Unity and Brand Awareness

When we talk about games we occasionally tend to talk about the graphics, the audio, gameplay, but we rarely think about what’s behind all of that: the engine. We hear about Frostbite, EA’s proprietary engine that’s been largely advertised and is responsible for most of their projects, Unreal, behind a lot of some of the biggest AAA releases, and the CryEngine, known for being the driving force behind Crysis.

 

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Battlefield 1 is an example of the power of Frostbite

 

But last week, a controversy surrounding Unity brought to the discussion the image of these engines. A consumer on steam claimed that he wouldn’t buy a game specifically because it was built using Unity. And many wondered why would anybody give up playing a title simply because of the engine used. The answer is brand awareness.

Every decision a company makes, from the color of the product, specs, sounds it does, to the strategy used to advertise it, all of that aims at brand awareness. That basically consists of the image that a company or a product has on the market. The sound the Xbox does when it boots wasn’t chosen by accident, after all, they use at E3, in trailers, all to create a connection with consumers, an identity, a sound that becomes synonymous with the brand, that it doesn’t matter where you are, you recognize it.

Apple is a master at that, from the aspect of the stores, with a clean look mainly composed of glass and a minimalistic approach to its layout, to the box, that according to Steve Jobs should be an experience when opened. The design of their products, focusing on round shapes, the OS that has a friendlier user experience, the integration of the systems, to create the idea of an ecosystem that works perfectly in conjunction. All of that to change or create the perception of the consumer.

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A clean and sophisticated design, a characteristic that Apple cherishes

And when it comes to brand awareness, Unity has a very negative reputation. In part because of poor decisions from management, but mainly because of the games that use the engine. The simplest of the most famous, Unity has made their name as the easiest to use, allowing a user without much game development experience to create a game with less technical hurdles than Unreal and CryEngine.

However, an irresponsible use of assets by developers and an association with low-quality early access games have tarnished the image of not only the engine, as well as the company.

The abusive use of assets from their store has also been responsible for their image problem, with many cases in which we can see the same models and problems in various different games that use Unity.

Developers have used them indiscriminately, with a lot of them using the free license, that requires users to attach their logo to the game, so whenever you start a horrible, poorly designed game and you see their main source of recognition in the splash screen, you relate it to a bad experience.

Many of these titles proliferated through Steam Early Access, and even though we can find many using CryEngine and Unreal, Unity has been the most linked to them.

Another factor is that whereas the other engines appear to be used mainly on AAA games, we rarely see that happening with Unity. The most high-profile project using it is Hearthstone, that is not the kind of game that feels like AAA. Just look at some famous games powered by these engines.

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CryEngine
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Unreal

 

From what we’ve seen, this situation apparently won’t change that quickly, as the company doesn’t appear to be all that bothered about it. And that could quickly result in a bad ending for them, particularly after the backlash it has suffered recently.

If they are responsible, working on a rebranding focused on attaching their product with quality games, looking to sway the notion gamers have of them, everything can change quickly. If no action is taken, they can either accept that they will never be among the best engines or even worse, become another company that died due to irresponsible management, that didn’t take the market’s viewpoint seriously.

Branding and Games: When Marketing Deceives

Whether we like it or not, marketing is the driving force behind not only games, but also movies, music, entertainment in general. Even though producers, designers, talk about the craft and art into making a game, a lot of decisions, like the main character, come from marketing. Life is Strange had a hard time finding a publisher because the game had a female protagonist, for example.

Its main motivation is to bring awareness to a product, service, or a person, after all, it doesn’t matter if you created the most revolutionary game ever, if nobody knows about it. And unfortunately, sometimes campaigns are built around lies, and information that are way out of proportion or greatly enhanced, with a famous example being the infamous Watch Dogs Reveal.

Being announced as the first next-gen title, it had jaw-dropping graphics, unlike anything we’ve seen before on console. A vivid and heavily populated world, infinite gameplay possibilities, touted as a revolution in open-world games. And it really looked like a dream, you playing an action game in one of the biggest cities in the world, serving as a playground so you could hack everything.

