Online Passes: A spoonful of sugar

[Last week, you were asked to blog your thoughts about online passes in games. Today’s promoted blog on that topic comes from nekobun, who acknowledges that used games can cause a problem for developers and publishers, and suggests a number of ways that online passes could be improved. Want to see your own blog on the front page? Write a blog on the current topic: MMO Stories. — JRo]

The growing trend of online pass (ab?)use is somewhat murky territory; while publishers may actually have a point about used game sales putting a dent in their profits, they’re doing a pretty good job of screwing, and therefore alienating, their customer bases by not thinking these passes through. I think the system could use a spin toward positive reinforcement rather than used-buyer deprivation if it’s going to last and/or be a successful money recovery scheme, and I have a fistful of ideas as to how this can be gone about.

Incentivize To Monetize

Locking your consumers out of modes that will be primary draws for their purchasing dollar (i.e. multiplayer modes in games that are known for their multiplayer), things they’re already expecting access to with their initial purchase, is pretty much a dick move. Rather than demanding a cover charge for the main attraction, things would be much more inviting if these passes offered some sort of VIP content. Access to extra, unique perks and equipment, or some sort of in-game key assigned to your character that opens pathways to particularly advantageous sniper spots or vehicle garages, for instance, seems much more palatable than locking out online play altogether.

Leveling caps, as in Space Marine, are a little less palatable but still mildly acceptable, as they give the player a chance to get a feel for the game and decide whether the multiplayer is worth ponying up for if they’ve purchased a used copy. It doesn’t hurt that the game’s loadout-cloning mechanic gives all players a shot at trying out all the weapons and perks available regardless of their rank, and in all likelihood makes shelling out for the pass that much more enticing.

Everyone Gets Laid

If you’re going to implement online passes, it’s only fair to implement offline passes too, especially given that the former are likely to push at least a few players towards more single-player games in order to save a few bucks. Again, this is dangerous territory, but treating pass-based content as a bonus rather than holding things back is the way to go.

Recent games already seem to be taking a stab at this, with Rage and Batman: Arkham City being great examples of both sides of the coin. A pass included in new copies of Rage unlocked some extra side areas to explore and profit from, but in no way did missing out on these areas detract from the full game experience. They were a nice little bonus for early adopters, but livable without. Arkham City, on the other hand, decided to lock out the Catwoman stages it’d been advertising almost as far back as the game’s announcement, much to the chagrin of everyone who thought they’d just be part of the full package. It didn’t help that the Catwoman codes apparently didn’t even work, but just setting things up that way in the first place was a terrible idea.

Dead On Arrival

Broken Catwoman codes aren’t the first instance of online passes not being functional from the get-go, either. Driver: San Francisco had issues with misprinted codes included with new copies, which were needed to enable the Uplay Passport required for online play. Implementation of the Passport, at least for that title, was scrapped entirely, essentially wasting the time and effort put in by whatever team had gone in to implement the pass in the first place.

If you’re going to foist a pass onto your customers, make sure it works before you ship. It’s annoying enough to be forced to input a passcode, and finding that to be non-functional increases that ill sentiment exponentially.

Pay At The Pump

It may not be the worst idea out there, both for convenience’s sake and to regain some good relations with the retailers from whose used-sales pie publishers are clearly trying to take a slice, to send out stacks of codes customers can pay for and take home with them when they buy a used copy of a game. This would cut out a lot of additional work and console-based typing for those who don’t have a credit card tied to their online gaming accounts, or don’t feel like buying more MS points than the pass costs if they’re using Xbox Live and have a standing balance. Without all that hassle to look forward to, buyers are liable to be mildly less discontent dealing with a pass in the first place.

Or, in a similar vein, offer the full single-player version of a game without a pass at all, but at a lower retail price, and have the pass be completely optional and obtainable both online or at the time of retail purchase. That way, those customers whom already have a die-hard obsession with one online game, who weren’t going to have the time for or interest in another, can still get the game without the hassle and without wasting codes they don’t have much use for, and those who want to play online know they’re paying full price for a reason.

Contextual Disconnect

If you really must whore your game out to the pass system, at least go to the effort of making the pass-limited content relevant to the core product and target customer base. Tacking on an unwarranted multiplayer mode to a crafted single-player experience (a la Bioshock 2, Dead Space 2, or Mass Effect 3) is a waste of both in-house resources and customers’ time, not to mention an incentive to actually wait for a game to show up on used shelves, since most fans aren’t particularly interested in that element anyway, and can do without getting a pass for it. That, and as I mentioned before, the online multiplayer realm is already clearly dominated by a handful of titles; if you’re not a Halo, a Call of Duty, or a Battlefield, your market penetration is going to be limited at best.

