The Life & Death of the Season Pass

The Life & Death of the Season Pass

In a time not too long ago, a foul infection spread its way through the games industry. It was a vile illness that burrowed itself in deep, feeding off of greed and the incessant begging of teens desperate to receive funds from their parents. It divided friend groups, suffocated player bases, and was common practice up until recently—it was the season pass.

Now, many may instinctually react to this opener and proclaim it to be a rampant case of hyperbole and, to a certain degree, it is. There will be gamers with fond memories of their favourite games getting additional content, who blissfully accepted the season pass as a necessary part of gaming life. A more optimistic outlook would deem it the only way, and in its inception that may have been the intent. Yet as the years progressed, the season pass morphed as those possibly unintentional side effects seeped their way deep into the core of the industry while gamers all around the world lapped it up, unaware of the damage that was being caused.

Flashback to the early months of 2013. The newest Call of Duty, Black Ops 2, was a comfortable few month into its release. A blissful period, by all accounts, where lobbies filled with friends were commonplace, the plonking piano of the zombies menu indicated a night of blood-splattered mayhem was afoot, and the halls of the school cafeteria were always home to the echoing COD-tinged tales from the night before. Then came the season pass.

At the time, the season pass formula for a COD game saw four new multiplayer maps and an additional zombie’s map get introduced with each of the pass’ four expansions. For a young teen with a social life, no job, and limited amounts of pocket money, cashing out for extra content valued near the same price of the game itself was completely out of reach, even in its quartered increments.

As a result, those full lobbies started to thin out, the plonking of the zombie’s menu was heard more than the zombies themselves, and a young Aaron found himself out of the loop, like he had missed the bus on Tranzit as his friends watched safely from aboard. Activision had inadvertently ostracised part of its player base by opening an exclusive club with strict and unflinching entrance parameters: no money, no entry.

Black Ops 2 wasn’t the only instance of this exclusion, as the pay-to-play club spread its way across most multiplayer shooters. Due to their insistence on the season pass structures, my relationship with this kind of games was soiled for the longest time, and I often turned my nose up at the prospect of paying anything beyond the entry price. Yet as I grew older and became more financially independent, I decided to bite the bullet and purchase my first season pass—finding that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Battlefield Hardline is easily dismissed and often overlooked, yet despite its reputation I played it religiously throughout the course of 2015. Clocking in enough hours to warrant a purchase of the season pass, I found its experience to be worryingly similar to my days without it. Matchmaking became unbearably long as lobbies struggled to fill, and by the release of its fourth and final installment of the pass, I failed to get a single full match in its new content and spent my empty games dreaming of the fun I could have had. Safe to say, Battlefield Hardline’s disc was removed from my PS4 and never returned.

While the season pass cannot be entirely blamed for the failings of an ill-received game, my dropping of Hardline caused an epiphany that warned of the detrimental effect it had to gamers regardless of which side they were on. I may have continued to blast my way through Hardline’s multiplayer for much longer, just as I would have with Black Ops 2, but by erecting multiple paywalls only a fine few trickle into the player base late into a game’s life cycle—resulting in a less inclusive experience and, in the case of Hardline, an experience that whimpered out of existence.

While the season pass seemed happy to squeeze any money it could out of games like this, it was about to face its biggest challenge yet. With the purpose of drawing players back, yet often having the opposite effect, the introduction of games as a service threw a spanner in this post-launch machine.

Through the launch of games like Destiny, The Division, and Rainbow Six Siege, publishers were no longer aiming for a yearly cycle, where a successor would replace its predecessor, reigniting a player base in the process. Instead, they wanted you to play the same game for years in an experience that would evolve with its players. However, this new approach to living games gave the old system of post-launch content some serious issues with balancing—and the occasional case of pay-to-win.

These games as a service titles faced some growing pains, with Destiny scrapping its staggered content releases in favour of one single expansion after its first year as players with varying access to new content split up fireteams. However, in early 2016, Rainbow Six Siege introduced its first season, Operation Black Ice, bringing with it a swathe of extra content typical to multiplayer games, but in a way that didn’t segregate its player base.

Rainbow’s approach allowed for any additional content that changed what you could play, such as new maps, to be free to all players. Paid content, such as skins or new operators (which could also be purchased with in-game credits), allowed those that wanted to pay extra into the game to do so while still happily playing along with their mates that didn’t.

This approach ensured that there was a little something for everyone in each season—whether they were a paying player or not—and was the start of a long line of post-launch content for a game that was gradually convincing the industry that purchasable DLC had to be rethought. Yet one of the biggest changes to mainstream DLC was yet to come, and who’d have thought it would be so colourful?

In the final weeks of 2017, Epic Games’ Fortnite launched its first battle pass—a similar-sounding but vastly different offering from the season pass thats premise first originated from a Dota 2 tournament. Its first season was medieval themed and included challenges to unlock exclusive skins and emotes. The game itself was entirely free, and the content of the battle pass was optional and made no changes to the fundamentals of the game. Yet as the game grew, all players witnessed map changes, events, and a pseudo-storyline that came with each new season.

With a non-existent price tag, monetary stresses were alleviated for a lot of players. In turn, purchases of the battle pass became all the more feasible and encouraged further engagement in this living game. Without a big upfront cost and revenue flowing in from the battle pass, Fortnite became a bona-fide hit, and quickly caught the attention of some major players in the games industry.

Since its introduction, games like Apex Legends and Destiny 2 have come into the fray, both free-to-play games that sport a seasonal approach to optional content (along with some microtransactions and yearly expansions in Destiny’s case). Most importantly, as an adult still salty over my expulsion from Black Ops 2, the recently rebooted Modern Warfare ditched its traditional season pass in favour of the battle pass, all while releasing its free-to-play Warzone mode, making it my most played Call of Duty in years.

The season pass may have felt like the logical way to progress in post-launch content when it was created. All those years ago, the free-to-play space was largely reserved for games outside the mainstream radar, and investing in those free experiences would be the last way many publishers would expect to make the money they were accustomed to. However, as the game market became a bit more crowded and the life expectancy of games has extended, the modern landscape became inhospitable to the season pass, and incredibly profitable for the battle pass (evidenced by Activision’s quarterly earnings for Modern Warfare).

Across various titles, we have incrementally worked our way to a space that still has its own issues but has also increased its inclusivity exponentially, as the season pass crawls its way into an already dug grave. In 2020, gaming communities is more important than ever, and battle passes ensure that they can remain intact. They keep players together, allow their bases to grow and evolve with their titles, and promise to never leave a player out of the loop again.

So goodbye, season pass. You will not be missed.

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