And as we all know now, the final result was far from what it was demoed, unimpressive graphics, a Chicago that felt lifeless, and very limited hacking. Now we see the damage it has caused the brand, affecting its sequel, Watch Dogs 2, sales. With low pre-order numbers, its first week of sales being 80% smaller in the UK, and a general perception that it doesn’t matter how great it is, with rave reviews, consumers still feel betrayed and are waiting before any purchase decision. Something that can harm the future of the franchise, all because of a poorly planned strategy, that may have its brand damaged permanently.

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No Man’s Sky was this year example of how an unexperienced studio can destroy its reputation with overblown remarks. Revealed at the VGX Awards in 2013, it became known as the future of games, with beautiful, unexplored worlds that would be procedurally generated. No planet would be like the other, with species to discover, minerals to retrieve, trade, traveling through uncharted galaxies in your ship, it would be ground-breaking, or so we thought.

And what happened? A Molyneux level of exaggerations. Worlds that had nothing to do with what was displayed in various events, that after visiting a few you felt like you’ve seen everything. Repeated textures, that would only change color from planet to planet, empty spaces without the lush vegetation and fauna that was promised. An uninspired game, that felt bland, with a boring soundtrack and trips that would take hours in real life, filled with bugs that affected the experience.

The damage was huge to the game, its brand, and the studio as well. With a huge backlash, gamers around the world feeling deceived, terrible reviews, and a level of hate towards a title like we rarely see. Hello Games has been radio-silent about its problems, with a “hack” (we’re not sure yet) showing a message of Sean Murray claiming it was a mistake. And the consequence of it all is that this franchise is as good as dead, and a studio and a creator that may never have a chance to release another title.

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Mass Effect 3 was one of the most expected titles of 2012, the finale of this amazing trilogy, the last moments of your journey with Shepard. All your choices would directly influence the ending of great story, that captivated gamers around the world. And despite being a great title, that had everything to be an unforgettable experience, ended up infuriating players.

Endings that didn’t feel different, with a simple change of color depending on your last choice, with them being very similar, no matter how you played the first 2 games. An uproar of disappointed fans erupted around the internet, reaching such massive proportions, that Bioware later released a free DLC expanding the endings. But the damage was done, and a series that had to be amongst the greats, until this day has a stain, that has created a careful approach to what gamers are expecting of Mass Effect Andromeda.

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Last but not least, Dead Island, a game who had such an emotional and impactful trailer, that everybody felt that it would change the face of zombie-themed experiences. For a moment, it felt that it would bring games to a whole new level. A narrative that would treat the zombie apocalypse with a much more complex, sophisticated style, showing how it altered society, how it destroyed families.

As it turns out, Dead Island really was just another shallow game, without any of the impact expected, lackluster characters, a thin story, and a brand that never reached the level of respect and success expected. All due to a deceiving trailer that didn’t reflect the final product in any way whatsoever.

Marketing is a wonderful tool, it can introduce us to things we would never know otherwise, bands, movies, games, books, but we have to be very careful about it, so we won’t fall into the trap of a well-designed lie. And companies too, given that consumers are becoming more conscious every day, with pre-order sales decreasing every year, franchises having a hard time continuing after they felt misled. Showing signs that they won’t accept everything that’s thrown at them, no matter how beautiful or incredible it looks.

Branding and games: The Unique Rockstar Case

Quality is a word that’s thrown around in any chance a marketing team has to talk about their “revolutionary new project”, but as we all know, it often doesn’t reflect the final product. In the past months, we saw a special example of how much this word really is important to the market, with the internet going insane over 2 images that Rockstar uploaded to their social networks.

The first, their logo in a color scheme that reminds those of Red Dead Redemption, the second, the one at the top, in which 7 cowboys are walking with a beautiful sunset behind them, and a question remains, why does that happen with Rockstar? How can get they create so much expectation with so little?

They don’t announce anything at E3, gaming’s biggest stage, when other companies fight for attention, instead they manage to do their own thing, revealing their games whenever they want, in the way they desire. Without releasing several trailers, the first few minutes, and offering as little information as possible, they create a level of excitement, hype, and a positive reaction that is practically unrivaled in the business, showing an incredible brand awareness.

And the main reason behind it is the focus that they put on quality, with a strategy of releasing games only when they’re ready, instead of making their franchises annual, they only start advertising them a few months prior to release. Each title usually has some innovation, like GTA V, and its multiple leading characters, they use unusual settings, like schools or the Wild West.

