Gaming, Opinion

Why Season Passes Are Ruining Gaming

Downloadable content (DLC) was once about genuinely expanding a game after its initial release. Take Dragon Age: Origin‘s beloved DLC add-ons, for instance; these bundles truly fleshed out more of the in-game universe with a range of additional content.

In today’s market with microtransactions and timed exclusives, DLC is just another way for publishers to charge users for more content. DLC has been modeled in the current AAA formula, and in some ways publishers are cooking up wallet-crushing schemes for optimum profits.

Instead of being added post-development, DLC monetization schemes are clearly actualized while the game is still being developed, to the point where whole portions of said game are locked behind a very real paywall.

Related: Timed Exclusives, Not Console Exclusives, Are The Future of Gaming

We’ve seen this time and time again in modern gaming: take Destiny‘s $20 on-disc expansions, or Mortal Kombat X‘s more recent $30 Kombat Pack and in-game microtransaction combo. Big publishers like EA (NASDAQ: EA), Activision (NASDAQ: ATVI) and Warner Bros. Interactive (NYSE: TXW) are devising new methods to milk every franchise–and our digital piggy banks–as much as possible.

Borderlands 2 Season Pass

The Borderlands 2 season pass didn’t even deliver all of the game’s DLC, and only stuck to 4 pieces of content. Gearbox actually released loads of content outside of the pass, adding insult to injury to buyers.

Season Passes and experimental marketing schemes

In many ways buying a game now is kind of like buying a console.  To get the most out of your console you’ll need extra peripherals like controllers, cords, and of course the games themselves. Then there’s a whole galaxy of branded goodies like skins, external hard drives, stands, controller charging stations–you name it.

When you buy a new AAA game, you’re rarely actually buying the whole experience. You’re only buying what I like to call the “starter kit”, a $64 disc or digital download that acts as the unfinished core to a game. To get the full scope you’ll have to snag the extra bits of overpriced add-on content locked behind paywalls.

That’s where season passes come in.

Season passes, to me, are actually $25-30 pre-orders for future content to compliment a game. Suddenly a single game’s full price has jumped from $64 to about $89-94, and it’s becoming unsettling. What’s more is that most games come with season passes now, as if it’s a pre-requisite to have extra paid junk tacked on.

Related: The 25 Most Disturbing Trends in Video Games

Like any pre-order, buying a season pass is a gamble as you don’t always know exactly what you’re going to get. Sure you have a general idea of what’s included, and you always get a nifty sounding description with a few screens, and keywords are thrown around to offer incentives, but you just don’t know.

But the publishers know. They know just what sells and how to sell it–that’s the name of the game, after all.

The sure-fire season passes are those for juggernaut best-sellers like Call of Duty. Extra maps and perks for premiere FPS games are pretty much guaranteed sells, and ultimately account for a huge percentage in season pass profits. Activision has built part of their empire utilizing DLC strategies, which represent some of the most solid revenue streams in the industry.

Although some conditions are just well-documented, publishers have started to experiment with other tactics, some of which are outrageously transparent money-milking schemes.

Evolve New Hunters

Evolve has caught a lot of flak from gamers for its “DLC hub” and layered microtransactions approach.

Evolve’s DLC hub

Take the multiplayer-only Evolve, for example. 2K Games’ monster-hunting shooter has some of the most exploitative DLC pricing scales that I’ve ever seen, and in many ways it makes the game seem like a giant microtransaction-ridden experiment.

Evolve offers a $25 Hunting Season Pass that only unlocks a single wave of characters. Since the pass covers only four of the six new hunters, you’ll have to pay $7.49 each for those extras when they’re released.

Related: Evolve Review – Monster of the Week (Xbox One)

Usually season passes unlock everything that a game will offer. But not Evolve. Instead it pulls a Borderlands 2 by literally only covering a portion of the DLC, forcing you to pay premium prices if you want the full game.

Things really start to get ridiculous once you see the other half of Evolve‘s DLC spectrum: the monsters. The extra monsters, which are opposite the hunters and act as in-game characters, are priced at $14.99 a piece–and there’s no season pass for these guys.

