When I saw the new Bloggers Wanted topic go up, I decided this would be a good opportunity to gather my various thoughts on the matter into one place and lay them out on the table.
Let's get right to it. I am against the concept of online passes for a number of reasons, which I hope to be able to explain in this post. The biggest thing, however, is I essentially feel all of the arguments for online passes are based on full and partial lies. Other arguments do their best to try and make me feel guilty or petty for being against the online passes. No matter what case you make, I'm just not buying it.
Before I go further, I suppose it would be helpful to nail down just what is meant by "online pass" for the sake of my post. Here, the term will be used to refer to any practice of removing access to on-disc content from second-hand consumers, requiring them to pay an extra fee to regain that access. This content has typically been, but is not limited to, online multiplayer, whether it be a competitive or cooperative mode. After purchasing the right to access that content, the player usually has to jump through obnoxious hoops like entering a 12-16 digit code with the controller, but methods may not be limited to this.
So what are the arguments that are typically used in defense of online passes?
1. Servers cost money!
2. Developers/publishers have a right to make a profit!
3. Always buy new regardless, to support the developer!
4. PC gamers have been entering codes for years, it's no big deal!
Here we go!
Servers cost money!
If you've paid any attention to my posts over the past year or met me at PAX, you probably know how excited I am for Guild Wars 2. I'm a big fan of the original, and GW2 is set to be one of the two next big MMORPGs next year, following The Old Republic's release in December. One of the biggest things the Guild Wars name is known for, and this includes GW2, is the lack of a monthly subscription fee.
Outside of the really shitty low-tier free-to-play Korean MMOs, the standard thing for mainstream MMORPGs is a monthly subscription fee, typically $10-$15 per month. This is true whether we're talking about World of Warcraft, Lineage 2, City of Heroes, Age of Conan, etc. etc.. but not Guild Wars. The developers at ArenaNet decided you would pay for the game once (like all other video games) and be free to play the game forever whenever you want. Guild Wars has sold over 6 million copies (as of 2009) and still has an arguably large active community of players. GW2 will continue this model.
Over the past couple of years, we have begun to slowly see more and more MMOs drop the monthly fees. WoW is now free-to-play up until level 20. Age of Conan went free to play in May 2011. DC Universe Online recently announced the switch, as did Lineage II. Now, some of these are certainly older or less "successful" than others, and specific reasoning for going free-to-play may vary from game to game (developer to developer) but the trend is still there and in my opinion, still relevant. It's my belief that the so-called costs of maintaining game servers to host millions of players have been declining over the past several years, even to the point of being nonexistent. The "expensive server" argument would have been valid in 1999, but not anymore. Subscription fees are simply no longer mandatory to maintain massively multiplayer online games, and more devs are discovering this. Guild Wars' success and the hype surrounding GW2 is proof of this.
And so far I've just been discussing MMOs. There's a big difference between how players connect with MMOs and how they connect with console games. With an MMO, the developers maintain their own dedicated servers which players join and play on. But when you go online with your console, whether you're playing Call of Duty or Uncharted, all you're doing is connecting to a lobby, which lets your console locate other consoles. There are no dedicated servers. It is your console and your internet connection (or that of the person you connect to) that is hosting the online match. Very little of the developer's bandwidth is actually used to serve the online matches themselves. It seems only logical then to assume that online console games should cost even less to maintain than MMOs! I mean, right? Or am I taking crazy pills?
Before I move onto my next point, I want to reiterate a point Jim Sterling has been making because I feel it's still not getting through to many people. Let's pretend for a second that a developer actually does depend on a portion of each game sale to support that player's online connection to the game's "servers". If I trade in my game, I can no longer play online. If somebody buys my copy used, the number of people online does not change. There is no additional person that needs to be supported. As far as the developer's servers are concerned, the game was never traded in. It's not like piracy, where a game is duplicated over and over again. The original gamer's online space which came with the game is exchanged along with the game.
Developers/publishers have a right to make a profit!
In keeping with the spirit of the release of Arkham City, I'll share this scene from The Untold Legend of the BatMan which tends to pop into my head whenever topics like this come up:
But is that justice?! - No, Mr. Wayne, that's the law!
Here, a young Bruce Wayne in law school realizes that if he wants to serve justice he needs to work outside of the law. Now, I'm not trying to compare online passes with vehicular manslaughter. I just think the exchange between Bruce and his professor is pretty apt. Just because something is legally allowed doesn't necessarily mean it's fair or harmless. Also I just really like Batman.
Here's the thing. Yes, the developers and publishers have a legal right to make money off of their product. That's capitalism! There's nothing wrong with that. It's perfectly legal for them to charge fees for our entertainment through their products and services. Fine.
But just because something is legal doesn't necessarily make it ethical. We are not obligated to accept and agree with a company's methods for making extra money off of us just because what they're doing is legal. Bringing up their rights and what the law says and how capitalism works are all just cop-outs which dodge the issue entirely.