Red Dead Redemption was a perfect example, having its debut trailer in December 2009, being released in May 2010, after several years of development. Receiving rave reviews, being regarded by many as the best game of the generation, and one of the best ever, being recognized for its story, stunning world and memorable characters in a genre that flirted with irrelevance, not only in the games industry but in movies as well.

John Marston, Trevor Phillips, became some of the most prominent figures in the games industry, as a display of the power of the studio and how it has mastered storytelling. The way they handle open-world games is impressive, creating lively environments, being their most famous trait, telling stories that bring different perspectives, maintaining a high level of quality throughout their library.

By creating franchises like Red Dead, GTA, just to name a few, they achieved a level of liberty that few have in the entertainment history as a whole, spending hundreds of millions on their projects whilst breaking records with every GTA sequel. All with a marketing strategy that no other studio would be able to pull off, due to the image they’ve accrued after releasing game of the year contenders, selling tens of millions of copies, achieving both critical and commercial success.

The fuss that has been going on about Red Dead Redemption 2 is a statement to how unique they are as a company in the games industry. People are losing their minds over a sequel of RDR, that was a sequel itself, without nobody caring about the continuity of the franchise, or possessing any concrete information regarding it.

Consumers are creating a huge level of hype on the promise of the product, that because of the studio behind it, they are sure that it will be an amazing experience. Rockstar through careful quality control, a focus on innovation, and an ability to create compelling characters and remarkable stories, reached a position that most companies only dream of, being able to advertise their product only relying on the power of their brand.

Branding and games: Microsoft – The role of Xbox One S and Project Scorpio

During this year’s E3 Microsoft announced the Xbox One S, a slimmer model and with a slightly enhanced performance, being able to process HDR and the capacity of running 4K video and with minor changes to the already great controller, with a bluetooth connection, improved grip, in a much more compact size than the original Xbox One (what’s not really that hard to do), and revealed the long-rumoured Project Scorpio, who will be supposed to be 4x faster than the XOne, but why would they announce 2 consoles in one conference?

The most reasonable answer, the beginning of a rebranding project of the whole Xbox brand, and signs of that becoming a reality started after Phil Spencer took reigns of the division, leaving behind positions and decisions of former management, with one that resonated with the announcement of the S model, the end of mandatory use of kinect, that in this new model doesn’t even have an option to be used natively, requiring the purchase of an adapter.

In the re-design, another change that didn’t look extraordinary was the use of white as the official color of the model, without considering special bundles, implying that they are looking into distancing themselves from the failed launch and good but underwhelming sales of the original Xbox One, presenting new design features, dropping the matte finish, with an integrated power supply, something that didn’t happen since the OG Xbox, leaving that brick behind.

By bringing a new image they hope to have a clean slate on a brand that has been damaged, erasing any memories related to 2013’s launch, with a re-launch of the Xbox One, being able to run games better as tests have shown, a more sophisticated look, up to the latest technologies, with a great lineup of exclusives, creating a more solid ground, culminating next year with the release of Scorpio.

That even though we don’t know much about it, except that it will run 4k games, a subject that has been debated, due to a disbelief in the possibility of that actually happening, being that the most advanced graphics card can struggle to run some games in native 4k, even though the 1080 can run 8 teraflops and Project Scorpio will run 6 teraflops, but we are talking about a dedicated console, instead of a pc that needs to manage a much larger number of processes, it sounds promising.

With that power being up to 4x stronger than the S model, and even more robust than their main competitor, the PS4 Neo, that will be marginally superior to the current PS4, with an improvement of around 40%, exacerbating a huge difference of strategy of both companies regarding the release of their new consoles, with Microsoft focusing on dramatically improving the performance of their product.

But perhaps the biggest change is that these announcements show a company that has decided to take the lead and kick the door of next generation, focused on being the main player, instead of running after Sony, trying to catch up with their success, using the E3 stage to give a sweeping declaration, that they are here to stay, and they are not going to accept being the runner-up, with a far more powerful console and a speech directed to gamers, that all your games will be backwards compatible, and claiming that no one will be left behind, it may be scary to have a smaller console cycle, but as far as it goes, we have signs that it may be interesting to gamers, let’s stay tuned to scenes of the next chapters.