That’s $15 just for a character. Fifteen bucks will almost always buy you a whole DLC chapter full of new levels and goodies, but in Evolve it only nets you a single monster.

So let’s tally the cost up, shall we?

Let’s say you buy Evolve at the retail $59.99, so that’s about $64 right off the bat. Then you purchase the $24.99 season pass digitally, and pick up both new monsters ($14.99 a pop) and the two hunters not covered by the season pass ($7.49 apiece). That’s a rough total of $133.95 worth of content you’ve just bought, not including any snazzy skins you want to buy to customize your monsters and characters.

Should anyone ever have to spend $133 on a single game?

Destiny Expansions

Each of Destiny’s expansions are priced at a premium $20, but Activision is confident you’ll pay it just to have any new content.

Activision’s New Tricks

Destiny is another example of a new marketing experiment in terms of DLC structures.

Activision doesn’t need to try these schemes; it already has Call of Duty, which is a guaranteed cash crop. But as we all know the nature of business is profit, and gaming is nothing if not a profitable business.

Destiny‘s Dark Below and House of Wolves expansions are priced at $19.99 a piece, or you can pick up the season pass for $34.99 (you save $5, what a deal!). Plus all of the content is already included on the game’s disc and you’re literally just buying a magical key to unlock them.

The real hook in this bait isn’t really the overpriced DLC, but how Activision has devised a clever way to make you want to buy it.

Related: Destiny Review – The Fault in Our Stars

Destiny is actually quite starved of content, and outside of small tweaks and additions that come from Bungie’s seldom-delivered updates, the game gets no extra meat on its plate.

The lush, evolving and open-world environments Bungie promised you have turned out to be soulless, drab sandboxes filled with cookie cutter enemies.

So everyone wants more content, and the little content there is gets recycled over and over in limited permutations in Nightfall and Heroic Strikes.

Bungie tweaks little things like guns and strikes here and there to create the facade of progress, just so things are just different enough to alnost feel new again. But in reality nothing has been added or injected, things have just been shifted around to create that false feeling of change

Meanwhile players are left to grind towards the same gear and play the same missions over and over and over. Everything is so stale, and even the RNG nature of the game is stifled by an incredibly limited gear selection.

Bungie has once again rotated non-DLC owners out of Weekly Heroic and Nightfall Strikes for the week of Dec. 30 - Jan. 6, proving that until you buy the add-on you might be temporarily unable to participate.

Bungie has once again rotated non-DLC owners out of Weekly Heroic and Nightfall Strikes for the week of Dec. 30 – Jan. 6, proving that until you buy the add-on you might be temporarily unable to participate.

Destiny often feels like a grind-fest with no real reward, with little to no extra content added in besides the stuff locked behind paywalls. But even that stuff has proven to be quite minimal and overpriced.

Players gobbled up the first Dark Below expansion in a matter of days. The only real things that kept their worth was the batch of new items–which were tampered down in size and scope, just so we keep wanting more–and the raid. Now Bungie reveals that House of Wolves won’t have a raid, so endgame players be damned.

Related: Destiny’s Paywalls Are A Mockery, and They Need to Stop

But you’ve already purchased the season pass, right? I mean you knew you’d want the extra content–sure you did, you’ve been coerced and lured along by the scheme, so why wouldn’t you? This is a huge example of not knowing just what you’ve purchased, and why season passes can be a gamble.

Destiny High Res Image

Destiny’s full DLC structure was leaked a while back, showing that players will have to shell out quite a bit of cash for new content.

With Destiny, Activision has found a way to keep you in a perpetual state of hunger.

They only give you enough to awaken  your hunger, to remind you why you want more, but all the while there’s that paygate that keeps you from what you want. The promise of a feast of content is renewed, meanwhile only morsels are delivered, but you’ll be able to get in on the next big thing if you just pay up.