I've been playing games for roughly 15 years. I'm from a time when something that is listed in the manual, on the game's box, and in the game's menu is something I have access to once I purchase the game from the store. Let's not kid ourselves, whether we're talking cartridges, CDs, DVDs, or Blu-Ray, the online capability is something that is shipped and included out of the box. If I pay a store money in exchange for that box, I am paying for everything that's in that box. This is how it has always been, and I do not support any trend that seeks to do away with this philosophy. Yes, I'm entitled. Because that's how video games have worked for decades. I have certain expectations based on years of prior experience and established customs. Seeing as how I've just squashed the server costs argument, there's nothing new in the past several years that developers should see the need to collect a tax on. Stop locking me out of content I own. Let me connect to somebody else's PS3 and shoot them in the virtual face and stop interfering.
Here's another thing: console gamers have effectively been playing online matches since 2002, when Xbox Live originally launched. (This doesn't even take into account Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast!) The Xbox Live fee goes to Microsoft and grants you access to all of the features and content on that service. But did you need to pay Epic an online tax if you bought Unreal Championship used and wanted to play online? What about paying Bungie extra money for Halo 2 connectivity? No? So why now? Why now, considering any server costs can only be getting cheaper as time goes on as technology improves?
Taking it one step further: the used game market has been around for many years, even before Gamestop became the behemoth it is. But only recently are companies whining about "not making any money" from used sales and only now are they starting to implement online pass systems.
What about the second-hand markets for other types of products? If I buy "Serenity" on BluRay from somebody on eBay, does Universal Pictures or Nathan Fillion expect me to pay them a tax so they can keep making money on that copy of the movie? What about if I buy a Dream Theater album from a friend? Does the band or Atlantic Records come after me for their "lost sale"? No! These parties already earned the money they deserve from the original purchase of the product. If I buy second hand from somebody else because it's more affordable to me, that transaction is between me and that other person - the creator or distributor of the content has no business in this transaction.
It just doesn't make any sense why the creators and distributors of video games think they're so special and unique. I just. Don't. Buy it.
Always buy new regardless, to support the developer!
This is a mentality I empathize with. There are a number of developers which I've become a great fan of. Whenever possible, I go out of my way to show my support for these companies and the excellent products they make that I enjoy. And I say this having done quite a bit of pirating over the years. Not just with games, but movies and music too. But particularly with games - make something excellent and don't be a dick to me, and you will have my support.
Why, then, should I support a company that engages in locking out consumers from on-disc content and charging taxes for nonexistent reasons, making even people who buy new jump through hoops to prove their loyalty?
Also, this argument assumes expansion DLC, collectors editions, GOTY reissue editions, sequels, and t-shirts don't exist. Developers have many ways to earn money on top of the initial launch of a game. Hell, we're even at time when day-one DLC is a thing that exists! As much as I hate it (that's another topic) it just goes to show that developers are making tons of extra cash right on top of initial game sales from the moment a game launches - content that even somebody who bought the disc used will buy if they enjoy the product enough - and yet they have the nerve to say they aren't making enough money? These people do not have my sympathy or my support..
PC gamers have been entering codes for years, it's no big deal!
Listen up: I'm also a PC gamer. I've never taken sides between PC and consoles. I believe that certain genres of games are best played with a certain type of control scheme, and I also like to keep my options open for exclusives. I feel I only limit myself by becoming a fanboy for one particular platform.
As a PC gamer, I'm sick of hearing people play the "CD key" defense. CD keys were NEVER good. They've ALWAYS been a pain in the ass. In recent years with the surge of digital distribution through the likes of Steam, we're seeing a decline in CD key use, and PC gaming has only improved as a result. As we move forward and technology advances, I see CD keys as a relic of the past, a remnant of a darker period in video game history. Just because we dealt with something in the past doesn't make it acceptable in the present. As a PC gamer, I look forward to the day when CD keys are completely gone from existence.
Besides, entering a key with a controller is even more obnoxious than with a keyboard. Ever consider that?
What should we do? What can we do?
Hopefully I've made it clear why I am opposed to online passes. I find them ethically dirty and the justifications for them shaky at best, and at worst outright dishonest. I remain entirely unconvinced that there's any reason for them to exist.
Personally, I've taken a "don't like it, don't buy it!" approach and I'm finding it to be a lot simpler than you might think. Companies like EA and UbiSoft will not be seeing a cent from me for quite some time and to be honest, I can't say I'll miss any of their games. If I buy Arkham City (it won't be any time soon) it'll likely be from Gamestop, used.
I'm also going to remember that things aren't all that bad. There's still an overwhelming majority of great games out there that aren't being affected by this nonsense. I'm trying to adopt Jonathan Holmes's approach - the man is never upset about anything. The Wii and 3DS both have lots of games that interest me. You won't be seeing any online passes for Skyward Sword. Likewise, titles from Atlus and Suda51 always deliver without the bullshit.
My protest of the online pass system will continue as long as it has to. I don't predict missing out on any games as a result, certainly not for the foreseeable future. I'm currently still pretty easily annoyed by flippant gamers who dismiss the issue entirely and claim there's nothing wrong. I firmly believe this is a slippery slope, and continued acceptance will only lead to the practice spreading to other elements of video games, like single player content (as evidenced by Rage and Arkham City). But I can only hope in time I am able to let stuff like that slide and stop caring about how painfully other people are being fucked, as long as I'm having a good time.