The Online Pass Is Terrible (But Here's How To Do It Right) - Apozem Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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The Online Pass Is Terrible (But Here's How To Do It Right)

One of the more controversial parts of the latest generation of gaming is the advent of so-called "online passes." Invented by publishers in a time of need, they are seen by the industry as a necessity and by some gamers as a majestic injustice. Here at GIO the protests against the online pass have been strong and loud. The man formerly known as Demon Ragnarok is the only person I can think of who supports them. Among the majority of gamers, the pass system is about as popular as Navi in Ocarina of Time.

Let's back up a little. There is a sizeable portion of gamers without an online connection and maybe some of you haven't encountered a game requiring an online pass yet. The background of our current state of affairs, like so many other things, stems from the recent economic recession. Every part of the economy got hit pretty hard, including game developers. Their revenues shrank. Costs went up. Things were looking bad, even for giants like EA.

Relatively speaking.

Then like a stroke of lightning came a singular idea. Used games make up a huge chunk of the total video games market. It's estimated that one third of all game sales are used. If a game is sold secondhand, the publisher gets nothing. The money goes entirely to the retailer (like GameStop). And understand that it's whole lot of money. Publishers started eyeing used game sales like a starving hyena eyes a fat kid.

That's where the online pass comes in. Recently companies like EA and Ubisoft have started selling their games with a one-use code packaged with the box. That code is the "online pass." Without a valid pass, you can't access some part of the game. If the game is used, you have to separately purchase a pass for $10. Coincidentally, GameStop sells popular used games for an average of $10 less than the price of a new copy.

The idea is to push gamers away from buying used and toward spending a little extra for a new game. It tends to be a passive-aggressive push. Game publishers fall over themselves to assure customers that their new game can be played entirely without an online pass. Then they turn around and aggressively lock out certain features (usually online multiplayer) without a pass. And until recently, gamers accepted this admittedly unpopular new change.

The breaking point, at least for some people, was Batman: Arkham City. Before release, the developers made a big deal about including Catwoman as a playable character. Her part was about 5-10% of the whole game. Everybody thought the idea of playing as a new character in Arkham City was pretty cool. So imagine the surprise when I and thousands of gamers everywhere found out the new lengths to which Warner Bros (the publisher of Arkham City) had taken the online pass.

Catwoman was entirely gone without the pass. Not just restricted, not without the infinite rocket launcher, gone. A publisher had actually graduated from shutting down the multiplayer of a pass-less game to breaking the single player. Warner Bros claimed that the game was still "complete" without Catwoman. That excuse didn't fly with gamers. They had torn off a chunk of the essential Arkham City single-player experience and everyone knew it.

That is the worst of the online pass. Hacking out chunks of the single player just because somebody bought the game secondhand seems incredibly crude and unnecessary. What's more, it betrays an antagonistic attitude toward gamers. The way Warner Bros handled the Catwoman affair felt very condescending. You could almost hear the publisher saying "We'll let you play Arkham City only if you ask nicely, pay for the online pass and jump through all of our hoops."

Thanks guys!

That whole attitude is so wrong it's hard to know where to start. If a publisher really wants to succeed, they need to understand that treating your customers like criminals is wrong. Being treated in such a casually disrespectful manner is a little galling. When I feel mistreated, I don't feel particularly generous. If Warner Bros wants to make me bend over backwards just to play the complete game, I'll pass. They don't deserve my money.

What's worse is that Warner Bros (and any publisher who burdens their game with an intrusive online pass) is only hurting itself. Approaching customers as equals will improve fan loyalty, and fan loyalty means sales. Just look at Valve. Gabe Newell famously said, "Do not focus on anyone but your customers... always remember that your customers are not going to be fooled." A game developer that focuses on customer service? Gee, I wonder how their revenues are doing?

Oh that's right; their sales have increased by 100% for the seventh year in a row. Speaking as a PC gamer, there is a very good reason for that. Steam is the very definition of consumer friendly- it lets you download multiple copies of a game, stores your save files in the cloud, occasionally sells awesome games for pennies, and stores your friends list in one place. Steam is so convenient, it's actually easier than pirating (more benefits, too).

Even more recently was the whole incident with Double Fine. Tim Shafer took to the interwebs to ask people for money to help with game development. That's right, he just... asked. A donation for his new game gets you access to the full thing on Steam. Extra money gets you bonuses like a making-of documentary. The original fundraising goal was $400,000. They raised that in eight hours. As of this writing, Double Fine has collected well over three million dollars in donations.

Tim looks surprised at the number too.

That is something that Warner Bros could really learn from. Maybe they work with their customers instead of against them. Maybe I would feel more inclined to buy that new copy of Arkham City if it wasn't so restricted and tied up in knots. Or maybe I'll just buy it off Steam. Warner Bros might not deserve my money, but Valve sure does.

Thankfully the online pass trend might be turning around. EA took a good long look at the state of the industry and decided to include a better online pass. The new SSX game will include a pass, but it's a whole lot more limited in scope than the disaster in Arkham City. In SSX, everybody gets access to the online multiplayer. However, only players with an online pass will have their scores recorded and be able to upgrade to better gear.

That's perfect. This way, players who want to get more out of their game experience have the option to do so. Nobody's forced to cough up a fee because they didn't buy new. EA will probably still get a good deal of money from online passes and new game copies. Everybody wins. Why can't we do that more?

What do you think? Should companies try to be a little more customer-friendly?

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