And with the news of Destiny‘s Comet structure, things are only going to get worse. The Comet is the ultimate promise of that feast, the assurance that you’ll get so much stuff if you just re-buy the game again at $64. But you’re not done shelling out money for Destiny just yet. After you buy the Comet (which is priced at a full retail price), there will be two more $20-a-piece expansions waiting for you.

Destiny‘s add-on scheme is the total culmination of years’ worth of planning and data-combing, and truly is the carrot on the end of the stick.

It’s a sinister trend, it’s a coercive trend, but sadly, it’s an effective trend.

MKX Kombat Pack

MKX has a $30 Kombat Pass that unlocks just four characters, a pricing model that might catch on to future fighting games.

MKX’s kostly kombat

More recently we have Mortal Kombat X, one of the most anticipated fighters in recent memory, that’s introduced a startling new trend for the franchise: paying cash for extra fighters.

This trend manifests itself in the $30 Kombat Pack for four playable characters including Jason Vorhees and Predator, along with 15 skins. That’s roughly half of the game’s cost for a one-off purchase that doesn’t even guarantee access to future DLC.

Of course the Kombat Pack is entirely optional. But the precedent is clear and the potential for incredibly pricey fighting games could very well become a reality, and dismantle the fighting genre altogether.

Related: Making Sense of Mortal Kombat X’s Crazy DLC

MKX also features in-game microtransactions on console versions of the game. You can pay $4.99 for a set of coins that allow players to easily trigger fatalities, and there are actually reports that NetherRealm added in a new update that reduces gold earning rates in the game.

Gold is used to buy items from the Krypt, which is a sort of in-game store that features everything from new skins to brutality and fatality finishers. The devs, in a move probably orchestrated by the publisher Warner Bros. Interactive, have included an option to just simply buy out all the Krypt’s content for $20 if you don’t feel like grinding.

There’s a lot more DLC, and it looks like if you were to buy out every add-on, you’d rack up more than $100 in extras. That’s on top of the initial $64 purchase.

Let’s hope upcoming fighting games like Street Fighter V and Tekken 7 don’t use this model. If so I can foresee the very fabric of gaming start to slowly unravel as a result from blatant greed.

Pre-Orders

If a game is revealed, then it usually can be pre-ordered shortly after, even if it doesn’t have a finalized release date.

Pre-Order and Delay: The New Fundraising Tactic

Who needs Kickstarter when you can just open pre-orders for a game six months early, rake in the funds, and then just delay the game twice to ensure an adequate development window?

Pre-orders have become a circus with big name retailers jumping in to offer you bland incentives that turn out to be in-game junk. Sometimes pre-orders go up for games that have placeholder release dates, and often you can even pre-order season passes, which is just absurd.

What was once a matter of convenience and securing your game with a certain peace of mind has turned into yet another scheme to turn over profits. Highly anticipated games are now wrangled into a complex and maddening marketing formula that’s focused more on maximizing earnings rather than delivering actual entertaining content.

With delays being an everyday occurrence, gamers can’t really trust release dates any more.

Especially since developers and publishers will purposely break their words just to push the game back, trading credibility for the chance for more money.

Pre-orders have become a testament of blind faith, and gamers are starting to learn their lesson not to put the cart before the proverbial horse and purchase content that’s not even finished yet.

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GTA V’s PC variant has seen multiple push backs over its life cycle.

GTA V for PC, for example, started raking in pre-orders mid-January. During this time Rockstar affirmed the game would be out the 27th of that month. Then the devs delayed it to March. And as March 27 rolled around, Rockstar delayed it again for April 14, which was 19 months after the game’s initial release on consoles.

WB Interactive also recently delayed Batman: Arkham Knight for a second time, although this one wasn’t so substantial. Even still it’s a push back, and it’s a sign of bad faith.

Here’s a quick list of games with no release dates that you can pre-order right now:

  • Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
  • Xenoblade Chronicles X (Target)
  • Tom Clancy’s The Division
  • Until Dawn
  • Uncharted 4: Thief’s End
  • Rainbow Six: Siege
  • The Legend of Zelda: Wii U (Amazon)

At a time when consumers are actively encouraged to pre-purchased unfinished content, the games industry is not providing compelling enough incentives to do so. Instead consumers are met with apologies from executives and developers when delays hit, who thank us for our understanding and continued support, but who are all too happy to take our cash in the mean time.

