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Annual releases have been a constant in the console world, with developers finding this format to be the best way to produce sports games each year. It has enabled them to keep the games fresh and updated with current squads and players and has also meant that the gameplay and graphics can be refined each time. But with freemium games like Clash of Clans and free to play online offerings like Fortnite now dominating the games market, do sports game developers now need to reconsider their approach?

There are arguably numerous downsides to sticking with the annual model of releasing games, and players are beginning to get fed up with having to fork out money on the next installment of a game franchise each year. Looking at the FIFA series as an example, players who like to play Ultimate Team often invest a lot of money into their squads. But when the new game is released each September, they have to start all over again and build their teams from scratch.

When FIFA 19 was released last September, it was reported that physical game sales were down 25 percent from the previous year. While an increase in online purchases will have accounted for some of this drop, it still represents a drastic decline. At the time there was even talk about the possibility that Fortnite had stolen a lot of FIFA’s player base.

Players who buy games like FIFA year in, year out aren’t getting enough rewards for their loyalty. In the age of strong-minded player communities forming and interacting online, if EA Sports is to stick with the annual release model, it should look to treat its customers better to avoid the risk of losing them. The studio could look to the iGaming industry for inspiration, which is brimming with offers and loyalty schemes.

Among the casino offers at Aspers.com, for instance, players receive loyalty points when they play. They can be accumulated and used later to unlock special benefits. While FIFA does have some carryover with FIFA Points, it doesn’t seem like players are rewarded enough for the amount they have spent on previous games.

If unit sales continue to decline, EA will have to think carefully about its sales structure for games like this. Along with the FIFA franchise, EA Sports is responsible for other annual titles such as Madden NFL, NBA Live, and PGA Tour. All of these games already offer some form of in-game purchases, and this could end up being the main source of income for the studio if it moves away from physical releases.

It could choose to follow a free online model like Fortnite but charge players for special features, bonuses, players, and stadiums. With a large proportion of gamers now playing annual sports titles predominantly for their online modes, it is about time that major studios such as EA rethink their marketing model.

It would make a lot more sense to have an online game which is frequently updated and refined, rather than release a brand new title every year. As for now, EA is sticking with the current scheme, with a new generation of games. FIFA 20 is set to hit shelves in the coming months.