One of the most widespread stories this week focused on EA’s new decision to remove online passes from upcoming games. A seemingly consumer-friendly move in response to years of fan outcry, one has to wonder what the true motives are behind such a large decision with financial ramifications. If you ask me, which you did the moment you clicked on this editorial, the tactic is merely a smokescreen in an attempt to save a bit of face heading into the next generation of consoles later this year. Before tackling the issue of EA in particular, I think it’s important to refresh everyone’s memory of what online passes are and why they came about.
It should also be made clear that I have no intention of simply dismissing EA and all of their business decision as sleazy or two-faced simply because of consumer perception. The company is no stranger to bad press, being a consecutive winner of the Worst Company in America two years running, but I’m always willing to give the benefit of the doubt in these situations. My conclusions are drawn based on reason, as well as basic knowledge of the industry and where it’s headed with the coming generation of consoles. Alright, disclaimers aside, let’s get back to the matter at hand.
Online passes are one-time-use codes that grant access to a game’s online or multiplayer features. They were devised this generation to serve two singular purposes. One of which was to combat the losses brought about by extensive used game sales. In a market where used sales are prevalent, and companies like GameStop offer publishers and developers a whopping 0% cut of the sale of used games, companies had to devise a way to still make money off of a used game purchase. To level the playing field, let’s take a hard look at some statistics. According to analysts who provided the data at this past year’s Game Developers Conference (via Games Industry,) the total amount spent on games for the entire world was $14.8 billion last year. Of that relatively small HOLY BALLS amount of money, used game sales accounted for $1.59 billion in revenue. That’s not exactly a deal-breaker, but it’s still a ton of cash that publishers and developers believe they should be making. And in a market where blockbuster titles can barely break even, let alone turn a profit, that money can make the difference between a game getting a sequel or being put on ice.
The point of those statistics is to show that publishers were actively looking for a way to recapture some of that lost revenue, and online passes were just one of the ways. Other notable tactics used this generation include: Locked on-disc content to later be used for DLC, microtransactions, and of course, rereleases in the form of Game of the Year or Super Arcade Tournament Extended Hyper Jumbo to the Max Editions. (That last part might be a slight exaggeration.) Either way, the second reason online passes came about was to milk a bit more profit out of a game, even when retail shops tried to cut publishers out of the mix, while simultaneously incentivizing new game purchases. Bottom line: Online passes both encourage new game sales (since recent game releases will cost relatively the same bought either new or used + the online pass) and are a way for publishers to make some cash on used sales that would otherwise provide no revenue.
Now that we know what online passes are and the role they’ve played this generation, let’s focus on EA’s announcement to discontinue their use. Speaking to GamesBeat, senior director of corporate communications John Reseburg stated that, “yes, we’re discontinuing Online Pass. None of our new EA titles will include that feature.” Of course, he also added that, “we’re still committed to creating content and services that enhance the game experience well beyond the day you first start playing.” Reseburg states that negative fan feedback was the driving force behind the decision to do away with online passes but, dear reader, you and I both know that’s total horse armor (read: BS. Also read: I still love you, Bethesda!) The only way this statement could have come off as more of a diversionary PR tactic would be if Krieger was standing behind him and yelled “Smoke Bomb!” If fan reaction had any influence on the situation, online passes would’ve been discontinued the day after they were introduced, considering it took all of 15 minutes for the entire world to collectively shout, “WTF is this?”
Why so skeptical? Because EA is a business, and as we’ve been over before, businesses exist to make money. But wait, if EA’s goal was to make money, why would they discontinue a service that’s making them money? Ahh, ever astute as always, my friends, that’s mighty clever of you. The answer is simple: The market is changing. EA’s discontinuing online passes because they have much bigger plans in store for the coming generation. Plans that, if all goes accordingly, will lighten the burden of having to carry around all that heavy cash that’s weighing you down. Now, these deviant tactics won’t be employed by EA alone, the rest of the industry will follow suit if they haven’t already done so.
