As promised, Electronic Arts' Origin gaming service went live today. You can download the 34MB app at www.origin.com. We can report that its basic features work as intended, but it also introduces many questions about the future of digital game distribution.
On the surface Origin offers few surprises. It functions as a digital storefront from which you can download PC games directly to your computer, and is essentially a more fully developed version of EA's existing EA Download mini application. At the moment Origin carries EA published games exclusively, with regular and special-offer prices matching those of the EA games for sale on Valve Software's market-leading Steam service.
With game offerings from almost every major PC publisher, Steam boasts roughly 1,100 games to Origin's 150 EA titles. Origin, though, currently offers a few titles that Steam does not. The Sims 3: Buccaneer Bay expansion is one example. EA also seems to have made preordering its upcoming games an Origin exclusive. You can go to Origin to put money down now on would-be Call of Duty-killer Battlefield 3, Mass Effect 3, and the "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" game. You won't find any of those preorder offers available through Steam. Whether that means those games won't also be available on Steam when they launch is another question. EA has already said its upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO will be exclusive to Origin.
Downloading games from Origin is simple enough. Titles you've purchased appear under the My Games tab, and each game's associated picture icon features a Ready to Download button. You can change the download destination and install folders independently in Origin's settings menu. Steam won't let you make the same changes as easily.
EA has also differentiated Origin from Steam with the social aspects of its service. By allowing you to import your friends lists from Facebook, Xbox Live, and the PlayStation Network, Origin lets you communicate with friends from a variety of platforms, even when they're playing an Origin-enabled game. Don't confuse this with cross-platform gaming or communications capability. Origin will only find an Xbox Live friend when you have both entered in your Windows Live IDs, and you only receive friend notifications and messages when the other person is logged into Origin. Origin doesn't know when your friend is on Xbox Live, for example.
EA has promised a mobile version of Origin, but it has not yet appeared in either the Android Market or the iOS App Store. Origin does not offer an equivalent of the Steam Cloud yet, which lets you access saved games and game preference settings when you log in from a different computer. It also doesn't have a feature comparable to Steamworks, which lets developers integrate Steam-based achievements, microtransactions, and other features into their games. That's likely because Steam commands a large enough share of the digital distribution market that it can entice developers into spending resources on incorporating those features. Origin does not, at least not yet.
On the whole, Origin is a well-designed, easy-to-use download service. The bigger question is whether this is a direct attempt by EA to compete with Valve, or simply a maturation of its existing digital distribution services. We'll have a better idea if EA hoards its download customers for itself, or starts actively recruiting other publishers to Origin. On the other hand, given the amount of money EA intends to spend on Battlefield 3, it is hard to imagine Origin offering Activision's Call of Duty games.
The one short-term downside we see for gamers comes with Origin's potential for exclusivity, but that could ultimately provide a longer-term social benefit as well. In the short term, if Origin becomes the only place to download new EA PC games, Steam users who want to play them will have to download yet another gaming service and compile yet another friends list. Further out, Origin may have the opposite effect. EA games command a massive audience of gamers across every platform. Not all of those gamers will download Origin, but those who do will likely overlap with Steam users. Once they're exposed to Origin's wide-ranging social connections, they may demand the same open communication capability from Steam.