Like them or not, Season Passes are here to stay

Season passes are the black sheep of the gaming community. They deviously pry into our collective wallets in search of our precious cash, often in exchange for content we don’t fully understand. This earns them a spot atop our hit lists, and whenever a new pass is announced we grab our torches and pitchforks and set out to pillage the internet with angry comments across the datascape. The only thing that rivals the ire that season passes draw is, arguably, Nintendo. And luckily for us, these two juggernauts of vitriol crossed paths when Nintendo announced a season pass for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

In the wake of the season pass’ announcement, social media and forums exploded with apocalyptic cries. And why wouldn’t they? Nintendo was our last bastion of hope. A company whose archaic philosophies were finally paying off; the final soldier holding the gate against our greedy aggressors. But, unfortunately, it is finally time to face our grim reality.  With Nintendo having joined the throngs of publishers looking for maximum profits, we must come to grips with the fact that season passes are not going anywhere.

As much as we would like to imagine otherwise, season passes are not evil incarnate. They are not a malicious attempt to trick us into spending more money. In truth, they are a result of a rigorous development cycle that is becoming increasingly difficult to handle effectively. In fact, DLC in general seems to be a response to the expanding complexity of development that corresponded with the beginning of the HD era. As games become more grandiose and detailed the process to create them only grows in intricacy, causing games to take longer, cost more and require more people to make than ever before. For a bit of perspective, Super Mario Bros. 3 was released only 3 years after the original in Japan and was made by just over 10 people, while Breath of the Wild has been in development for over 4 years with over 300 people contributing.

This is quite the shift from the “good old days”. AAA development has exploded as to better create the experiences that modern audiences crave. Incredible games like Grand Theft Auto V, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and The Witcher 3 would not have been possible without the current development climate. As worlds and expectations expand, teams must do the same in order to meet the demand. Zelda guru Eiji Aonuma provided a telling glimpse into Breath of the Wild’s development when he stated that there were designers charged solely with creating and animating the wildlife that would populate the world. This is the type of attention to detail that creating an open world masterpiece requires today, but this also paves the way for a greatly increased development cost that publishers are having trouble justifying at the $60 price point.

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Since the dawn of the HD age, this price has remained stagnant despite the continued march forward of development costs. $60 is most likely at the ceiling for what consumers are willing to pay, and there are definite expectations as to the amount of value a game must provide to even be worthy of it. This is why gamers are obsessed with details that substitute for value; length, resolution, characters and side quests are a few that jump immediately to mind. But further complicating the pricing options for publishers are the myriad ways that consumers can avoid paying market price for their games. Used games essentially result in a loss of a sale, as the purchase of a used copy prevents the sale of a new one, and retail games in general result in profits being distributed amongst the sales network. This means it is becoming harder and harder to justify the development costs for all but the most successful AAA releases.

Enter season passes, which provide an elegant solution that allows developers and publishers to make additional profit on a game without raising the cost of entry. They can create additional content for their release, which they can then sell digitally in order to increase a game’s profits. This allows for fans to continue to provide revenue and recoups some of the hit from used sales. They also help prevent players from selling a game, as they are more likely to keep something that promises additional content in the future. A recent Op-Ed by IGN Editor Jose Otero outlined Nintendo’s digital strategy, and showed that DLC in general drove customers into the digital marketplace, which is a perfect situation for publishers looking for additional ways to monetize their massive investments. Season passes have become a necessity to support the hazardous risks of AAA gaming, and they provide an avenue for players who are willing to pay more for an additional experience to do exactly that.

We should be happy with season passes. Before the arrival of DLC, we never had the option to enjoy more of a game than its initial incarnation contained. Games were static pieces of art; whole packages that contained everything we needed. While many will reminisce about simpler times, our current gaming environment allows for games to truly live, as in be updated and refreshed over time. Now, we have the option to spend a little (or a lot) more money on a game that we love and enjoy new content that keeps us coming back. Love Battlefront? Well it has a pass that gives access to new planets, maps, modes and heroes that you can enjoy! Awesome right? Well, not exactly.

While additional content should be met with joyous applause by fans, it usually is met by anything from annoyed groans to screams of rage. This is usually for one of two reasons; the publisher has not been upfront about what is available for purchase or an idea that a portion of the game has been sliced off for future sale. The former point is, admittedly, pretty skeevy. Battlefront was a prime example, as the $50 price point was almost as much as the original game and players didn’t know what they would be getting. I doubt many would be upset if they could look ahead, as the added content for the game has been fantastic, but it was a large controversy at the time for a game that launched a bit light on content. It didn’t help that the game didn’t tell players what they were buying and asked for an investment with no knowledge of the product.