Branding and games: Microsoft – The importance of the Xbox division to Microsoft

Every now and then, new reports of a possible sell of the Xbox division surface in the media, with possible buyers such as Amazon, amongst others showing interest, a situation that seems unlikely nowadays, even though the number of consoles are going through a decrease both in sales and revenues, Xbox Live active users keep growing at a surprising rate, reaching 49 million, up 33% from the same period last year, and if the strategy of Microsoft shows one thing, is that they cannot afford to lose the Xbox brand, at least not for the foreseeable future.

A company known for the Windows OS and Office suite, Microsoft has tried in the past few years a different approach, branching to hardware with the release of Surface, arrival in the smart phone market with Windows Phone, and despite possessing quality products they can’t find the same success as they do in software, being a minor player in these markets, without being able to penetrate in markets dominated by Apple, Samsung, Motorola, going back to the Zune vs iPod failure.

But one brand managed to win not only consumer’s loyalty but also their hearts and mind share, Xbox, that released their first console in 2001, garnering amazing critics around the world due to important innovations in the gaming market, creating a service that has steadily grown, Xbox Live, and one of the biggest franchises in entertainment history, Halo, and has remained important for gamers for 15 years now, with 3 consoles and products such as Gears of War, Forza, Sunset Overdrive, among others.

However the biggest contribution to Microsoft is the ability of the Xbox brand to capture customers of a very important demographic, 18-49 year old’s, who don’t see the company as just another boring software company, but as part of their day-to-day lives, with kids and teenagers who grew up playing Halo now doing it with their kids, being a very profitable group and one that tends to stay faithful to a company, remaining as the only “cool” brand of the company, allowing them to stay in the zeitgeist of pop culture during the last decade.

Other reasons are the strategic role of the brand when it comes to its competitors as seen in the IGN Unfiltered episode with Ed Fries, where he told the story of how one of the reasons for Bill Gates approval of the project was to contain Sony’s ability to dominate the living room, and despite being at second place in this generation, the brand has demonstrated having enough power to compete with the Playstation company as we saw during the 360 generation.

The Seattle-based company also has been trying to become more of a service company, as seen with the free update of Windows 10 and focus on integration throughout all of their platforms, ranging from smartphones to the XOne, with all using their new OS, store and with millions of customers using the Live service they can in the future transition to a digital gaming company, what seems to be the future for this market, as seen with steam and PC gaming.

And another hint that they are becoming closer to the PC market is the reveal of Project Scorpio, that will be a huge investment to the company, and is more than never based on the PC market, with your entire library being backwards compatible, and from what it looks like a smaller console cycle, with different iterations of the same product, with a stronger more expensive machine and a weaker but more affordable one.

Although sales have slowed, maybe due to natural saturation of the market as well as the inevitable release of Scorpio, the brand retains a vital role in Microsoft’s future, that may decide to leave gaming in the future, but the signs point to it being an integral part of their strategy, being a brand that can expand into other areas, what is great news for us gamers, after all we don’t want to lose an important player in our beloved market.

And if you’re curious here’s the episode with Ed Fries, former Xbox studios manager:

 

 

Branding and games: Microsoft – The Phil Spencer Effect

On May 21, 2013 the Xbox One was unveiled officially after years of rumours in a press conference that is unforgettable for all the wrong reasons, a day that was expected to announce the new generation of the Xbox family, is now remembered as an example of what not to do, showing a company that clearly missed their strategy and wasn’t able to understand what their core audience desired, similar to their main competitor in the previous generation.

A conference that has tarnished the brand so negatively that it has never completely recovered, suffering a tremendous backlash from media as well from fans, focusing on the entertainment side and leaving games aside, aligned with controversial decisions regarding invasive and controlling settings, an upper management that seemed lost, creating one of the biggest failures in marketing history and a necessity to overhaul not only their strategy as well as their messaging and the head of the division in order to recover their brand.

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And here comes Phil Spencer, a.k.a Uncle Phil, former general manager of Microsoft Studios, announced in late March 2014 as the new head of the Xbox division with an incredibly difficult task, regaining prestige for the brand and the goodwill of gamers around the globe, using a more human approach and a discourse targeting hardcore gamers.

