If you've purchased a video game with any sort of online functionality recently, then you're probably familiar with the idea of online passes. These are codes that come with new copies of video game that must be activated before a player can take the game online. Players who buy the game used will have to plop down an additional fee (generally about ten dollars) in order to have access to these features. In fact, some single-player games are even beginning to lock some of their features behind a pay-wall as well, using their own version of the "online pass" idea.
The reasoning behind online passes is that they are supposed to encourage gamers to buy new copies rather than used ones. And, on the surface, it makes sense. I mean, if given the choice between spending $60 on a brand new copy of a game or $50 on a used copy of that same game, knowing you'll later have to spend $10 more anyway to take it online, then buying a game brand new sounds like a pretty good deal. In the short term, yes, it does encourage people to buy new rather than used. Additionally, if a player does still buy a used copy, at least a little bit of money (the cost of the online pass) still goes back to the developer/publisher. (Note that when you buy a used copy of a game, the developer doesn't get a single penny from that transaction.)
It sounds like a win-win situation, right? I mean, people buy more new copies of games, and developers and publishers can still make money off used copies. For the companies instilling these online passes, this is the reasoning behind it.
However, there are some major issues here that aren't being addressed. For example, what of players who don't have the Internet? These players cannot unlock the content they paid for, since they can't enter their online pass codes. Now, you may argue that they won't be able to access the online features anyway, and you'd have a good point. Unless you begin considering the single-player games that have their own version of the online pass.
Batman: Arkham City is perhaps the best example. Fans who bought a used copy of the game were locked out of the Catwoman content until they activated a DLC code for her. Players who bought the game new, however, were given the Catwoman activation code with their copy of the game. Now, I have a friend who purchased the game at launch, yet he didn't have the Internet at his home and was thus unable to access the Catwoman content. As much as he loved the game anyway, he still felt that tinge of regret knowing that he was missing out on a fairly substantial amount of the game. The sad truth is that he paid the full sixty-dollar asking price and was still never allowed to experience the full game that his Internet-connected peers were enjoying.
Now, as long as we're on the topic of Arkham City, there's another flaw with the online pass system that became apparent the moment gamers started popping Arkham City into their consoles. Far too often, these codes end up not working on launch day. Now, when you buy a game at launch only to find a big chunk of that game missing due to an online pass code error, you have every right to be upset. Essentially, even the people who buy brand new copies of the game are being punished for the fact that there are people out there buying used games. This frustrates a game's most loyal fans, the very people who publishers should be striving to ensure the satisfaction of.
A third problem emerges that's a bit more subtle than these other two: one concerning online communities. When a game's online functionality is locked behind a pay-wall, it will generally have less people playing it online. This hurts the game's long-term community, as it becomes harder to find a decent match. The heaviest of the heavy hitters—games like Call of Duty and Uncharted—don't need to worry about this quite as much, but pretty much every other online game out there does.
Now, Valve is a company that seems to understand the importance of a strong online community. In fact, they've since made Team Fortress 2 completely free to play. Since the game can be taken online without having to spend a single penny, the online community is absolutely thriving. Team Fortress 2 is guaranteed to have a very healthy long-term lifespan.
An additional benefit to the long-term health of an online community is that there will be more players out there to buy future DLC map packs. If you play a game online and find it difficult most days to even get into a match, or you find yourself waiting extended periods just to get into a match with maybe two or three other people instead of a full group, you will probably not be tempted to drop ten or fifteen dollars on a map pack. On the other hand, if you play a game where you can find a match easily no matter the day or the time, a map pack purchase actually makes a bit more sense.
The bottom line: Online passes are a bad idea. I understand that the sale of used games hurts developers and publishers, but the response shouldn't be to punish loyal customers by making them jump through hoops in order to access content they rightfully feel entitled to. It may seem like a feasible strategy over the short term, but the long-term health of gaming's various online communities could be at risk here. Losing those communities could be shooting some otherwise promising games in the foot before they have a chance to truly shine.
Editor / News Director
Date: April 9, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central. This week's is also purely a work of fiction*