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The Game Effect Editorial

The Used Game Conflict Pt. 3 - Online Passes and The Future of Used Games

Online Passes Vary in Use and Performance But Who Ultimately Benefits

By Nick Schneider on 3/6/2012
With the growing force of DRM measures and consoles being ever more connected to the Internet it was only a matter of time before significant efforts were implemented to inspire new game purchases in lieu of piracy and the used game trade. Enter the online pass. An incentive for purchasing new, while at the same time offering a financial reprieve to publishers when a game is bought used. This found revenue has been rallied against by games journalists and gamers, and has also been defended by just as many. In our previous issue of The Used Game Conflict we examined the rising costs of the industry, and in turn, how the financial side breaks down for publishers and retailers. In our conclusion to this series, we will break down the various types of online passes, their impacts on gamers, and where the industry is headed regarding these types of measures.

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While Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning wasn't the first game to involve an online pass, the code included in the respectable EA title is a rarity among normal passes, in that the pass unlocks seven quests tied to the single player aspect of the game. However, in most cases, such as Battlefield 3 and Uncharted 3, the publisher opted to limit online play to those who didn't have their single use code. The blocking of this content irritated some, but for the most part the code was easy enough to input, and had little hindrance over a player's ability to get to the content they desired. In one rare instance, however, the process was entirely frustrating and took away from the enjoyment of playing the game itself.

In the case of Resistance 3's implementation of the online pass, which required players to quit the game to head over to the Playstation Store to input a code, it was enough to instill a strong sense of fervor and rage in those who labored through the process. This rage grows even stronger when the firmware for your Playstion 3 has to update before loading the store.

Of course this is only one instance among many that work fairly easily, however the truth is that these passes do require gamers to take themselves out of the moment in order to enter a series of letters and numbers before beginning a game. Most passes can be entered fairly quickly, and Resistance 3 is an outlier when it comes to the frustration of actual input, but concerns among gamers has grown stronger in recent months thanks to the blocking of single player content.

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Arkham City had an interesting marketing campaign for its online pass: buy the game new and unlock Catwoman. The only thing was that many felt that Catwoman was already a playable character before the pass had been implemented. This step also came the problem of games not having the code included, or not working; though Gamestop did work out a system with Warner Bros. for obtaining the pass for used customers.

Earlier this year EA set the internet ablaze once again when the announced DLC for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning blocked seven missions without the code. While certainly nothing that had been guaranteed, the mindset of some had turned to one of extreme negativity towards locking "on disc content." In both single player and multiplayer this is the most common form of the online pass, simply block playable content without the code and allow the gamer to decide for themselves whether that extra content is worth the extra price. The idea is to offer a taste of the content, and then give the gamer a chance to play a la Homefront from THQ, where multiplayer levels are capped at five.  
The idea of giving players a choice on whether they want that extra content while still providing an opportunity to experience everything a game has to offer isn't entirely revolutionary, as Mass Effect 2 launched with an online pass that granted access to the Cerberus Network. In Bioware's epic, the code allowed gamers to utilize Cerberus primarily as a news soruce, and also allowed fans access to the crashed Normandy SR-1 crash site, exclusive weapons, and bounty hunter Zaeed Massani for hire. This method of instituting a pass for additional content is also one that Activision is adopting for Radical Entertainment's Prototype 2.

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For a limited time following release, gamers will be able to purchase the Radnet Edition of Prototype 2. This edition includes access to 55 pieces of additional content spread over a seven week period, and is set to a limited number of copies. Once those copies run out anyone who wishes to utilize that additional DLC will have to pay an extra $10 regardless of whether the game was purchased new or not. It certainly is a little jarring to realize that a developer is essentially asking players to purchase not only new, but also early, to access the content without a pass. Even more telling is that these are the signs of the times gamers live in, and for better or worse things will change.

The start of this change comes from the retailers themselves, and in some cases the relationship between publisher and retailer can be quite strained. In recent weeks it has been announced that EU/UK game retailer GAME and Gamestation will not be stocking Mass Effect 3; a decision that was made after EA failed to provide the appropriate credit to the retailer. While extreme that publishers would pull out of a retailer because of used games, especially given that retailers are often the face of the industry for some gamers, there are other measures to consider.

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It is rumored that the next Xbox will not support used games, however pushing out retailers who support game developers by offering retail incentive for new games could leave publishers trying to find a new place to sell product. Since the retail front is the primary source of purchase for gamers, publishers have to walk a thin line between support and disdain for their services. When Gamestop relies as heavily as it does on used games for their revenue, they are also providing resources for supporters of the industry to make some of that money.

