I’ve encountered the strangest phenomenon in recent years that I find difficult to explain. Gamers around the world have been suckered into either awkwardly plugging in codes or paying additional fees for each game. A publisher’s decision has cost them both time and money while offering nothing in return, and oddly enough the consumers defend and even encourage the practice. Second hand buyers deserve what they get! That’ll show them for having the nerve to show interest in your project over someone else’s!
Let’s try and analyze what an online pass is for a moment. Once upon a time a publisher known as EA decided it was time to charge a portion of the market a fee in order to play their game online. The consumer would get nothing in return, but EA defended their move by saying that “we think it’s fair to get paid for the services we provide and to reserve these online services for people who pay EA to access them.” You’ve probably heard this sort of argument before when a company condemns the act of pirating their games, and in that context it can be perfectly reasonable. The problem here is that used games are not stolen or conjured from the aether through some dark art of witchcraft.
A used game is a disc that was fully paid for through legitimate means and has merely changed hands over time. Companies would love to justify additional fees by acting like their poor servers are being bogged down by the big bad used market, but the fact is that every single one of those used games originated in an actual sale. If one person plays a game online before transferring ownership to another the end result is still just one person playing online. You’ve probably heard the horror stories about how Super Modern PC Game VII‘s servers are almost entirely occupied by dirty pirates that drain the company’s resources, but used games contribute to such problems in no way whatsoever. This means that the entire point of an online pass when going by EA’s own explanation is a moot point.
The original silly explanation of an online pass becomes even more meaningless once you look at the series of entirely single player experiences that have been given the same or comparable treatment. Remember when Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II each had an entire playable character and quest chain that was locked behind a code? When it happened for the first time I was ready to dismiss it as a gimmick, but before long it became clear that this was the future for all games published by EA: cut features from a finished game, only giving it to buyers once they jump through an inconvenient hoop or shell out the extra cash. What, were all of those nonexistent servers costing them millions each year?
Once the online pass concept has been applied to games that feature no online features it becomes apparent that it exists to attack all used games, regardless of context. I find it odd just how oblivious EA and any company with similar behavior seems to be to the function that the used game market serves. For the sake of being able to continue I’m going to assume that we can agree that the two most likely used game customers are the ones that are unwilling or unable to pay full price for a title and those who are on the fence about buying something that they see as a risk.
For a gamer that is short on funds or stingy with their purchases the $60 starting point for a new game seems incredibly expensive. This makes both ends of the used games market seem incredibly appealing. Those who take the full plunge on day one can do so while knowing that they can trade in a bad game immediately for most of their money back. A financial pillow, if you will. Those who are looking for something a bit cheaper can then pick up the game second hand while taking less of a blow to their wallets. Both sides of this equation are important! The ability to get some cash back for your purchase and the opportunity to take the edge off the the lofty asking price both play a significant role in increasing the number of games that a customer is likely to buy each year. They can feel more confident in their purchases because a system exists that makes the retail price easier to swallow.
This becomes especially important when dealing with customers that are unsure about your game and are hesitant to invest. Die hard fans of a series will dive head first into things on day one while those who couldn’t care less will ignore a game entirely. A company doesn’t need to worry about these two groups and their ironclad stances, so are best served by paying special attention to the crowd in the middle. A gamer that is still on the fence about a product is still a potential customer but needs that extra little bump before they make a purchase. This little bump can be the ability to buy the game second hand, which allows them to take a risk.
The risk detailed above is no small issue once you apply it to the scale of an entire market. Through the used game option a developer or series is able to gain the attention of many players that had previously remained undecided. Someone can simply pick up a used game on a whim when they know that they have seven days to bring it back for a full refund, and those are seven days that can completely win over the player. Seven days that they would have otherwise never had. The developer and publisher may not make any money on the sale itself, but it opens the door to the creation of brand new fans that eat up the downloadable content and pay close attention to future releases.
