Big publishers are pushing subscriptions, but at least they're making better clients these days

A screenshot of the EA Desktop app.
A beta version of the new EA Desktop application. (Image credit: EA)

EA's Origin client is finally being retired, and will soon be replaced by EA Desktop, an application that's currently in beta. I gave it a try today (you can also sign up to try it on EA's site) and it's an obvious improvement over Origin: a simpler and faster way to launch the EA games that aren't in my Steam library, whether I own them individually or subscribe to EA Play. I don't subscribe, but the persistent "Join EA Play" button at the top of the client tells you how EA wishes I'd acquire its games, as if I don't already have enough subscriptions. At least we're getting a nice, lightweight client along with the subscription marketing, though!

It doesn't seem entirely fair that all EA's client has to do is work, whereas the Epic Store is harangued daily for lacking nearly two decades worth of Steam features, but we've grown used to EA and Ubisoft's little gardens. (I was pretty hard on Origin when it launched, and it was pretty bad, so it's not as if it didn't go through the ringer itself.) 

At this point, I don't really want EA's client to host non-EA games (it has a few) or to be full of features done better by other software, or to be a social hub when I already have Discord. I don't even need EA's store to be particularly good at showing me what games are available, because I already know what to expect: Yearly sports games (except the NHL ones I want), Battlefields, Sims 4 expansions, and the occasional Star Wars or BioWare game.

All I need from EA's client is the ability to download and launch a game quickly, and that's what the EA Desktop beta offers. There are just two primary sections to the app: "Browse" and "My Collection." From the first, you can look through the games and DLC available to buy or play with an EA Play subscription, and from the other you can download and launch the games you own or have access to. There's also a friends list and chat, but that's about it. The application runs fast, and all of the screens and prompts are easy to read.

It's a funny time for EA to be testing an Origin replacement, because it just recently started putting games on Steam again (although they do launch a copy of EA's app when you run them). EA has also started offering its EA Play subscription via Steam, which is bigger news than I think it got credit for. The last time Valve made such a major addition to the way games are listed and sold on Steam was the addition of Early Access in 2013. Before that, it was the addition of free-to-play games in 2011. 

It seems unlikely that Valve added subscription functionality to Steam with no intention of putting other subscriptions in front of us. Microsoft is putting games on Steam now, too. Could Xbox Game Pass make its way to Steam one day? It feels unlikely, but possible. And could Valve introduce its own subscription program? You really never know with Valve. Remember when it dropped paid mods out of nowhere?

Whatever happens with Steam, this push to sell subscriptions has coincided with (or caused?) a wave of improvements to publisher-specific clients. The new Ubisoft Connect client is nicer than the old Uplay client, if not quite as fast and clean as EA's new effort. And the new Xbox app is of course a massive improvement over the Microsoft Store. (Granted, a smelly sock would've been an improvement over the Microsoft Store.)

(Image credit: EA)

If videogame subscription services aren't the future, it's not going to be for a lack of trying, both on and off Steam. Whether that's appealing to you or not—I have mixed feelings—at least the baseline level of quality for a game client seems to be improving. Xbox Game Pass is tempting for just about anyone, but perhaps even subscription hold-outs will benefit from efforts to make subscriptions more attractive with improvements to the overall experience. 

Regarding the new EA Desktop application, of course it puts the EA Play and EA Play Pro subscriptions front and center, as I mentioned. Each game has a tag which lets you know which subscription package it comes with, if either. It's not horribly intrusive, and if you want to use the store like a regular store and buy games and DLC like you used to, it's easy enough to do so—although EA is already toying with subscription-only games. For example, you can buy the brand new FIFA 21 with a one-time $60 purchase on Origin or Steam, but last year's game, FIFA 20, is now only available with EA Play if you don't already own it. The future is here?

Tyler Wilde
Executive Editor

Tyler grew up in Silicon Valley during the '80s and '90s, playing games like Zork and Arkanoid on early PCs. He was later captivated by Myst, SimCity, Civilization, Command & Conquer, all the shooters they call "boomer shooters" now, and PS1 classic Bushido Blade (that's right: he had Bleem!). Tyler joined PC Gamer in 2011, and today he's focused on the site's news coverage. His hobbies include amateur boxing and adding to his 1,200-plus hours in Rocket League.