EA Origin Access and The Death of The Demo

Yesterday I wrote a piece about my Mass Effect: Andromeda First Impressions in which I made mention of gaining access to a trial version of the game through EA’s Origin ‘Access’ system. This was my first experience with the service or any service like it.

For those who don’t know about EA Origin Access – it’s a subscription service that offers you access to free copies of old games, ‘trial’ versions of upcoming games, and discounts for existing, recent games. The subscription fee stands at around £4 for a month, or £20 for a year.

Many of you may remember being a child or a young adult and buying a gaming magazine with a bonus insert – usually a disc containing demos to multiple, upcoming, would-be AAA games of their time. They could also be included in cereal boxes, or you could find somewhere online to download a demo on your old-school internet connection. Now, I can’t remember the last time I got to play a demo as an added extra that came with a magazine or from anywhere else. That’s not to say that they categorically don’t exist anymore, and “free” multiplayer betas are prominent. Overall, however, the gaming industry and journalism in general have moved away from magazines and as a result physical, free demos are far less common. EA have seized this opportunity in their development of EOA. 

This raises a semi-moral question – Is EOA justified? Is it fair to charge for trial versions of games when in the past, they’d be accessible for free? Yes, EOA allows gamers to access some other, older games for free, and there are discounts available for other products as well, but as a whole, is it fair?

I am of the opinion that charging for access to demos is an inherently bad thing. Yes, you’ll get a discount on the final game with EOA, but the idea that they’re going to develop a version of the game for demonstration purposes and hold that back from a large number of people who aren’t willing to pay doesn’t sit right with me.

It isn’t EOA that scares me. I actually think that on balance, it’s a decent service. If you use it properly, you may end up saving money, but that’s only if you use it enough and you never run into a game whose full version isn’t appealing enough to you. It’s the precedent that services like EOA sets which worries me more than anything. At what point does it become too much about prying our money from us before a game is even released? Does it not drive a wedge between gamers who are willing and able to pay, and those who aren’t? While EOA doesn’t break the bank, it offers a real-life “pay to win” scheme and as a result, it segregates those who can pay and those who can’t. It makes the playing field unlevel, and the only way to level it again is by shelling out a subscription fee.

The solution for me would be to offer a subscription service which offers discounts and free copies of older games which may have fallen through the cracks, but make the service cheaper and leave demos out of it.

I sincerely hope that the likes of Origin Access aren’t the beginning of something much worse. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in future, developers did away with the subscription service and charged fees per demo. The whole idea seems like an attempt to gauge whether people are okay with paying to play demos, and the more we all buy into it, the more encouraged they’ll become to further divide the user base for monetary gain.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but the signs are there. Free demos may be very much a thing of the past, but let’s try to avoid making paid demos a thing of the future. If you ever have the option to pay a one-off fee for the trial version of a game, don’t do it.

What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.

 

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Mass Effect Andromeda: First Impressions

The original Mass Effect trilogy was a grand space opera, brimming with interesting characters, engaging quest lines and unrivalled character development. It gave players the opportunity to carve their own narrative over the course of hundreds of hours of enthralling game play which improved with each new instalment.

It’s for these reasons, then, that the announcement of Andromeda was met with high levels of expectation and hope. It’s also for these reasons, however, that many people might be left disappointed.

While I don’t necessarily agree with the idea behind it, I stumped up the £4 subscription fee to EA’s early access service in order to play the ‘trial’ version of the game. At the time of writing, I’ve played just over four hours.

I wanted to personalise my experience and as such, I was incredibly excited to make use of the character creator in the perhaps vain hope that it

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You can make your character look like a clown with ease, but you’ll struggle to make them look realistic.

would be an improvement on the last Mass Effect. What I got, instead, was a barely serviceable tool that feels like it was added in as an afterthought. It both looks and feels like a step backwards. I decided to try and create a custom male Ryder character because the default female character looks like she was handmade out of clay by an infant, and I didn’t think I was up to the task of salvaging her. My attempts to make something semi-decent were thwarted by a severe lack of options and a clunky interface. I ended up reverting back to the default male Ryder and moving on.