Look at a series like Dead Space, Assassin’s Creed, Elder Scrolls, or Call of Duty. If you pay attention to the sales of each game in the first week you’ll notice that the number is getting larger with each sequel even though logic would dictate that the opposite happen. Out of all of the people who bought the first game some of them must have surely lost interest in the series, so where are all of these new buyers coming from? How does a game like Skyrim‘s first week amount to over 50% of the lifetime sales of its predecessor (using Xbox 360 statistics)? Somehow there is an entire group of fans that didn’t contribute to the previous total but is here in droves this time around. The answer is complicated, but it would be incredibly naive to pretend that the used games market and various other second hand practices had nothing to do with it. Over the years copies of Oblivion have lined the walls of GameStops across the country and have changed hands countless times, leading to massive numbers of people being exposed to the critically acclaimed Bethesda masterpiece. After a few years all that Bethesda had to do was put out a short and fairly useless teaser trailer for a sequel and people were already heralding Skyrim as their game of the year! It’s the long game, but it’s also something that cannot be ignored if a company wants their success to be anything other than fleeting. Each new game experiences its greatest burst of sales in the opening week, a period where used games do not yet exist. These used games then make it possible for there to be an even bigger opening week next time!
I cannot emphasize enough just how important it is to build up your fans. Companies like Grasshopper Manufacture (Suda51), Double Fine, Rockstar, Bethesda, and Valve have all reached their varying levels of success by appealing to an audience while constantly trying to innovate in a way that reminds people again and again exactly why they like the company in the first place. You get a finished product that confidently stands alone and might get supported by some cool DLC in a few months if it does well enough. People eat this up and never feel like they’re being manipulated or exploited by the group responsible for their fun. These developers and publishers understand the importance of getting every new fan they possibly can so they focus on making quality games rather than finding methods to punish a portion of that population.
This is why I worry when I see a new IP such as Kingdoms of Amalur engage in such practices. The developer is so desperate to make it feel like an important game that is a part of a series that they even went so far as to include the “Reckoning” subtitle to imply that it is an episode of something greater. The game currently has no established fans because it has never actually hit shelves, but it already has a $200 collectors edition. Rather than letting the game speak for itself they seem to be trying to make the game a big deal by simply telling you that it’s a big deal. In reality the Kingdoms of Amalur property is still in its infancy and should be grateful for every new fan that it can possibly get a hold of, but instead they have decided to include their own version of an online pass where second hand buyers will be forced to pay a fee in order to access content that everyone else already has.
This sends the wrong message. Remember when I talked earlier about customers on the fence that you want to coax into coming down on your side? The second hand option is an excellent way to provide an avenue for their curiosity and potentially gain a new fan, but when you incorporate the equivalent of an online pass you remove that option altogether. Buying the game used becomes just as expensive (if not more!) as buying it new, so this bait for the gray area is entirely removed. Instead of luring in this particular kind of gamer you instead draw a line in the sand that they have no reason to bother crossing, so they simply walk past your game in the aisle to take a gander at the other hundred options. Rather than clinging to every new fan you could possibly get you tell a portion of them that their devotion is inferior. As a reward for taking a risk you borderline insult them for having the gall to show interest in your hard work simply because they didn’t choose your favorite route to the experience.
I was excited to try the demo for Kingdoms of Amalur: Subtitle because I had heard a lot of hype surrounding it and completely bought into everything the developers were saying about how incredibly innovative it is. Once I actually played the demo I realized that it was more or less a new Fable game with a skill tree and a different set of lore. This wasn’t so bad, but what really bothered me was how rough around the edges the demo turned out to be. Heads vanished during conversations, the geometry of corpses would randomly warp at certain camera angles, conversations started fast-forwarding themselves inexplicably, and I was forced to end my session prematurely when it completely froze and never recovered. As a consumer when I have this sort of experience and then look online to find out about the equivalent of an online pass and a freakishly expensive collector’s edition It’s hard not to be offended. When such an unstable mess is designed to sell me on the full product it becomes clear that Studio 38 and EA are more interested in making a profitable game than a good one, which immediately destroys any sympathy I could possibly have for an up and coming developer that just wants to make it in the world. This becomes especially clear when Mr. Schilling uses phrases such as “reward fans … when it benefits the company.” Maybe if they worked on making a game that people wanted to keep long after release they wouldn’t have to worry about it clogging up the used game bins. I still have my launch day Mass Effect disc on my shelf waiting for my fourth play through the story. That was a nice game that hit the market without some cynical second hand fail-safe measure built into it.
