BITMAPS 99: Online Passes Won’t Suck Forever
Welcome to column number one, which is in fact column number eleven billion. Though I’ve found my true love with Machinima, I had my wild days as a young writer. I did some stuff, wrote for other sites, but Machinima shouldn’t ask about that if it wants to keep the relationship harmonious. BITMAPS is a series I’ve written for other sites, but it has now come to roost here. Enough of the past though – you deserve to know what this is and why you should give a damn. I’ve had as many stabs at defining this as publications on which it’s run, so here’s my latest (and I think, most accurate):
BITMAPS attempts to expose, analyze, and celebrate the obscure. From examining the unexpected ways games can impact our lives to praising the slight elements of game design that separate the greats from the forgettable, BITMAPS always seeks to present a fresh angle, opinion, or thought.
Doof durp smart person words. If the above sounds pretentious, I invite you to post a poorly articulated comment about my sexual orientation. If it sounds interesting, feel free to add your unique voice to the conversation. If you’ve already opened a new tab to check your gmail, well, there’s no saving you.
Better than a code wheel?
To inaugurate this revival of opinion sparring, I’ll discuss EA’s Online Pass. For the unfamiliar, this is EA’s attempt to subvert the losses they experience on used game sales. New copies of the game come with a one-time-use serial code that grants you online access. Used game purchasers must purchase this access for around $10. While we have yet to hear of its success, probably because boasting about that would be a poor PR move – “Hey dude check all this money we’re getting by charging people more!” – other publishers are adopting the practice.
THQ was first on the cart with Homefront. Now, we have unconfirmed rumblings that Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment is jumping on, effectively turning said cart into a bandwagon, and bringing Mortal Kombat, Batman: Arkham City, and F.E.A.R. 3 with it. While gamers understandably tend to balk at anything that will pull more money from their bank accounts this Online Pass business will actually only mean good things for you, and not in that retarded “It gives the developers more money~” hippie way… but more on that later.
First, there’s an emotional disconnect between talking about the Online Pass and actually being affected by it. When hearing about it, gamers froth that developers are just trying to nickel and dime them to death. Certainly the thought occurred to me too, but then I bought Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit used. The game kindly informed me that I could check my case for a code to access the game’s robust online functionality, which of course I didn’t have. I grumbled and just played the single-player game. Perhaps it’s the way the game phrases or presents it, but I wasn’t livid at EA for locking me out of content. At the time all I felt was that I accidentally bought an inferior product for a negligible discount.
The opposite happened when I purchased Dead Space 2 and Dragon Age 2 new. I couldn’t give my two testicles about Dead Space 2’s multiplayer, but you’d better believe I redeemed that key to get the Ser Isaac of Clarke armor in Dragon Age 2. I don’t even really care about the armor, but it’s just a little trinket that says “Hey bro you’re awesome. Thanks for buying our game and please continue to do so.” It’s like getting a free pickle at the deli for tipping well. After having these two experiences, I don’t have intellectual anger, just a residual feeling of the residual user experience; used is crappy, new gets you a free pickle.
Behold, the key to your happiness.
This methodology is nothing new. Capcom Edge used to encourage gamers to send in clips from the instruction manuals to earn free games, Square Enix games come with a code to earn points through their loyalty program, and Club Nintendo allows you to earn prizes by registering games and feeding them demographic information via surveys. The difference here is that the effect is immediate – now you get your reward when you put the game in the drive, and it’s more tightly woven to the experience.
But enough of that emotional bullcrap. I promised some sort of news on how Online Pass would directly benefit you, so let’s follow this process through. Gamestop generally provides incentives to buy used through a slight price cut – generally in the area of ten dollars. Some poor shmuck buys a used game this way, takes it home, and has an extremely negative experience. That is to say, he thinks “What is this shit?” when the game asks him to pay more money to play the game he thought he just purchased.
Bam, you’ve just introduced negativity and friction into the equation. From here on out that customer knows that used isn’t safe, despite all the training Gamestop employees are given to encourage customers to go that route. The first step to remedy this problem is to warn customers ahead of time. It appears that Gamestop is already moving in that direction, according to a recent e-mail leak:
Mortal Kombat, available on April 19 for the PlayStation 3 computer entertainment system and the Xbox 360 video game and entertainment system from Microsoft, includes a one-time-use registration code that gives players access to all online modes in the game. Players who do not have a code will get a free two-day trial of the online play and then be able to purchase the online modes for 800 Microsoft Points on Xbox LIVE Marketplace and $9.99 on the PlayStation Network.
Prelude to a rageout.
So Gamestop can educate its employees, who can then warn the customer that they’ll need a $10 online pass to play online. From here one of two things will happen – the parent that wasn’t listening in the first place will buy the game anyway to shut his kid up, or the customer will stare at the pricetag, do some exceedingly difficult math and realize he’s not saving any money at all. The case goes back on the shelf along with its precious profit margin. If this happens enough times, Gamestop’s only recourse will be to cut into its own profit margin and reduce the price of used games (or maybe just those with Online Passes). The end result: you get cheaper games, even after buying the Online Pass. Or you can just buy them new and enjoy all the digital trinkets.
That’s the future of the practice as it is now, but many gamers wring their hands worrying about the times to come. If locking out multiplayer is working, what’s to stop publishers from locking out more and more content from used purchasers? What if hardly any of the game was left for the used game buyer? Well, then you’d have one of gaming’s most loved and accepted platforms: Steam. On Steam, you buy a serial code, use it, and you’re done. No trading, no used, and it works pretty well. I’m not suggesting that Online Pass will eventually close down the used market – there will always be a retail space for those with retail mindsets – but it is a trend that will alter the market.
And Gamestop sees this sea change coming. For years gamers have smugly chuckled, predicting that digital distribution would be the death of the company (somehow ignoring that Gamestop is already selling digital downloads). So what do you do when your market is contracting? Find a new one! It’s no surprise, then, that Gamestop recently announced the acquisition of digital outlet Impulse and game streaming company Spawn Labs.
So while this new system may appear to be nothing but an annoyance and a money grab, it’ll actually only mean good things for the consumer: a digital pat on the back for new purchasers and (eventually) cheaper price points for used games.