Monday, 23 January 2012

Online Passes, DLC, and Your Money

Online Passes, DLC, and Your Money

Publishers fight to keep gamers playing and paying.

January 23, 2012


More than ever before games are taking great strides towards adding post-release content to their repertoires, not just perfunctory extras like new songs, added skins, or avatar awards, but also in content passes and new release models.

To alleviate sales lost to the second-hand market and rentals, publishers use Online Passes. The Pass is free in a factory-sealed copy of the game, but once used, any additional owners need to then purchase the Online Pass to play online.

This means that people who rent the game or buy a used version, must pay to extract full value. Publishers have always hated rentals and used sales, because they bring back little or no money. Have they found a way to make everyone pay the full ticket price?

While not a brand-new innovation, Online Passes are spreading. Next month's Twisted Metal requires one. Battlefield 3 uses the Pass, Assassin's Creed: Revelations requires one, and Mass Effect 3 will include it. Batman: Arkham City gave away Catwoman as a free download, but only with new copies of the game. The addition of an Online Pass is no longer news, it's become almost a mainstay. Gears of War 3 and Call of Duty seem to be the loners of major titles with online-centric experiences thriving without the Pass.

                                     Buy new or pay to play online.

While rental outlets circumvent the Online Pass hurdle because many games offering short trials (don't try to rent the game a second time), the $10 cost of the pass can actually make a game more expensive for anyone who saved a mere $5 buying it used. The Online Pass doesn't affect gamers purchasing new games (outside of having to type in an obnoxious code), but it's a real consideration for any budget-minded gamer who can't always bring home a factory-sealed product.

The right to play online isn't the only new-style of Pass, and further incentives are likely. Rockstar Games kicked off a new trend with the Rockstar Pass, a discounted rate package that guarantees players access to all the future content built for L.A. Noire. By paying a flat fee (discounted from the cost of buying each element individually), gamers can instantly download new Marketplace content (once its released) without worrying about adding additional points to their account.

Mortal Kombat offers the same service for its add-on characters (like Freddy Kreuger), but Warner Bros. Interactive's Season Pass was limited to Xbox 360 only. Gears of War 3 followed suit. Even Saints Row The Third joined the party, offering discounted rates for a continuing period of add-on content (because everyone needs the Shark-O-Matic!).

                                               We'll see this trend continue.

Call of Duty doesn't offer a Pass, but has an entire service dedicated to DLC, stats, tutorials, and clans called Elite.

Halo's used a free service dedicated to similar pursuits for years now, but by dropping $50 per year on Call of Duty Elite, players not only get premium access to content, they receive all future DLC for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. To purchase the DLC individually, a player needs to spend $15 on four different packs, $60 in total. Thus, Call of Duty Elite technically saves players $10 while providing vids, heat maps, and more inside the service -- it also guarantees gamers don't just buy a single DLC pack and walk away.

These are all ways for publishers to offer a longer interest curve for gamers, which is good; but also restricts the value of "cheap" options like rentals and used games. And as more and more of our spending activities go online, the trend is likely to continue.

It's all part of gaming's move away from single-purchase model to one that looks a lot like a subscription plan.

At least one downloadable game has attempted a new pricing model in recent months. XBLA-exclusive Crimson Alliance arrived in the Marketplace as a free download. As a hack-n-slash RPG with three classes, players can download the game as a trial for free, but if they want one of the character classes it costs 800 Microsoft Points -- but for only one of three classes. To get access to all three classes, the cost jumps to 1200 Microsoft Points, the price of most major XBLA releases -- cheaper than buying two classes, but more than a single class. Will this bits and pieces approach continue in other forms? The trend has swept through social gaming on Facebook, taken over mobile titles, and lives heartily in free-to-play PC MMOs.

                                               A rare, free gift.

While increased profits dominate board room discussions, some developers still provided free content to consumers and early adopters. Battlefield 3 offered its first multiplayer expansion as a free download to everyone who bought the Limited Edition (the only available version in the days and weeks after release). While the cost jumped to $15 for the expansion thereafter, most gamers got it for free. On top of that, Portal 2 offered an entire new co-op chapter, Peer Review, as a free add-on to the game, whether purchased new or used. Are these good-natured offers a dying minority?

The Online Pass is the first bold step in the future of online content. In its current form, an Online Pass isn't a terrible addition for gamers who purchase new products. But if publishers start splintering costs into paying for individual modes and services, then we're all going to have to make tough choices. In the future, we'll see more games taking the Season Pass route, a type of macro-transaction that guarantees a certain level of sales, and other titles adding additional elements of micro-transaction to keep gamers playing and paying.


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