Here’s a brief glance into the future of gaming. The next generation of consoles will continue to sell games as “experiences.” These experiences are, to their benefit, marketed as ever-changing and constantly evolving. This generation, that translated into DLC; asking early buyers to spend upwards of $100 when all is said and done on extra content that may offer an extra hour or two of gameplay here or some new character skins there. The next generation will take that a step further, saying that the online worlds of most games will offer so much additional value it’s worth paying a separate fee entirely for. We’ve already seen this tactic with Call of Duty Elite, a subscription-based service that required a yearly fee of $49.99 before becoming free with the release of Black Ops 2. The service wasn’t as viable back then because no one else was asking fans to pay extra for online features, so since then the process has been refined in the form of Season Passes. Season Passes basically offer one-time purchase access to a select batch of DLC. Most recently, titles such as Borderlands 2, BioShock Infinite, and Injustice: Gods Among Us have all made use of it. In all fairness, there’s usually some sort of bonus incentive; whether it be extra costumes or most often an overall discount from the total cost of DLC. Companies like 2K with Borderlands 2 are taking that one step further by introducing multiple seasons of DLC. Do you see how less relevant online passes are becoming? All publishers want is access to your money as early as possible. Why charge $10 for access to online features when you can charge $20 a pop for the promise of future content per season?
The only reason they’re not going to try and charge for the online pass on top of the season passes next generation is because most AAA games will likely require their own subscription-based fees. They may not be as pricey as $14.99 a month, like the MMO’s of yesteryear that are one-by-one going free-to-play, but with all they plan on charging for DLC, microtransactions, and Elite-esque online features, there won’t be a need. Online passes are only going away because the service is evolving into something new, something worse than what came before. Now, there’s no objective way to argue cost vs. value, especially when it comes to video games; but if publishers have their way, you’ll only be committing to a select number of games a year. These games will continuously charge you either through DLC, microtransactions, or for a higher tier of online services that results in the equivalent of a monthly fee. This isn’t something all games will do, mind you, but those AAA titles that are oh-so-hard to profit off of due to ludicrous budget sizes are going to have to find new ways to profit. Once again, that burden will fall onto the consumer.
Sony just recently revealed that the PS4’s sharing functionality will be limited by individual developer’s discretion. That means developers have the ability to disable sharing, the common reason given being to disable it during a final boss fight so as to avoid potential spoilers. Nintendo just recently set their sights on Let’s Plays YouTube channels, claiming ownership of their ad revenue as opposed to banning them completely; in part because of the mindset that the people who watch these video commentaries feel satisfied enough to pass on purchasing the game they just watched. I mention this in reference to developers possibly blocking shared video content on the PS4 because what if it’s not just blocked, it’s blocked behind a paywall? Sony hasn’t said they’re going to charge us for the option to stream our content, nor have they said they’ll be a charge to view said content. What they did say though, is that it won’t be their decision. They’re allowing developers to control what gets shared, and I wouldn’t be surprised if certain games require a fee to view certain parts. What better way for publishers to capitalize on the popular Let’s Play craze. (For those wondering why anyone would ever pay for a live-stream Let’s Play as opposed to just watching it on YouTube, interactivity is what plays a key role there. Twitch is proof of that.)
So, before you go dancing in the streets or kissing random strangers in the supermarket because EA is “doing away” with online passes, take a moment to really read between the lines. They’ve simply grazed all the grass there is to chomp and now they’re moving on to greener pastures. (In case that metaphor fell short, by greener pastures, I mean they’ll be charging you more for services under the guise of a sparkly new title that will basically serve the purposes of an online pass, except it’ll cost more because of reasons disguised as value.) I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, I just want to prepare you folks for what’s coming next and shield you from the savage ruthlessness of PR piranhas who “only hit because they care.” The sad truth is businesses rarely have good, consumer-friendly intentions behind their financial decisions. It simply plays to their reputational benefit when the two seem to align, as is the case here. In this particular instance, EA would have you believe they take customer satisfaction and fan feedback incredibly seriously, when the reality is they’ve figured out a way to charge you even more for content next generation and they need to start building some trust so they can rope you into it come this holiday season.
I’d love to be wrong about all of this. The sweetest feeling in the world would be if EA called me up, took me to lunch, and said “we’ve changed.” If this move was simply to benefit their cash-strapped fans who want to enjoy online features without having to pay extra, well gosh that’d be swell. But reality isn’t often so sweet, dearies, and time has made me cynical. All I can hope for is that the truly noble developers out there find the success they deserve while wading through the muck of greed and corruption. Wow, there’s really no way to wrap this up in a bow, is there? Sorry I couldn’t find give you folks the “Hollywood ending” you’re probably yearning for. To make up for it, here’s an adorable picture of a baby cat drinking a bottle of milk to prove that, umm, there’s hope for a better tomorrow? I don’t know, just smile about it and ease my conscience.
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