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EA Launches New Digital Retail Service, Makes It the Sole Way to Purchase Star Wars: The Old Republic Online

New Origin online service to offer exclusive versions of games like Battlefield 3 and Alice.

In the realm of online download services, Steam has few legitimate competitors. It's ubiquitous with the concept of digital distribution on the PC, to the point where anyone directly challenging Valve's online retail behemoth would need to come with some serious firepower to even make a dent in the thing's usage numbers.

Evidently, EA is betting that it has the firepower necessary to be successful with its own entry into the digital distribution space. EA today announced Origin, a new online download service that, on the surface, looks more or less like a re-branding of the publisher's original online store. However, EA is banking on turning Origin into the go-to place to purchase EA products online. Over 150 titles, including PC and console titles (which, yes, you will still have to have shipped to you) are now available on the newly-launched website.

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More interestingly, EA plans to offer "exclusive special editions" of games like Battlefield 3, Alice: Madness Returns, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and FIFA 12. And then there is the small matter of Star Wars: The Old Republic, which EA states will only be available online via the Origin service. Yes, those married to the antiquated notions of "stores" and "physical copies of games" can still go buy a boxed copy in a retail store, but for those looking to pre-order and download online, Origin will be your sole option in the matter.

Origin does have some other practical uses, especially in the mobile space. Origin will have its own mobile application, and will be integrated directly into EA's mobile games. There are also social networking features, including friends lists and the ability to see what EA games your friends are playing, though those are things most any gaming service includes nowadays.

This whole thing becomes extremely interesting when you consider that EA has traditionally been Valve's distribution partner for its various console games. EA most recently acted as distributor for Valve's acclaimed puzzle/adventure sequel, Portal 2. One might think that this would leave the relationship between the two companies perhaps... a bit strained. Though if EA just plans to stick to selling its own games, maybe Valve will simply treat this like the buzzing of flies around its all-powerful head, and simply go on about its business as usual, paying no mind to this new player in the game.

Regardless, it's an intriguing shift in priority for EA, who clearly see online distribution as something they want a bigger piece of in terms of marketshare. As a streetwise stick-up man once said: "You come at the king, you best not miss."

So is Origin going to be Avon Barksdale, making lots of noise but ultimately unable to bring down the king? Or will it be Kenard, the deadly threat you just don't see coming?

Alex Navarro on Google+