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Online passes: the king is dead, long live the social world order

Tuesday, 10th December 2013 12:58 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Online passes look to have gone the way of the dodo. Brenna pauses in her celebratory cheerleading to ask why, and what might be coming in its place.

Publishers have a good reason for giving online passes the chuck, and that is that they simply don’t make sense in the kind of world both publishers are trying to build. These are titles that aim to build a sense of connectedness right into the bones of the game. EA and Ubisoft’s passionate vision is of a constantly connected, deeply social online worlds is coming true.

One of the more interesting and consequential industry happenings of 2013, and one that has gone largely unremarked, is that Ubisoft and EA both cancelled their online pass programs.

Online passes were always something of an experiment, and in many ways they make a lot of sense. For all Cliff Bleszinki’s bleating to the contrary, the games industry can’t afford for the used game trade cycle to end; retail would fall apart without it, and NPD reports notwithstanding retail remains an essential piece of the money-making machine, even just from a marketing perspective. Publishers don’t really want used game trade to go away, but they would like a slice of it, and online passes deliver that.

The system was an experiment, and it can be said to have failed, because users disliked it enough that both companies eventually elected to give up a found revenue stream. It’s not that the market can’t bear another ten bucks on top of the price of a used game, or that entering a code to unlock additional features is that demanding – it’s the spirit of the thing critics reacted against, the consumer-unfriendly feeling of squeezing more money out of an already expensive hobby. It’s one of the reasons EA, the most prolific proponent of online passes, scored two golden poo awards in a row, and why Ubisoft’s reputation began taking a similar beating (as an aside, both companies could probably stand to shore up their PC clients and tone down the DLC).

Both companies have been quite clear that consumer feeling at least partially motivated the decision. Ubisoft cancelled its online pass system just days after it was revealed that some single-player but online features would require a Uplay passport, citing “concerns” in the “community”. EA had confessed itself absolutely delighted with how the numbers were crunching, suggesting there were no significant negative consequences to the scheme from a financial perspective. But after cancelling the program, it admitted online passes “damaged” the games and “impeded the consumer”.

Commenters have looked on this as a victory for consumer-rights movements and the power of the people to change how corporations work. We’ll probably never know for certain whether consumer sentiment was the prime motivator for the decision; it certainly seems to have had a remarkable effect in the last few years, with BioWare expanding the ending of Mass Effect 3 and Microsoft spinning in place so fast I thought I’d developed an inner ear problem (although Pat blames Sony for that one, not you). Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile thinking about what other reasons EA and Ubisoft might have for giving up on what essentially amounts to free money. They – and their competitors – have a good reason for giving online passes the chuck, and that is that they simply don’t make sense in the kind of world both publishers are trying to build.

We saw a couple of trends come out of E3 2013, and looking at games due for release in 2014 and beyond, one of the most obvious commonalities was a hefty of multiplayer and social elements on everything. Look at the big games coming from both companies in the next year. Titanfall – multiplayer only. Watch Dogs – single-player but optionally highly social and connected. Tom Clancy’s The Division – essentially an MMO. The Crew – racing MMO. EA Sports titles – increasingly multiplayer-focused. Beyond EA and Ubisoft, other highly-anticipated titles like Destiny are doing the same thing.

These games and others like them present themselves as online services. In addition to traditional multiplayer modes like co-op or head-to-head versus, and last-gen social elements like leaderboards and matchmaking, these are titles that aim to build a sense of connectedness right into the bones of the game. This is something we’ve seen coming for a while, in Need for Speed’s Autolog and Assassin’s Creed’s tie-in apps, as well as comments from both companies, and for those of us with only minor misanthropy and decent Internet connections it’s not such a bad thing; the PS4′s Share feature is proving pretty popular, for example.

EA and Ubisoft’s passionate vision is of a constantly connected, deeply social online worlds is coming true. It doesn’t mean the death of single-player games – although it probably entails more clumsy attempts to shoehorn online content in like Dragon Age: Origin’s in-game DLC vendor, and patiently waiting for Origin and Uplay log-ins when launching games you only want to play on your own; inconveniences we can probably learn to live with, and expect to become less troublesome.

It’s a vision in which players are hooked into a game, franchise and publisher form the moment they first crack a disc case or hit a download button; a world of persistent, cross-platform and cross-title identities which players becomes invested in as achievement and friends list grow. It’s a vision like that which Activision has achieved with Call of Duty, in which consumer loyalty keeps a game active for years beyond its single-player lifespan, players are driven to buy-in to related experiences, DLC flows like Pedro’s waterfall tears and money, with any luck, pours in at a rate of tweets.

It’s not a vision that allows for a differentiator between online and offline, guarded by a Janus-like $10 bit of paper; it is, in some ways, the world Microsoft was trying to sell us on with the Xbox One before we threw a conniption fit, snuck in the back door in a way that’s less confronting to those who recoil at terms like “always on DRM”.

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13 Comments

  1. mistermogul

    “Brenna pauses in her celebratory cheerleading”

    Any pics to go with this Brenna?! ;)

    #1 1 year ago
  2. Bomba Luigi

    For the first time in my Live I got the feeling that I’m too old for Games. All that always Connected Social Media whatever… I dont want that and I have no Idea why should want it. I rather play with my SNES or download something from GoG.