And here we reach one of the biggest issues at work here. When a gamer defends online passes they inevitably talk about how you need to support the developer so that they can continue to make quality products. They’ll probably sprinkle in some phrase about helping the little guy fight against big bad Call of Duty or some other related and successful property. If you’re so concerned, dare I ask, why don’t you just start mailing your favorite developer money? When did it become your job to think about theirs? They should be focusing on putting out a quality product that appeals to an existing demand, and you should be purchasing experiences in whatever way is convenient to you. The company is there to serve the customer, not the other way around. Video games aren’t the only industry that has a second hand market, in fact just about everything that isn’t a consumable with an expiration date can be resold later on. None of these other markets are being utterly crushed by the second hand market even though many of those products cost significantly more, so what makes games so especially volatile? Nothing.
How far are we supposed to take this support? This console generation we have already seen a $10 increase in the price of games, an increase in the cost of Xbox Live and Sony’s introduction of a premium service, the skyrocketing of expensive DLC as the norm, and the common use of patches at a crutch. We now have a situation where Activision can charge £5 more for Call of Duty in England because they realized they can get away with it. Dead Island is launched as an incompetent, broken mess and we applaud a patch for fixing problems that should have never made it onto the disc in the first place. These companies are out to make a profit, so they will always be testing the waters for new ways to make even more money. They will always take any ground that is given to them and they’re excellent at prettying the news up with a pleasant press release that tells you how absolutely vital the change is. Every little issue seems like such a small thing at the time so it’s easy to dismiss, but can you even imagine what gaming was like back in 2005? Remember when you could just buy a game at GameStop for $50 or less and be confident that you were getting a full experience. Once you got home it was a simple matter of putting the disc in the drive and starting your game. No additional fees were required to access locked parts of the game, and no one had to type a long code into a cumbersome on-screen keyboard in order to have the privilege of downloading content that they had already paid for in the store. No one had to prove that they were a true fan of remain signed into an online service so that they could maintain access to downloaded portions of their single player experience.
I love science fiction because it points out the absurdity of many facets of modern culture by altering the context, so let’s try a bit of that to see if I can crack a few shells. When was the last time that your internet went out? How long did that last? Did you follow the event by explaining to everyone that AT&T or Comcast probably saved a lot of money by not properly upgrading and maintaining the local infrastructure, or for selling you a modem prone to failure? Did you justify the latest abysmal Twilight film by acknowledging that all of those nice cameramen and makeup artists really need their jobs? Wouldn’t it be grand if several features of your car ceased to function whenever you let someone else drive?
Before you go rushing to the comments section let me remind you that the online pass is something that you do not benefit from. You as a consumer have nothing to gain from the situation, and instead are forced into a scenario that becomes an inconvenience at best and an additional cost at worst. Gamers have a long history of defending big companies in a fanboyish manner that do not need or deserve such champion-like behavior. I think I get it. Games make you happy and by extension the people who worked on those games make you happy. As a result it can be painful when others say negative things about them so you feel the need to go firing away with your keyboard on some internet forum in a heated war of the words that inevitably changes no one’s mind.
The ultimate problem with online passes, as I’ve detailed above, is that they are a punishment rather than an incentive. People who dance to EA’s tune are given nothing as a reward for their loyalty while those who get to the game through other methods are given less. This is a net loss for us, not a profit. You cannot call something an incentive when the consumer has nothing to gain. How can this be fixed, you ask? An example already exists in the widely used Steam platform on the PC, where users are frequently given 10% off on just about any title if they preorder it or buy it quickly after launch. A similar event occurred when Super Meat Boy launched on the Xbox Live Arcade with the initial price of 800 space bucks while warning everyone that it would rise to 1200 in the near future. Publishers see the increase in sales that they want so badly while consumers are given a real and tangible time-sensitive incentive to pick the game up right away. I could think of more ideas, but if a publisher actually wanted to figure out real incentives I’m sure they’ve got actual experts to discuss this with.
But wait, what’s this? Syndicate will have no online pass? A brand new multiplayer-focused game that is both owned and published by EA will not feature such a thing because they “want as little resistance or barriers to entry as possible.” Instead EA Partners executive producer Jeff Gamon goes on to say that it’s the quality of the game that will combat used game sales. When the company that created this system in the first place openly admits that it can be harmful to a property’s ability to grow I’m not sure what else I can say. It seems that even people at EA realize that online passes are absurd. Case closed.