That’s not to say everyone should stay out of the multiplayer game with those big three FPSes dominating things. Great ideas come from smaller multiplayer offerings all the time, and it’s not like those three were always the kings of deathmatch – they had to start somewhere. Just don’t expect players to pay extra for multiplayer solely because it’s there, and don’t think it’s suicide if a multiplayer element isn’t included. If anything, more games could stand to use Space Marine‘s “insert pass to continue” method, wherein players have somewhat limited access to multiplayer play right from the get-go, but if they like it and choose to punch in a few characters or pony up for an online pass, they can get the full shebang. If not, no harm, no foul, as the single-player’s pretty rich in and of itself.

Should the idea of multiplayer feel like too difficult to mesh with the context of the single-player campaign, or would take too many resources away from crafting that campaign (‘sup, F3AR?), don’t waste that effort and capital. Polish your single player, throw in a pass for some sweet bonus items or an easter egg area, and call it a day. Great solo games get just as much, if not more, acclaim than their multiplayer brethren when it comes to awards and being hailed as classics, so it’s just as noble a pursuit. Just look at Nintendo. Even though there’s been clamoring for years for them to get their online act together, how many of their classic, beloved franchises really demand a multiplayer element, online or otherwise? Beyond StarFox, Super Mario Kart, and Super Smash Bros., I can’t really think of any off-hand.

These Prices Are INSANE

Lastly, there’s quite a jump in consumer trepidation when you move from a single-digit dollar amount to double-digits, even if it’s simply a step from nine dollars to ten. That extra zero means a lot to the spender, even with that mere one-dollar difference. That, and given that used copies of fresh titles, especially big-release ones, are rarely offered at less than five dollars under their new versions for at least the first month of release, there’s no reason an online or offline pass should cost more than that five-dollar difference.

I Feel It Slipping Away

While I hope some of these ideas eventually register in the minds of those keen on milking online passes for however ridiculously tragic their supposed losses to use sales are, I’m not even sure the whole pass trend is more than a fad, anyway. The reality of the industry seems to be drifting away from a need for them, even as they’re just beginning to be introduced. Games, especially on the 360, are already beginning to reach a size where the multiplayer and single-player elements need to be housed on separate discs, which leaves one to wonder why multiple versions can’t be made available that eliminate the pass requirement altogether.

Want just the single-player? Here’s the Campaign Edition, for half the price or so of the full jam. Oh, and we threw in a single-map trial of the multiplayer for you, just as a tease. Multiplayer your bag? Bam, have a Versus Edition, complete with a single-player demo, just in case. Want it all? Complete Edition, sixty bucks, thank you and good night. Such a model would not only give players more freedom in finding what they want and how they want to play, but it could lower production costs (and subsequently, retail costs) for studios looking to focus on just one aspect or the other. Fully blown-out single- or multiplayer experiences for the full standard price would still be an option, but for franchises cranking out new iterations every year, more snack-sized offerings may prove more viable.

Such an approach could eventually reach the point where both halves of each franchise spin off into franchises of their own, with Call Of Duty: Kill Dudes With Spears 3 (multiplayer-only) releasing alongside Call Of Duty: Back To Peloponnesia in Q4 2016. Campaign and multiplayer tend to get farmed out to separate dev houses more often than not anymore, so I don’t see why not.

Eventually, I could even see things evolving to the point where modes are nothing but DLC. While not that feasible on the current generation, the Playstation 4 and Xbox 720 (or whatever they decide to call it) are bound to have oodles of hard drive space. Give me a core disc (if discs are even a thing by the time the next gen releases) with the game’s assets, and perhaps demos of the game’s available modes, and then let me pick and choose what elements I feel are worth my time and money. Maybe I just want campaign, with a side of co-op. Maybe this game’s wave defense mode is strong but everything else bores me, so I just want that. Perhaps I’m a multiplayer die-hard, and this latest round of Battlefield lets me carry over my levels from a previous iteration, and I want to keep that rolling and just that.

Granted, this would kind of screw players without an internet connection, but that’s not say it’d be impossible to release full versions, with all the trimmings, on disc alongside these “core” editions. Hell, offer the full package for slightly less than it would be to cumulatively download everything, so as not to completely hose the disconnected children and still offer an incentive to get things all at once.

This is all conjecture, however, and for the time being, it looks like the pass system is the flavor of the month. Here’s hoping it at least gets a bit more palatable, rather than sparking a revolt amongst players. I don’t know about you, but the idea of an Occupy Tsavo Highway movement seems pretty damned impractical.

Okama Gamesphere render by CasinoJack.