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The second point is more puzzling, and has almost as much to do with the $60 price point of an initial purchase as it does for a season pass. We expect a certain amount of value to come from a full-price game, and players naturally feel ripped off when this value is not perceived to be there while a season pass is simultaneously available. An example of this is Destiny, which launched in a fairly shallow state only to be continuously added to over time. Breath of the Wild’s criticism is falling under the same umbrella, as some of the content, namely the Hard Mode coming in the first DLC release, is expected by many to be in the base package now that we know of its existence. This is because the Zelda series is famous for its “second quest”, which would sometimes provide additional bonuses or an extra challenge.

While there could certainly be cases of this actually being true, gamers expecting this content to be given away for free, or included in the base package, is ludicrous. Imagine an ice cream cone. If you order a single dip, you know exactly what you will be receiving; a cone with a reasonable amount of ice cream to enjoy. It is a complete package. But you know what would make it better? Toppings. Well those cost extra. Want an extra dip? That also costs extra. Nobody would question that the single dip is all that you need to enjoy an ice cream cone, but some people want more, or something extra to liven up the experience. Games are no different. The base game is all the experience we truly need, but if we want more, we have the option to buy more. Just as the ice cream shoppe doesn’t remove the chocolate chips from their mint chip and try to sell them to you separately, developers don’t remove features for the sole purpose of selling them to you later. And while, yes, ice cream does not cost $60, the principle remains the same.

It all comes down to value vs. expectations. Based on precedent, we expected Star Wars Battlefront to come with a campaign and a variety of planets to wage war on. When the campaign was absent and the planet selection was thinner than we would have liked, it didn’t mean that those were removed just to sell additional content. While definitely thin, Battlefront was still a complete experience. As was Destiny, and surely Breath of the Wild will be as well. Just because we want something, doesn’t mean that its inclusion later on means it “should’ve been there from the start”. This is such a destructive phrase, as it demeans the work the developer put into their art while making our passionate community look like whiners and crybabies. It is like getting a sundae and lamenting its lack of hot fudge. Sure, it would be better with it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still great without it. Season passes and extra content do not detract from the game we pay for, only enhance and strengthen it. But if we enjoy a game enough to want more, we should also be willing to pay for that additional content.

A season pass often represents great value that gives players more of what they love about their game in the first place. Mario Kart 8’s pass added 16 new tracks and new characters. The Witcher 3 added additional story content as well as an entire new map to explore. Call of Duty gives fans additional maps and weapons. In other words, a double dip. Not every season pass provides the value that Witcher 3 or Mario Kart’s did, but not every NBA player is Michael Jordan either. If we compare every piece of content to the best as the standard, then we will skew the value of that content. However, if we value additional content by what it adds to the game it is supporting, we can get a much clearer picture of its overall value. I’m not saying that every pass is worth it, but we also shouldn’t write a pass off because of perceived shortcomings when compared to the best of the best.

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Season passes are not going away. Development is too arduous and expensive to not monetize these mammoth investments beyond an initial sale. But just like in the earliest days of DLC, it is up to us to dictate what we expect from bundled content. If we love what The Witcher 3 and Mario Kart do, but don’t like what Street Fighter V has to offer, we have the power to vote with our wallets. We absolutely should not spend money on something that we don’t know anything about. But rather than becoming angry about our lack of knowledge, we can just choose to wait to buy. In my opinion, Battlefront’s content ended up being worth the initial price, but that didn’t change the fact that its price to knowledge ratio was hilariously bad. With season passes still in their relative infancy, we can inform publishers on what works and what doesn’t, what we value and what we don’t, through our impact on the bottom line. Rather than inciting rage over a lack of info or a deficient pass, we should all just have a good laugh about it and walk away. That would prove a point.

Breath of the Wild’s season pass looks to offer interesting content that gives us more of what we love about Zelda, and while details are still sparse, Nintendo has been upfront about the package they are selling, giving us little reason to dislike the announcement other than its strange bundle. There is no reason why it can’t be a great value that improves a promising game. While there are certainly exceptions, season passes can be incredibly worthwhile, giving us more of what we love and the developer more capital to create their next game. But we must accept their place in the industry in order to truly change the narrative surrounding them.


Brett Williams is an Associate Writer for MONG who can’t wait to explore Hyrule with Link in his Nintendo Switch shirt. You can follow his nonexistent ramblings on twitter.

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