The value of the online pass all comes down to a matter of perception. Value added or value subtracted?
I’ve always hated the online pass. I’ve always thought that it was inherently anti-consumer, a greedy nickel and diming of gamers, justified by the self-righteous call to “help the developer.” I’ve always hated it, except when I liked it.
I’ve always liked EA’s “Project Ten Dollar.” I’ve always thought that it was clever to reward people that bought a game new with a coupon with some free downloadable content. It’s positive reinforcement, a "you’ll catch more flies with honey" type of marketing. I’ve always liked it, except when I hated it.
The problem is that Project Ten Dollar no longer exists. Instead, “online pass” has become a catch-all term for those codes that come with new copies of a video game, but “online pass” connotes something very different. The online pass is all about negative reinforcement, while Project Ten Dollar was all about positive reinforcement. More specifically, the online pass is all about taking multiplayer from “used” players, while Project Ten Dollar was all about giving DLC to “new” players.
The terminology and connotation of the phrase “online pass” has gotten so mixed up that it can lead to confusion and anger if not properly managed. Warner Bros. learned this when they locked the Catwoman content behind an online pass for Batman: Arkham City, and caused an uproar amongst gamers. I was right there with the lot of them, cursing Warner Bros. to all my friends on Xbox LIVE. Online passes are supposed to be for multiplayer only, right? They’re meant to help with server costs, right? Using it for a single-player game is just wrong!
But I and everyone else couldn’t have been more wrong. Nothing was actually “locked” away. That terminology is synonymous with the online pass because it does apply when talking about multiplayer games, but it’s misleading when applied to single-player content. Catwoman was DLC. She was not included on the disc. She was something extra.
Online passes do not always lock content away. In fact, the only thing that they’ve ever locked away is multiplayer content. The online pass works best when used with single-player games because in every instance it has been used as a reward, not as a punishment. This implementation works out better for everyone, unlike its more prevalent use in multiplayer games.
(Now, I’m not saying that a publisher couldn’t actually lock single-player content behind an online pass. That’s more than possible. It’s plausible, and sadly, probably inevitable. But for now, it has only been a source of good when used with single-player games.).
Locking out the multiplayer always represents a value subtracted from the game. Multiplayer is always going to be a major selling point of any game, even if the community for that game mode is small and dries up within a month of release. That content still exists in order to increase the number of initial purchases.
It doesn’t matter if the multiplayer fails to retain players. It will always be advertised by publishers and developers as something important because of its potential to retain players. Locking this content behind red tape results in a process that makes it harder to play content that has been advertised as important (and that has traditionally been included with the rest of the overall package). There’s no denying that the online pass means some players will never get to play multiplayer. Whether you think that’s acceptable or not is irrelevant. The online pass removes multiplayer content from the overall package. Thus, it removes value from the overall package.
Single-player content exists on the opposite end of this spectrum. It’s always value added.
Providing Day-1 DLC for free with new copies of a game does not seem to remove content from the overall package: Catwoman for Batman: Arkham City, the seven quests for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the Blood Bowl Arena for Dead Island, the Wasteland Sewer mission for Rage, the character of Sebastian for Dragon Age 2, the character of Shale for Dragon Age: Origins, the character of Zaeed and the Normandy Crash Site for Mass Effect 2, the original Alice game for Alice: Madness Returns. All of these were added to the original product.
However, since this whole ordeal revolves around the perceived value of a game, it is subject to that tricky devil known as marketing. While I think a lot of the anger over Arkham City's Catoman DLC was undue, Warner Bros. made the disastrous mistake of heavily advertising Catwoman before release: She was the biggest reveal in the initial preview coverage, and even upon release, she’s featured prominently on the back of the box. All of this advertising made her seem like major part of game, so to then lock/hide her behind a paywall resulted in a seeming loss of important content.
In truth, she’s not that important. She’s a wonderful bonus character but not at all necessary to the game proper. But you’d never know that from the marketing. If Warner Bros. and Rocksteady had told gamers from the start that she was DLC or waited until the last minute to show her off, I wager that fan reactions would have been positive rather than negative. She would have seemed like a huge value added to the game, rather than a huge value removed.
(Of course, Rocksteady probably didn’t know whether or not she’d be DLC when they first showed her off at preview events. The decision to make her DLC may have been made at a later date, and that’s a tricky behind-the-scenes problem that there’s no real solution for.).
It all comes down to a matter of perception. Value added or value subtracted? Multiplayer will always be a major part of any game that it is in, so locking it behind an online pass will always seem like subtracted value. New owners are getting the full game; used owners are getting a lesser game. Single-player content is not always a major part of the game, so locking it behind an online pass will (as long as the marketers play their cards right) always seem like added value. New owners are getting a bonus; used owners are still getting the full game.
It’s important for publishers to control how their game is perceived since any service or product, whether it be a subscription service like Call of Duty: Elite or the online pass, will always be more welcomed if it looks to add value rather than to subtract it. I hate being nickel and dimed for stuff that I used to get for free, but I don’t mind being nickel and dimed for anything extra.