    #2 1 year ago
  3. DrDamn

    Probably worth a mention that Sony were a supporter of online passes too.

    #3 1 year ago
  4. CyberMarco

    Nice read Brenna.

    “…what might be coming in its place.”

    Microtransactions in full retail games are the new online-pass. The amount of greediness in the industry is getting bigger and worser.

    I’m just waiting for the moment when gaming will be something alien to me, maybe I’ll go retro or something.

    #4 1 year ago
  5. Cobra951

    There’s one interesting phenomenon right now in the console world, perhaps unique so far? Borderlands 2 has been updated for a while now to allow *hot fixes*. A hot fix is a patch that comes down the pipe after the game is running, and which goes away when you exit the game to the dashboard. Gearbox has been making a lot of small updates, particularly to the usefulness of some guns and other gear, through hot fixes. That means you need to be online and connected to them if you want to play the best version of the game, even if you want to play solo. I don’t know how they got this through certify-everything-first Microsoft, but here it is. And it’s yet another way to keep customers connected, and subscribed. Borderlands 2 also has a ridiculous amount of DLC, and fans continue to eat it up. I’d say Gearbox has found the way, and whoever isn’t emulating them already, soon will be.

    But I don’t lament the late, departed online passes, not one bit. Good riddance.

    #5 1 year ago
  6. tezzer1985

    I thought Ubisoft stopped online passes, my copy of AC4 on PS4 comes with a online pass code.

    #6 1 year ago
  7. livewired500

    When they first started the online pass system, I thought it was a terrible idea. Not because it was consumer unfriendly, though it was, but from a business standpoint.

    It discouraged people from either buying the used game or going online with it if they did purchase it. This put up an arbitrary $10 barrier where the publisher could be selling $20-$50 worth of DLC.

    #7 1 year ago
  8. Dragon

    Oh look, people speaking with their wallets work!

    #8 1 year ago
  9. monkeygourmet

    @Cyber

    Agreed!

    @topic

    £60 full price games packed full of £100′s worth of MT’s.

    “We live in a busy world. Some people might not have the time to read the whole book and just want to pay to be told the ending.”

    I always feel these MT’s target kids. Kids were and still are obssessed with cheats in games.

    From the ‘warp pipes’ and ‘warp whistle’ in Mario, to the Konami code. Kids have always liked finding cheats as it makes them think they have ‘broken’ or ‘beaten’ the game.

    The cheat section of a magazine was always the first place my friends and I would go too, and the possibilty of unlocking ‘Sheng Long’ in SF2 dominated lunch time chat at school.

    As you get older, the need for quicker leveling and ‘cheating’ disappears somewhat as you just want to enjoy the game for what it is. You don’t need to cheat to ‘win’.

    MT’s are almost always similar to what I would have used to call ‘cheats’. More power, better weapons etc… Being able to make money off these type of features is just going to kill gaming as we know it In my opinion.

    Of course it’s up to the parent, but I also understand what it must be like to have kids nagging you: “It only costs £1.49 Dad!”…

    It sucks plain and simple. They are splitting up games into individual componants and selling them back to you for more than there original cost. All under the guise of:

    “You are now able to personalise your experience!!!”

    Oldest trick in the book… Damn mother fuckers! Ruining shit…

    @Dragon

    What part do you think worked?!

    If anything, it’s worse… F2P games masquarding as full price titles with season passes AND MT’s?!

    #9 1 year ago
  10. DrDamn

    @9
    I found this an interesting read on micro-transactions. I didn’t really consider the angle before.

    http://doddscientifics.com/2013/12/04/why-i-am-skipping-gran-turismo-6/

    #10 1 year ago
  11. monkeygourmet

    @10

    Thanks, great read and a brilliant point.

    I hate the: “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it” mentality…

    There are ALWAYS more sides to a story, it’s never that black and white.

    Kind of what I was trying to get at, kids being vulnerable people.

    #11 1 year ago
  12. pukem0n

    Season Pass and Microtransactions and Social Media on Consoles are the new cancer of this generation for sure…

    #12 1 year ago
  13. TheShoe

    @2

    I feel the same way. Not being anti-social, but it’s a rare game that I want to play multi-player online; i tend to buy far fewer games as a result. for me nothing beats an incredible single player experience like Last of Us, mass effect, Bioshock series, Elder Scrolls Series, Fallout Series, Uncharted, and so on… and for whatever reason – i tend to always buy new unless it’s so long that a title is out of print and used is my only option. in which case used is such an awesome avenue as i simply don’t have the time to play as often as i would like.

    i think the last multi-player i truly enjoyed and put significant time into was Rock Band, then Crimson Skies; before that Quake 3. actually now that i think about it, Demon Souls did something unique and fun from a multi-player perspective.

    i like the concept of DLC as long as it’s priced appropriately and adds something to the experience. not horse armor :)

    to each their own i guess; single-player experiences will be around for a while longer so I’ll get a lot of mileage out of my PS4. after this gen (PS4/X1), who knows? I’ll be well out of the demographic by then, so it won’t matter what I think to publishers and game devs…

    #13 1 year ago

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