Sunday 23rd November 2014,
Darkstation

Opinion: Call of Duty Makes Season Passes Respectable

Adam C November 5, 2013 Features 5 Comments
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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.

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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?

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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.

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  • cubs223425

    I wouldn’t say that they make Season Passes respectable. They just make them tolerable. Sadly, Season Passes are looking like a permanent staple in gaming (except in Killzone: Shadow Fall, where they are apparently offering DLC maps for free like true gentlemen). Regardless of what you see as a “respectable” DLC offering, what you’re getting is a move from $60 every year for CoD to $110/year, which is downright ludicrous. If it meant we were truly getting another game each year, it’d be less-terrible (though annoying that they were phasing out a $60 game after 6 months), but you’re getting mostly overpriced maps and nothing else.

    I preferred what Halo did. For starters, their Map Pass was cheaper (but offered fewer packs). They then allowed user-made Forge Maps to enter the arena for free, which was needed because they only offered 10 maps total and halved them among 8- and 16-player game types. (Side note: They need to make Forge maps work better somehow, because they cause a lot of stuttering and lag online). They then gave out loads of Spartan Ops missions/episodes (with an actual story, though I barely played it) for free, meaning they charged less and gave more overall, including solo content.

    The real sad fact about DLC is it basically pushes many games back a year for people. Why spend $60 on a game and $50 on DLC when you can wait a year (or less) and get them both for $60-70? Example: Borderlands 2. My cousin and I just finished the first one about a month ago, and we were looking at getting the second. I then saw that a GotY edition was coming, and figured I’d just wait until it came out used, and I’d get it them (or when it’s on-sale for $40 during Black Friday).

    I borderline never want to buy a game at launch anymore now because of this. The DLC is overpriced (as I said, CoD gives JUST enough to make it “tolerable,” and Halo gave enough freebies to make it passable), and when you want to play 3-5 games per year, getting another $30-50 in DLC pushed on you (because it’s interesting and you just HAVE to play it, haha) makes gaming an expensive proposition.

    Look at this: The new console is going to eat $400-500. Accessories will probably take another $100. You want 2-3 games, and there goes another $200. That’s bad enough. Now, the dirty Season Pass fairies are adding their content to this, meaning another $100-150 gone. The start of the generation is going to be nearing $1,000 for many interested players, and it’s just not an affordable proposition.

    • Hiram_M

      I really think the biggest problem with the concept of Season Passes is the same problem with the concept or pre-ordering. Sure, with a Season Pass you’re technically paying less than if you bought them piecemeal, but here’s the problem- you don’t actually know if it’s going to be worth any of that money. Why are you buying these things sight unseen without any proof they’ll be good enough? It’s how you get something like the Saint’s Row The Third season pass which was full of uninteresting DLC and scenarios and people felt ripped off. Then you get other games that have content that exist outside of the Season Pass, so even if you spent that $60, you’d STILL have to pay later to get something else outside of it.

      Season Passes, especially as mandates from a publisher, then serve to make the team (or the F team, as happens) then devote themselves to making pointless extra stuff for a game- costumes, maps- instead of real content that we’d be happy to pay for. It wastes the developer’s time, cheapens the idea of post-release DLC from the expansion packs we’d probably like more, and, like you said, eats into launch sales because I know I can just wait and get the GOTY editions later, provided I want the DLC.

      • cubs223425

        I feel like pre-orders are mostly leftovers from before gaming got big. It USED to be that you pre-ordered a game because you didn’t know if you could get it at launch. Basically, the software was like launch hardware–potentially in short supply, so you’d pay in advance to make sure you got it.

        Nowadays, there’s a 0% chance a game won’t have enough copies in a town, or a town within 10 minutes of the town you’re in (small towns MIGHT sell out, IDK). Maybe they won’t have extra ultra special legendary editions #3 copies, but that’s $250, and you’re not going to buy it anyway (looking at you, Titanfall).

        The last time I think I pre-ordered a game was the Legendary Edition of Halo 3, which came with the helmet ($70 NOT well-spent, haha). I think it was MLB 2K11 where I strolled on over to the GameStop staying open late for Dragon Age II (we have 4 of the things in this town, 3 within a mile of each other…), and I went in and asked for 2K11 without a pre-order and got it no-problem.

        They need to keep launch parties going for big titles, but they would be well-served to stop pre-orders, in my opinion. They don’t really help a studio much, I’d imagine, and then you risk people calling your game crap if the pre-orders aren’t on-par with expectation. Heck, the main reason pre-orders exist NOW is to incentive those early adopters with extra goodies like the Ghosts Free Fall map and such.

        Maybe I’d pre-order things if I felt compelled to play them early on, but the last time I personally bought a game new was MLB 2K12, and I didn’t pre-order that either, I don’t think. I usually get the holiday-season shooters as Christmas gifts, if I want them (read: not getting them in 2013, haha). I’ve got enough unfinished games to play as it is, so no sense in pre-ordering a game I won’t play for a year.

        IDK, just a rant. Pre-orders serve no purpose but to show companies and people money and games before they get them. It’s silly.

        • Hiram_M

          I completely agree, but the problem with it is that publishers have gotten to the point where they use pre-orders to gauge expectations, and that’s a big flaw. Especially because video games are an expensive hobby- asking people to know that they want to pay full price based on a preview (if even that) is asking to much. I haven’t pre-ordered a game since… I don’t even know. It’s so long ago by now that the memory is just gone.

          Games are a business now. And with publishers treating them like one, well, we’ll see a lot more stuff like this until something gives.

          • cubs223425

            You know who is doing it right, in that case? Bungie. Giving people beta access with a pre-order is the answer to that. Let people try out your game if you want their money early on, so they can get their money back if they don’t like it.

            Even better, it’d be nice if they did with the Season Passes what they did with strategy guides. When you buy the game, GameStop (and I’d imagine other places) give you, like, 20% off of the strategy guide during the same purchase. If they did that with Season Passes, that’d be a nice incentive. The $50 Season Pass on Call of Duty becomes $40, and it’s no longer more than $100 before you ever play the game (until tax…).

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