In a sense pre-orders have become a buyer beware situation, but at the same time, the industry isn’t learning from its mistakes–it’s directly pursuing them, all for the sake of near-guaranteed revenue.

Arkham Knight pre order DLC

Pre-order incentives have gone wild with retailer-specific add-ons, merging the worlds of frivolous DLC with the gambling risk of pre-purchases.

Gamers won’t fall for this

People are noticing what’s happening and they’re fighting back by boycotting major releases and contributing to wide-spanning gaming communities. Evolve’s DLC hub was widely contested and hotly debated in gamer circles, with game journalism outlets all taking turns identifying and grilling the publisher for their choices.

Time will only tell if these trends continue onward or die out, but there just has to be a better way. Not all DLC is bad–look at the beauty in Capcom’s Monster Hunter 4: Ultimate’s free DLC, or how much content Nintendo will give you for Mario Kart 8 or even the $5 Mewtwo character additions in Super Smash Bros. 4.

Even CD Projekt RED’s blatant hypocrisy can be ignored because the Witcher 3‘s paid DLC is so damned massive.

Yes, the developer did basically soaked up a lot of praise and good press by saying “no to season passes” with their 16 free DLC packs. And yes, they looked totally ridiculous once they revealed that the Witcher 3 actually does have a $25 season pass.

DLC and microtransactions can be done right. Pay-to-win schemes are abominable, and often create a skewed atmosphere that is counterintuitive to an actual game. These types of “games” just devolve into pay-scheme vehicles if nothing else. However if only cosmetic content and mounts are purchasable, then the games can preserve their dignity.

No one wants these trends but the publishers and developers. But how much longer can they keep loading this kind of stuff onto their constituency before something bad happens? How much longer can this kind of exploitative atmosphere continue on?

These things are eroding gaming and are pretty much destroying the very spirit of video games as an entertainment medium. Delays are going to happen, and they’re entirely necessary, but a lot of the schemes I’ve outlined aren’t; they’re gratuitous mechanisms designed to rack up more cash.

And as the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto once said, “a delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever.”

  • Andrew Lane

    Think paying $90 for a game is bad? Currently on Origin it would cost me $150 for Battlefield Hardline Ultimate edition (the base game and it’s season pass). That is almost twice as much as what I paid for BF4 and Premium and three times what I paid for BF3 and Premium.
    I wouldn’t have a clue if it is worth it and it would be nice if the premium stuff was free. But there is one huge benefit to having the cost to the premium, it is a lot rarer to see people cheating on the servers which are running the non-free expansion packs…

  • John Nemesh

    Personally, I would rather the game cost $90 upfront than be nickel-and-dimed every time I turn around! I really don’t have as much of a problem with DLC as I do the microtransactions. If you want to make a game free to play (pay to win), fine. Do it. But adding in microtransactions in retail games, then altering the gameplay to incentivize in game purchases? That’s an automatic “no buy” for me! (I am looking at YOU Assasin’s Creed and Mortal Kombat!)

  • Raiden

    You should do an article on the mess that is Forza Horizon’s 2. There’s VIP, Season Pass, DLC Packs, Normal, Day 1 Edition, Ultimate, etc. It’s VERY confusing, and all designed to the premise of a player spending $$$ for $ of content!

  • AbeDostoyevski

    And this is why I have a PC and game with titles I bought on Steam for $5. I’m cool with waiting until prices drop a lot. My game log is already more than I’ll ever have time for anyway.

    • HANDxOFxGOD

      Exactly. If people had a little patience, they’d be buying premium editions for $20 months after release.(on PC) It’s not like waiting makes the game any less fun. In fact, paying less allows me to be less critical of a game and that allows me to enjoy it more for what it is, instead of what it could have been.

