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

Tuesday, 10 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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