The Insanity of the Online Pass
I’ve been out of town with little to no internet for the past week, but I assume someone, somewhere, has reported on the whole ‘EA is cutting support for free Battlefield 3 servers’ thing. That’s right: the only consistent option for BF3 players is a rented server. Does this strike anyone else as insane? Weren’t used gamers punished with online passes because EA claimed they needed money for servers? The “we need money for servers” defense seems to be almost a code word between developers and publishers these days. I half expect a government official to go missing every time somebody claims that online passes pay for servers. “Online passes pay for our severs. The car goes through Buffalo at 12:30 tomorrow afternoon. Follow the money.”
Because really, that would be the only justifiable excuse for online passes. I know everyone and their mother has talked about online passes before, but I still wanted to put my thoughts on the whole dirty business to virtual paper. Let me see if I can break this down in a way that publishers can understand.
Let’s look at the case of 5-year-old Johnny, who tricks Mom into buying Modern Warfare 3 for Christmas. If publishers are to be trusted, part of the $60 from that sale goes to paying for that one spot on the server. Once little Johnny realizes the effect his purchase has on the game industry, he vows to buy only indie games from now on. What an enterprising child. So Johnny, in order to buy Super Meat Boy (because you can buy whatever you want on the internet), sells his game to GameStop.
However, Johnny is still a toddler, and wants that exact game back next day. He tricks his friend Timmy into buying it back from GameStop so Johnny can swindle the game from Timmy three months later. Now keep in mind that, for those three months, a different person may be playing the game, but the slot on the server is still paid for. Nothing has really changed. One person is still playing MW3 using that disc. Whether it’s Johnny or Timmy is irrelevant.
There’s also the whole Uncharted 3 nonsense, where Naughty Dog claimed that used game sales were eating into their profits. I suspect this was at the same press conference where they announced their absolutely lucrative Subway advertisement deal. In what world is the people who made Uncharted 2, one of the most popular games of all time, in any kind of financial trouble?
You may notice that I used Modern Warfare 3 in my Johnny/Timmy example earlier. That’s because Modern Warfare 3 doesn’t have an online pass. Yet it still made huge, almost Scrooge McDuck-esque piles of cash. This also happened with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim; another game without an online pass. I guess that means huge franchises like Battlefield and Mass Effect could also do without online passes and end up with enough money to wallpaper the houses of every person at EA.
Perhaps the greatest fallacy with the online pass argument is using an online pass as a way to “entice” customers into buying new copies doesn’t work, because people who don’t have enough money to buy your game were never going to buy it in the first place. Widespread price drops don’t always happen in the new game market. Sure, there are some fantastic sales at times, but a universal price drop just doesn’t happen enough for some games.
Hell, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is still $40 dollars new. What this means for your bottom line is that you shouldn’t try and hold entire modes away from your paying customers. Otherwise they won’t know what that mode is like, and that’ll affect future purchasing decisions. I can’t count the number of times where I rented/borrowed a game or purchased a used copy only to find myself highly enjoying it and purchasing a brand new copy of the sequel on launch weekend. My weekend rentals of Arkham Asylum and inFamous both convinced me to purchase the sequels new, for example. That’s $60 apiece in WB and Sony’s respective pockets.
But, up to this point, I’ve assumed that we care if publishers lose money. Because we shouldn’t. Think about it. Developers backed by huge publishers, who have released games with online passes in the same year this article was written, have later been affected by huge layoffs. The online pass system isn’t this instant cure-all that publishers seem to believe it is. Online passes are such an obvious way to grab just a little more cash from the consumer. The game industry has deeper problems than the used game market, and until publishers wake up and see that, we won’t get anywhere.