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Why I’m sick of online passes (and why they could be a lot worse)
by Andrew Testerman

Last December, Destructoid’s Jim Sterling broke the story that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning would feature a seven-part quest line, hidden behind an online pass.

Sterling called the practice "slimy and unjustified" on his personal Twitter account, and the topic quickly became a hot-button subject amongst savvy internet-dwellers wishing to offer their tuppenceworth on EA's new favourite money-making strategy. Part of the anger stemmed from the fact that Kingdoms of Amalur’s online code was restricting access to single-player content already on the disc, instead of online content, like previous games with EA Online Passes.

This is not the first time this year that a kerfuffle has been raised over single-player content restrictions. Last September, Warner Bros. Interactive and Rocksteady Studios came under fire when they sealed off several playable sections of Batman: Arkham City featuring Catwoman behind an unlock code. The move came under fire from users who felt they were being cheated out of the full experience, especially from the perspective of gamers who may not have an internet connection for their console, or anyone who might try to buy the game used.

Unfortunately, online passes are likely here to stay, especially seeing as publishers are trying their utmost to head off used-game sales. What started as a justification to recover operating costs for online servers has turned into yet another way for EA to coax a little more money out of its customers. And, beyond EA and Warner, THQ has also used online passes for Homefront and both of its UFC games, whilst Activision has as yet chosen not to follow the online pass route.

A hefty amount of digital ink has already been spilled on the subject of online passes, forming everything from reasonable discourse to righteous indignation. Some see online passes as a regrettable but understandable business decision, a reasonable push-back against used-game sales. Others feel they punish a significant part of their consumer base, and provide gamers with a worse experience; after all, typing in a new code every time one buys a new game gets very old, very quickly.

On a side note, I’m not certain that used-game sales cut into profits quite so much as publishers say they are, but I bet the fact that one of the world’s largest game retailers depends so heavily on used games sales doesn’t help.

I used to be reasonably tolerant of online passes; as a gamer who tries to purchase new games and support developers, rather than retailers, it didn’t affect me too heavily. Most of the games using online passes were sports games: the likes of Madden and FIFA, games I wouldn’t usually play but would likely purchase new if I did - new rosters, after all. However, online pass implementation has become much more ubiquitous - and, one could argue, much more stupid - in recent months. Entering each new code becomes more tedious every time, and the content hidden behind these codes has grown from bonus, thank-you-for-playing content to important, central portions of the game as a whole.

Perhaps my worst experience with online passes came when I rented Battlefield 3, for what was supposed to be a review. I ploughed through the campaign in one five-hour session (my preferred method for tight, focussed FPS campaigns), and after watching the credits roll, I sat down for a few rounds of multiplayer, excited to spend more time with one of my favourite online series in recent years. Instead, I was greeted with a screen that told me I needed to buy a brand new copy of the game in order to try the multiplayer at all.

I was shocked. Not only was the game depriving me access to arguably the reason to purchase Battlefield 3, but it wouldn’t even let me try it out and decide if it was right for me. Rather than spend an extra ten dollars on top of the eight dollar rental, I returned the game, frustrated and unsatisfied - at least online sports games like Madden allowed a seven-day free trial for online modes. And the sad thing is, I decided not to purchase Battlefield 3 in the end, because I wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy the multiplayer; without an adequate chance to sample it, the purchase became too great a risk, and caused me not to follow through.

On the other hand, I can understand why publishers use online passes, despite how much they're inarguably awful. 38 Games' Curt Schilling recently talked about why they chose to implement their 'day-one DLC', saying that, as a new series in a crowded market, they wanted to stand out and provide extra content to gamers who would buy it new; after all, if they don’t sell enough copies, the studio may not be around long enough to deliver a sophomore effort.

To me, it really comes down to expectation. Amalur is an absolutely massive game, and as sucky as it is to miss out on a seven-quest cycle, there’s still a huge amount of content already available for playing. In terms of Batman: Arkham City and its infamous gated content, I rented the game shortly after it came out, and during the time I played it, not once did I feel ripped-off for not being allowed to experience Catwoman’s sections. Batman’s main storyline was so fun and well-paced, I never felt like anything was missing from the experience, making Catwoman’s sections truly feel like 'bonus' content.

Perception is also a big part of this discussion. There are those who feel that, because both Catwoman and the seven-part quest are on the disc, they should be available right out of the box, lest the experience be otherwise 'incomplete'. Yet, for some reason, removing the content from the disc and forcing players to download it through Xbox Live or PSN seems to make it okay. Perhaps we’re all hardwired to expect a more 'transactional' feel when purchasing digital items, and the physical distance the data travels and the time needed to acquire it perhaps make the content more worth the money than if it were simply unlocked from the disc. For me, if the experience feels complete (like in the case of Batman), anything extra is worth the extra money.

A similar situation happened last year with Gears of War 3, when Epic revealed that their game had a good amount of on-the-disc DLC. Their justification? They had already drawn up and followed a projected budget for the main content (single-player campaign, multiplayer, co-op, etc.), and the DLC followed a separate budget, making both sets of content two different sets of costs. The $60 purchase covered the main game’s budget, while the on-the-disc purchases would cover the cost to design, develop and test the DLC.

Also - and this makes me part of the problem - I would much rather have buy-new incentives that are actually worth ponying up the money for. Remember the Cerberus Network, EA’s free-DLC service from Mass Effect 2? Remember how awesome your new equipment was, and how engaging your new party felt? Of course not; they were all terrible. If I’m resigned to expect extra content from buying a game brand new, that content had better be worth the money I spent over buying it used. There’s a thin line between withholding content that’s worthwhile and keeping players from experiencing the game to the fullest, but the latter feels so much more satisfying than discovering your 'bonus content' was an extra pea-shooter and two differently-coloured T-shirts.

I’m not trying to be an online pass apologist; they add new layers of difficulty to customer experiences, and they could easily lead to a slippery slope of paying for even greater and greater chunks of content. Still, I know there’s a middle-ground that can be attained, in rewarding players who buy new without penalising those who buy games used, and hopefully developers can find that happy medium in the future. In the meantime, let’s get back to complaining about something that is really irritating. Like pre-order DLC.

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- Andrew Testerman

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