  • Saprophyte

    The constant barrage of greed-driven DLC by publishers and developers and the disgusting invention and current state of Season Passes. Well, it is one hundred percent the reason that I always wait until a game releases a “Game of the Year” or some other special edition that more often than not includes the bulk of this money-grubbing extra content. Yet, many times you will peruse Xbox Live and still find extra paid content that wasn’t included in your friggin’ “Complete”, “Ultimate” or “Definitive” edition.

    Of course, not all titles later release one of these, in my opinion, better value editions (though I still believe that even these cheaper alternatives ate ripoffs.) But, for certain large and popular titles it usually is a safe bet that they will come out with a second edition that hopefully contains ask the extra content. And even then I usually try to wait to purchase these special editions with “all” DLC, after they have hit the bargain price realm, or at least when they are under $20. It is amazing to me the number of unreleased games on the Xbox One Store currently that have a Season Pass for sale right now, before the friggin’ game has even be released!

    A good example of this is the game, “Fallout 4”. Which is a game that I truly enjoy and highly recommend and thankfully it currently has no fetid micro-transactions outside of the stupid Season Pass. That Season Pass has been listed for sale before “Fallout 4” was for sale. And it never even had any expansions listed along with it, haha! If that isn’t blind-faith purchasing, I don’t know what is. I have searched online and found three expansions that will be part of it, but the last time I checked Xbox Live they weren’t even listed with the Season Pass. Luckily, though, if the past is any indication, the “Fallout 4” publishers will most definitely be releasing a “Game of the Year” or some other edition down the line that will probably contain all of the B.S. Season Pass content and I’ll be able to save a decent amount of money if I want to obtain the content that way. If not, oh well, I’m not forking over 100 plus dollars for a single video game.

    In my opinion, 99.99999999% of all DLC/Season Passes/Micro-transactions/In-app Purchases, are unequivocally driven by unfettered GREED on the part of the developers and publishers. And I believe that the sooner customers wake up to this fact. Well, hopefully that will be a step in realizing we’re being milked for every last penny we own and being completely ripped off by these greedy charlatans who include content on the disc behind a paywall, develop expansions along with the main game only to sell them later (though, apparently because GTAV sold so well, Rockstar, in a completely unheard of move released all of the game’s DLC expansions for free, though the game still contains bullfeces GTA Online micro-transactions.)

    But, I’m just thoroughly disgusted by video game creator’s immoral and unethical avarice today, enough is enough, you greedy, exploitive fiends!

  • Missioneer

    Very well thought out and written article. I’m really sick and tired of seeing games that are suppose to be top quality released with season passes, it’s basically a promised kick in the face for players of these games. The only reason people justify any of it is because they spent the money on it and feel entitled to be ignorant about the money they wasted(in their minds it’s not money wasted, but donated towards a good cause… Idiots).

    You have one typo in the form of “alnost” 26 or 27 lines down after the Activision header, @Derek Strickland.

  • Casey Johnson

    To think Call of Duty 4 was the first game to offer DLC. Now could be the rise and fall of the gaming world because of the idea of releasing DLC.

    Today’s video game will always be half done POS because DLC.

  • John Henry

    I’ve boycotted all these type of crap with gaming now for 7 years . I’ve missed nothing Lost nor wasted no $$$ on garbage titles or rip/off dlc’s . Gaming as a whole has lowered the quality on a massive level over the last decade . I would love to see a full finished polished product without this microtransaction/seasonpass scam . Never pre-order anything this is only for “STUPID!” people.

  • LJRhodes

    An issue I’ve long had with video games. They’re becoming pay-to-play even after paying $60 or more just to get what amounts to the game engine and a first-few-levels demo. It’s actually gotten so bad that I refuse to buy games when they come out, waiting instead for a few years for all of their DLC to come out and the whole lot to go on sale in a deeply discounted bundle. I don’t need to play a game anywhere near close to when it first comes out if it means forking over more than $60 to do so (sometimes as much as $400!). I can wait a while for the whole shebang to be had for $20 to $30.