Last year, I made the fairly pretentious claim that Call of Duty was now “an institution,” which is precisely the kind of Brobdingnagian, fatuously-important declaration you make about something that is A) extremely popular, and yet B) almost entirely unremarkable (even among folks, like myself, who are consistently interested in yearly CoD releases). We can all set our watches by the early November release of each new installment, and like most watches, the terminal process is unmoved by our critical platitudes. We say what we can to demonstrate that we still respect the series’ legacy, but that hasn’t looked much more interesting in the last few years than “well, here comes CoD,” and “well, there goes CoD.” The time when I enjoyed talking about CoD as much as playing it has now passed on, bedecked with Egyptian cotton sheets and surrounded by loved ones. I’m not saying that CoD has become dull now (whaddup, peanut gallery?), but its appeal has slowly transformed from the talk of the generation to the cool-to-hate player that nevertheless is still good enough to abrogate its fans’ need to defend it. It’s Tom Brady. However, in lieu of staying relevant during its offseason because of Gisele Bundchen, Activision has resorted to a similarly news-savvy accomplice: the season pass.
I’m going to use the next few paragraphs to kinda sorta speak favorably of season passes. Principally, because my faith entreats me to turn the other cheek, and substantively, because Call of Duty is the only product out there playing the season pass game with any degree of charm.
After reviewing Black Ops 2 last year, Activision offered Darkstation a season pass code, which I attribute to either a clerical error or an incredibly poor attempt to get me to recant my opinion of Black Ops 2’s wretched script. David Goyer is still malaria behind a keyboard, but since Multiplayer DLC precluded his involvement, I happily accepted Activision’s charity, and promised myself to evaluate the season’s content when all was said and done. The thing is, I don’t feel like a review is worth anyone’s time.
There’s very little to say about the 4 separate DLC packs for Black Ops 2 that doesn’t evoke the boring, inconsequential chit-chat of WASPs at a Sunday afternoon horse race. This is the kind of DLC that sticks to two subjects: the weather, and everyone’s health. The content is mostly predictable, inoffensive, and yes, fairly priced for the members of the CoD faithful interested enough to play it. I highly enjoyed my time with all of the new map packs, and yes, even with the new zombie scenarios that I usually avoid. In every perspective, I fail to see Treyarch’s work on the DLC come up short of either expectations or pedigree. This raises the question: how did Activision, of all publishers, manage to harness a controversial business strategy in a way that was both entertaining and respectable?
The answer is so simple it’s redundant. Activision just made more CoD and sold it to the people who buy CoD. Ordinarily, we could leave it at that, but not when you look at the broader narrative surrounding season passes. On that landscape are a couple of bright spots, Borderlands 2 for one, and a legion of dumpster fires warding fans away from their favored developers amid accusations of sharp dealing and greediness. I’ve considered how CoD has made this look so easy for several days now, and I can only conclude that its season pass gets away with a profound lack of controversy by being upfront about its development schedule, and the fact that a season pass is totally irrelevant to its success.
The problem here is that not every game wishing to grow itself a tail on store shelves has CoD’s clack, nor necessarily a game structure that accommodates post-launch content. The season pass works for CoD because it’s just bolting on new arenas, it’s catnip. Looking to other games that have tried to get a season pass off the ground and found themselves in trouble- Assassin’s Creed, BioShock Infinite, and most recently Batman: Arkham Origins -shows a pattern of games that rely on narrative as much as mechanics to sell. Without baking a season pass structure into the game itself, like Telltale does, it’s difficult to justify new narrative content or incongruous multiplayer suites to fans who actually take time to listen to the sales pitch. Of the games listed above, BioShock probably has the best opportunity to make its season pass worth the money, but even Irrational took heat for selling a season pass before they started making the content.
Without Call of Duty’s cachet, and the guarantee that the content paid for by a season pass will be released, a winning blueprint for selling season passes has yet to be written. A few games get by with it, specifically those that build up their audience first. It’s ironic that in a generation overflowing with publishers seeking new revenue streams and ways to increase profits, it’s the games that already make a mint that manage to sell their post-release doodads. Ironic, and yet, perfectly rational. No one should be surprised that the most successful series in games is also the one that sells the most bundled DLC.
Like most games industry discussions, this leads back to publishers and developers setting realistic goals for themselves and spending their money wisely. Activision has a season pass for its biggest game, and it also has a warchest large enough to guarantee that a season pass can only make more money for them.
I think that’s the lesson here. Season passes and the like aren’t inherently unfair or exploitative of customers, but it’s time that publishers started seeing them as a luxury rather than a necessity.