What Sports Gamers Can Expect, If There Are No More Free PassesS

Strong users of rental services and resale or trade-in options, sports gamers justifiably feel blindsided by EA Sports' new "Online Pass," which requires a ton of once-standard game content to be activated by a one-use code.

To recap: Yesterday EA Sports revealed its "Online Pass" strategy, which will begin in June with the next Tiger Woods PGA Tour game. This pass is a code that comes free with a new retail copy of the game. According to EA Sports' own FAQ about the Online Pass, any online content or gameplay, free or otherwise, is enabled with this code. Used games, however, are likely to be sold by someone who already redeemed the code - and a new one will set you back $10 over Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network.

The strategy is transparent in its intent: Incentivize the new purchase of any EA Sports titles and, if gamers seek cheaper alternatives, get a cut of that lucrative, and growing, secondary market. EA Sports is right when it says it's not a crackdown on the used games market. But it's also not really offering much that's new with this Pass, and in fact walls off some core expectations of a sports title behind it.

EA has tried this strategy in titles like Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Mass Effect 2. Even as sequels, those titles don't come out every year. Last year's game is rarely used to buy this year's title, as is the case with annual sports series. And they're not the kind of games you really rent or take to a friend's house.

Sports games are. So here's a look at how the game will change once Online Pass becomes a reality, because once it's here and Electronic Arts starts making money off of it, it will not go away.

There's not much to say about the rental market, other than this move effectively kills any reason to rent an EA Sports title going forward. EA Sports will offer a free seven-day trial of its full online content, per game, per gamertag, which corresponds to a standard rental period - but obviously not the extended ones many take advantage of through GameFly. GameFly declined comment on EA's decision, citing a quiet period mandated by its recent filing for an initial public offering. But it's plainly apparent that with no online multiplayer or anything other than the current teams and launch rosters, these games become glorified demos - and ones costing $9.99 at Blockbuster. That last statement is invalid in light of a free seven-day trial.

Reselling is a different story, and sports games are unique creatures in the secondary market. Most high-quality, nonsports games have a gradual depreciation and can still find buyers years later. A brand new sports title already has a short shelf life; a used game sheds resale value gradually over the course of the real world season, and when that is over, it crashes hard.

Simon Rothman, the founder and CEO of online resale broker Glyde, says EA Sports' Madden games will loses a third of their $60 purchase price over the course of a season, then start dropping another $8 a month after the Super Bowl in February. That's according to his company's analysis of what the market's willing to pay for the game, not what GameStop or any retailer lists for a used copy.

Rothman compared Madden NFL 09's depreciation to Soulcalibur IV released within a week of each other back in 2008. Madden 09 sells for $2. Soulcalibur IV goes for $8.

What Sports Gamers Can Expect, If There Are No More Free PassesS

So in one sense, there's not a lot of value to be lost in used EA Sports titles anyway. Rothman reasons that, among gamer-to-gamer reselling, buyers can still find strong value in a used game and pay less, even with the $10 Online Pass, than they would buying from a physical retailer a used game that didn't have the code.

"If you bought Madden 10 today, it's $20 (on Glyde)," Rothman said. "GameStop is selling it for $45." So theoretically, you're still spending less, and if there's any additional hit to the game's resale price, that only works to the buyer's advantage.

The seller might find that the cash value of his game isn't enough to meaningfully contribute to the new Madden or another sports title, but the idea that it necessarily does might be something of an illusion propped up by store credit, which always gives more value than straight cash.

"The only thing I've seen drop in value faster than Madden is Dark Void," said Keegan Gormley, owner of the independent games retailer Big City Gamin' in Eugene, Ore. Still, Gormley said he tries to give $32 in store credit for a current copy of Madden - even a few months before the next release.

That's highly unusual among retailers, of course, but as an independent shop - and as a dedicated gamer himself - Big City Gamin' and Gormley do it to keep customers happy and loyal and buying their new games from him, even if it's effectively at a discount.

But with Online Pass, he sees that trade-in figure necessarily diminishing. "I probably will be offering lower trade in values so that I can sell it for less," Gormley said. "It only makes sense if someone can still buy the game for less than $50 because they have to pay that $10 for the access code."

Gormley's always run into complaints from people expecting DLC to accompany used games, and has had to deal with customers who got Mass Effect 2 and realized they had to pay $15 to get in the game's Cerberus Network, which delivers free and paid DLC. That's for content that's largely optional to the main game. EA Sports will be holding core components such as multiplayer and roster updates behind the Online Pass.

"It's disappointing," Gormley said. "I'm aggravated that EA would consider moving to premium content for letting a person play on Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. that's absolutely ridiculous."

But the lack of multiplayer and realistic rosters may be of little or no concern to a gamer who buys a year-old copy of Madden - whose roster under the current model wouldn't be updated anyway. The bulk of the multiplayer community is in the current game, so it's unlikely they'd be getting last year's Madden for that, and thus there's no need to pay for the $10 Online Pass, and nothing is lost.

What Sports Gamers Can Expect, If There Are No More Free PassesS

It's when a sports game is traded in season, or in its current year, where the howling will begin. Gormley said sports gamers flooded him with Madden last year when UFC Undisputed 2009 came out. He expects the same thing to happen this month for UFC Undisputed 2010. Sports gamers reliably move to whatever is in season, using new but out-of-season games as currency. And anyone picking up NBA Live or NHL at a steep discount after the playoffs next year is going to find the $10 demand to play the most current version of the game a little rude, even if overall they're spending the same amount as before.

Sports gamers have been uncommonly loyal customers - more slowly angered over the usual hot button issues, such as DRM and paid DLC, than their core counterparts. But they have also relied on old games as currency for new purchases to a degree that other gamers have not. EA Sports elbowing into the resale market in this way is rightfully seen as a provocation to their best customers.

The actual damage done may be less than imagined by the knee-jerk reactions. If the Online Pass does diminish resale values, it will require sports gamers to consider the next year's purchase more deeply than the fact it's the next season, and it's an annual habit. Online Pass will not go away because it just can't be connected to new sales, which is where gamers get EA's attention. So if gamers have any leverage in this relationship, it'll be felt when EA Sports makes its usual claim of some revolutionary new game mechanic that fails to deliver.

In the old days, such underwhelming offerings were dismissed as $60 roster updates and picked up a couple months later on the cheap. Now that used purchase won't even buy a roster update. Not in the middle of the season anyway.