The main difference between Phil and Don Mattrick, is how charismatic he is, with his image of a gamer who happens to be head of Xbox, not running away from tough questions, successfully communicating with gamers, making decisions that really benefit customers, answering requests like for example the end of the need of having a Gold account to access Netflix and other apps on your console and the arrival of Games with Gold to the Xbox One with quality titles.

A key characteristic of his tenure is the difference of attitude during conferences, that since 2014 has increased significantly the time dedicated to games, with little time to features and eliminating any mention to entertainment, with a much lighter tone, making Spencer famous for using shirts that hint to possible future projects of the company, and making bombastic announcements such as the Xbox One backwards compatibility that garnered headlines worldwide and the Project Scorpio in 2016 that even surprised their rivals.

Another change is a bigger concern towards the customer opinion, constantly upgrading system’s features, adding ones like the aforementioned backwards compatibility, with some of the biggest games from 360 generation becoming playable on the Xbox One, as well as free access to great games for a limited time, like Sunset Overdrive, Halo 5, a revamp of the Xbox One’s dashboard, just to name a few.

On the games side, an unexpected Halo Wars sequel was announced at last year’s Gamescom, a quasi-revival of Rare, with Rare Replay and Sea of Thieves, valuable partnerships with third-party studios for exclusives like Rise of the Tomb Raider, awarded as one of the best titles of last year, Imsoniac’s Sunset Overdrive, the creation of ID@Xbox, a division focused on the release of indie titles like the critically acclaimed Inside.

But the biggest sign of the revolution hat the brand went through was seen at this year’s E3, when the reveal of a new console contrasted drastically to the previous one, from an uproar towards Microsoft with Xbox One, to a positively received announcement of Project Scorpio, using a message that resonated with gamers, claiming that no one will be left behind, your library will accompany you, and all games with be available to all their platforms, instead of the alienating message of the XONE, with tables turning and Sony getting heat for PS4 Neo and Microsoft beloved despite announcing a new console that will be released 4 years after the latest generation, and the main responsible for that change of heart is Phil Spencer, who proved to be not only an outstanding executive but a strong spokesperson for the brand.

And here is the difference of messaging.

Branding and games: EA – How the change of leadership affected the brand

Both in 2012 and 2013 EA was voted as the worst company in America mainly due to practices like day-one DLC’s, purchases followed by the closure of smaller studios, mandatory use of online passes, microtransactions in their games and the troubled launch of SimCity’s reboot, that required an online connection and didn’t feature any offline modes.

But in September 2013, Andrew Wilson, former head of EA Sports was named the company’s new CEO, what triggered a change of strategy looking to modify the market and consumer’s POV regarding the company, with a focus on the four vectors of brand tangibility: product, environment, communication and behaviour.

When it comes to product, their approach to the way they released games, content suffered adjustments, for example the end of online passes that affected customers that really bought their games, not those who pirated it, the revival of highly praised franchises like Mirror’s Edge, please bring back Skate, inclusion of an offline mode to The Sims 4, an attention to indie games with Unravel’s release, announcement of Fe and EA Originals, a program that looks to invest on indie studios, with the sales going directly to them.

On environment, since we are talking about a company with digital products the manner it is handled is a little bit different, and EA Access is an example of that, instead of trying a game inside a physical space, you can obtain extended demos of the full product, with a nice, modern app which presents games that are about to be added to the vault, demos, when they’ll be available, another case was when during Playstation Experience games were offered free charge, and a modification of their PC platform Origin, offering classic games as gateways to experience their catalogue.

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Their style of communication was transformed, with a far more jovial, contemporary attitude and closer to consumers, with a small change to the logo, possessing a more streamlined visual, a unification of the company with the use of only one engine, being the best example EA Play, that represented a departure from E3’s show floor, to a separate event that allowed gamers that otherwise wouldn’t have access to their titles to demo them, bringing them closer diminishing their dependence on media’s opinion, as well as insider programs to games yet to be released, with news from betas and features.

Last but not least, EA’s communication went through an overhaul, going from a stronger bravado to a friendlier company, that cares about eSports, releases surveys about their products and services, targeting on listening to players opinions and a better use of charismatic executives,  bringing them upfront, like former Xbox head, Peter Moore, Andrew Wilson and EA studios head Patrick Söderlund, becoming the faces of the company, creating a bigger connection to gamers, like Playstation did successfully.