Gamestop usually offers trade-in deals that offer store credit towards a purchase of a new game greater than that if used regularly. In this method, the money that they are giving for the game is given to the publisher for their game. Even if a consumer spends that credit on a used game or two, the stability of Gamestop and their associates opinions on video games, and knowledge of titles coming out benefit the industry through active promotion.
The online pass isn't going to kill a retailers ability to sell used games, nor in most cases do they interfere with the ability to play quickly and effectively. The pass itself isn't perfect, and it's hard to believe that the industry is in dire need of revenue when it has been valued at $65 billion dollars. However, as digital distribution looms on the horizon, publishers are stuck between ever expanding budgets for creating games, and the lessening of available income from a recession that never quite releases its hold on the pockets of the world. Blocking a mode entirely may be extremely difficult to swallow after finding that perfect deal on an anticipated game, however the price to play is minimal for the experience given.

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It does seem that publishers are beginning to relax the online pass policy, particularly when it comes to content. While stinging examples such as Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning are still coming forward, there exists a movement starting with SSX that allows publishers to lock content that is nonessential to the experience, and entice a purchase at the same time. With EA's latest SSX title gamers will be given the ability to participate in the online portion of the game, but without the online pass can not use the credits received in game to purchase cosmetic upgrades to their character and snowboards. These methods offer a less punitive means of asking gamers for extra money after purchasing a used game, and make the rewards something that aren't marketed or said to be necessary for a complete experience of that game.

It hasn't been easy for consumers to stomach the pass, and the feelings of anger are justified. It's hard to hear that publishers feel that used games are somehow stealing from their desk. The arguments against the pass are however hard to stomach. The process of a pass takes usually no more then two minutes. The only argument that stands is ease of access to a game, but day one patches and system updates hinder more than a 16 digit length pass, but those issues are an entirely different matter.
Used games aren't going to kill the industry, and the online pass isn't bankrupting the players of games. The problems reside in the perceptions and explanations from both sides. If publishers wish to show that they are in fact not punishing those who purchase used, but merely looking for another source of revenue, providing content behind a pass that doesn't include the perception of locking core components for a used purchase is necessary.

Similarly, despite the near constant outcry against online passes, gamers continue to support the publishers and developers that utilize these methods of purchase guarantee. A middle ground will be forced on players when the physical media dies, but until then both sides should strive for better communication. Gamestop to the consumer, and publisher to Gamestop. There should be no reason that the entity of retailer and publisher could not meet for a solution that satisfies both sides, whether through embargoes on used game sales, or even a percentage of sales through the used game program.

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Ultimately the customer is the one who decides what sells and doesn't, and only when customer satisfaction is optimized can there be a solution in the used game conflict. However, as long as shots are still fired between Gamestop and publisher with gamer stuck in the middle, it's ultimately not the publisher or Gamestop who wins or loses. The individuals who support the industry are really the ones who pay in every equation, whether it's the retail model of how money is distributed from retailer to publisher, or how a game is made and who it is made for, the customer is always first.

Without gamers there is no industry, used games or not, paying customers are what is needed. Consumers have lost the respect that should be given to them through this process. Whether it's Gamestop overcharging and underpaying for a trade-in or a publisher asking for a code input before playing a certain portion of a game, gamers are who take the brunt of the beating from both sides, and that is ultimately bad for the industry. As history has proven though, gaming trends are bound to change, and at this juncture we can only hope that a satisfying resolution to this entire debacle will soon be revealed. Here's to hoping!
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teknoandy69 on March 22, 2012
I dont even remember the last time i bought a new game. I have always purchased pre-owned games in the past and never have issues, occasionally i do purchase DLC, but i am one to prefer actually having the game in my hands. 
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quantifier on March 07, 2012
Great conclusion article for the series. It was quite interesting reading these to have that deep of a look inside the industry.

I still don't know for sure how I feel about the Online Pass. From one side, it's the business. From the other it's the consumer, which is us. I can see points from each. But being biased towards the consumer, it's never good to have to pay more for something that we already bought. It really feels like you're paying twice for the same thing. Give us the full game, then add the DLC's. That makes it feel like we are getting something 'extra'.

I have always been a fan of the micro-transaction model, which is what I think of when you describe the new SSX game. We've seen that system produce a steady source of income and I assume that money goes to the publisher, which is what they want, right? No middleman there.
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NSchneider on March 09, 2012
The micro-transaction model is entirely functional in my opinion.  As long as the content isn't to the point where you must have it to have the optimal experience, then I see no problem with that system.  Although it was one of the reasons why I disliked Modnation Racers as much as I did.  After I booted up the disc the first time and found most of the content available only to be made useable after a purchase I felt cheated.  Not to mention the gameplay issues, but I felt the way objects and skins were handled in the creation process was really poor.
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KrazyTaco1 on March 07, 2012
This is very interesting
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