their stable, but they have little power over the gatekeepers between themselves and the consumer. I realize it’s not possible for EA to simply replicate the Steam model on a console, and I don’t expect them to. But changing games from a product to a service means more than just ripping content out of the game and changing the EULA.

EA might want to offer us a service, but they’ll need to bring something new to the table, not just ransom the stuff we used to get for free.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, and Stolen Pixels, Shamus Plays, and Spoiler Warning. He’s really busy.

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