All these decisions led to a change of vision towards the company, that still makes mistakes like Star Wars Battlefront season pass, but they appear to be on the right track on to becoming a respected and who knows a beloved company to gamers, the catalogue they have, with EA’s sports titles, the Star Wars license and relevant franchises, along with a management that has made the right decisions with satisfying results.

 

 

 

Branding and games: EA – What Battlefield 4 meant for EA

On this second text focusing on EA, I’ll talk about how the troubled release of Battlefield 4, the company’s biggest franchise, represented the beginning of a turning point for the company, that was going through a transitional moment, amidst a change of leadership, the arrival of a new generation of consoles  and a recently announced partnership with Disney regarding the Star Wars Franchise.

Released on October of 2013, Battlefield 4 was the first entry of the renowned franchise on the PS4/Xone generation, and it was received by positive reviews being recognized by the great multiplayer, but feeling as a small step forward after the incredible success of Battlefield 3, being of one of the most played titles til this day.

But despite the good reception, the title presented an incredible amount of problems during its release, with a myriad of issues such as bugs, glitches and crashes across all platforms, taking more than one year to be completely functional, causing a stop to the development of DICE’s projects, like Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Star Wars Battlefront, in order to fix the game.

From that moment on EA decided to have a different approach towards its titles, concentrating their attention on quality over quantity, especially due to the damage the Battlefield franchise image suffered, and we clearly saw some signs of the way they treated their latest releases.

Like for example, an increase on the number of delays, like Mirror’s Edge Catalyst that went through several delays to improve various aspects of the title, the spin-off Battlefield Hardline, that surprisingly was postponed from the Fall of 2014 to March of 2015, representing a change of pace to the franchise, that was on its way to becoming annual, being that a move that surprised the industry.

Another modification was the way betas happened, with an increase in the number of tests to measure the stress on servers, the state of titles, with some having multiple betas, like Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, BF: Hardline, and titles you wouldn’t expect like Need for Speed, with a very successful Star Wars: Battlefront beta, and it has presented good results with EA’s titles having smooth releases, with minor problems but nothing close to BF 4 fiasco.

Despite being one of the most successful title of the company, BF 4 started a transformation in the company, that helped developing the corporate brand improving the market’s point of view, by managing their assets well, with quality coming first, a mindset that has fortunately spread through the industry when it comes to big companies.

Branding and games: EA – The EA Access role on their strategy

One of my favorite subjects is branding, yes it’s strange, and I’ll talk a little bit about how it affects the game industry, and how companies work with it, going from Sony to Ubisoft, writing focusing on a company or subject, and the focus of this first week is EA, that has been going through a deep rebranding process in the last few years, after being considered the worst company of the country twice, and this time I’ll talk about the role of EA Access on their strategy of regaining gamers admiration.

A subscription service that started in 2014 that is the closest we have to Netflix, EA Access gives players discounts for purchases, extended demos of releases and full games in a lineup that has increased steadily for a reasonable price, but what’s behind the idea of that service?

At first it may feel like a way of getting a reliable flow of money coming from gamers, after all, it manages to have a great cost-benefit, but it goes beyond that, by giving them a chance to play games ahead of everybody, one week prior to the release, you create an opportunity to present it and hook the player without feeling aggressive, even though you’ll only have access to the demo if you have the subscription, allied with a discount that makes the purchase seem more advantageous, despite the fact this game will go to the vault in probably less than 1 year.

It also appeals to very basic desires of the human being, like feeling exclusive, enjoying and broadcasting hyped titles ahead of everybody else, the feeling of profit , giving us games that otherwise we would never touch, but since they are “free” we don’t really think about it, and might actually give it a try, and most of them in reality are quality entries, like the EA sports franchises, or Battlefield, Dragon Age, as well as backwards compatibles games, creating this sentiment of really getting more bang for your buck, instead of paying 60 bucks for one title, you can pay 30 yearly for a growing library.

Creating an atmosphere of goodwill towards the company, that has been trying to connect with customers, and this has been one of the cornerstones of the plan, giving players what they most want, games, in a situation in which they keep playing their library, getting acclimated with EA’s franchises, and having a better image with the market, as a way to show that they want as many people to put their hands on their titles, even if they don’t pay full price, fortifying their brand in the process and transforming this idea of being a company that only cares about profit into a consumer focused one.