 

Story-wise, what I’ve gathered in the very limited amount of time that I’ve spent playing the actual game is that Andromeda definitely has potential. From the offset, the player is met with that sense of grandeur and danger that is so familiar to the series. The task at hand is gargantuan. You play as either Scott or Sara Ryder, the son/daughter of ‘The Pathfinder’ – Alec Ryder. Your role is to find a new home world for humanity in the Andromeda galaxy. The opening sequences are exciting and captivating as you are made aware of the challenge ahead, and it definitely feels like you’re about to go on a great adventure.

These opening sequences and later cut-scenes, however, are frequently undermined by shoddy animation and sub-par writing. I found myself regularly failing to understand what had been said in a conversation because I was transfixed by how bad some of the facial animations are. It’s particularly noticeable in human characters. As mentioned previously, they often look like they’re made out of clay. Eyes look like they’re trying to escape from their sockets. Eyelashes look glued to the face. Some of the characters walk as if they’ve made a mess in their underwear. There are a few moments where I was convinced Alec Ryder was trying to talk with a mouth full of coins. I don’t believe it’s bad enough to completely break the game, but it’s immersion-breaking and if, like me, you play RPGs to immerse yourself in another world, you’ll find yourself struggling.

One of the redeemable qualities of the game is the combat. The original trilogy was a transition over time from a pure RPG to an action game with RPG elements, and Andromeda has made further strides towards getting the balance right. Engaging the enemy gives you an opportunity to make use of a very wide range of abilities and weapons, and you can gradually build your version of Ryder to fight in the way that you want. It seems fleshed out and tactical, and enemies adapt appropriately. I was playing on the second highest difficulty and had to make sure to approach battles with care or I’d find myself dead pretty quickly. The Kett, the main ‘antagonists’, are a worthy adversary and it’s not a case of ‘good vs. evil’ but rather a power struggle which is packed with moral grey areas. Their approach to combat is challenging and it keeps you on your toes. Outside of combat, you have access to a plethora of upgrades and a wide range of weapons to keep your experience fresh.

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The Ryder twins have a big job on their hands if they’re ever going to live up to the late, great Commander Shepard. From what I’ve gathered so far, whomever you may choose is vastly different to our hero from the original trilogy. I’ve been playing as Scott. He’s younger, more naive and less prepared than Shepard was, and as such, is quite endearing. He’s not the typical space cowboy that you might expect, and so far he’s had plenty of redeemable moments. As it stands, I don’t know if he’ll be as memorable as Shepard, but there’s a lot to like about him. The only criticism that I do have about the new approach to the protagonists is that they seem to be much less flexible. Instead of Paragon/Neutral/Renegade dialogue options, you can now respond with different styles of conversation including ’emotional’, ‘logical’ or even ‘professional’. While that sounds like it’s a big improvement, at the moment it seems to me like multiple paths to the same destination. It doesn’t seem like it matters what you say, it always comes around to the same conclusion. Again, I’ve only played four hours, so can’t be certain if this is true, but there are worrying signs. You may have to do some of your own role-playing in your head to see some proper character development, and I’m not totally prepared to do that. The game seems to have taken some lessons from Fallout 4’s dialogue system, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Furthermore, you seem unable to be as ruthless as you could be in the previous games. Whether that’s an oversight or a deliberate choice, I find it sad that I won’t be able to punch any reporters in the face.

Four hours is never enough time to judge an entire game, but from what I’ve seen so far, Mass Effect: Andromeda has the potential to be a fun experience, but it’s somewhat held back by graphical errors and glitches, and poor writing. It remains to be seen whether or not it will live up to the hype of its predecessors, but from what I can tell, it will at the very least be an enjoyable game, but not one of the greats.