In Defense of Online Passes

Earlier this week we posted a Speak Up on Kotaku in which a commenter condemned the practice of online passes. Today commenter Odin plays devil's advocate, explaining how online passes may actually help the industry.

So I want to play devil's advocate here. Or you know I would be playing devil's advocate if I didn't actually agree with the position I'm taking.

I want to talk about something that has been brought up a lot, but often only to criticize or condemn. That's right; I'm talking about online passes. There's been a lot on the subject of why they're bad, but very little on why they can be justified. It's important to note I'm not writing this to defend the practice; this primarily goes out to those who act like there's absolutely no justification for this system. I also want to address the incorrect assumption that this is just about used games sales.

Firstly you have to understand that what you buy when you purchase a game is a product. You can then resell it, loan it, or do whatever you want with it (maybe even play it). But when you play a multiplayer game you're not only using the product you own but you're also using a service provided by another party. That's the key thing to remember, multiplayer (at least that which uses centralized servers) is a service.

One thing we've taken for granted for many years is that the right to access that service is transferable in the same way that our product is. While it may annoy us that it's now being taken away from us it's important to note that it's not something we're entitled to. We own the product, and access to the service is included when we buy the product new. But we don't own that service.

Unlike the product it costs the publishers/developers money to maintain multiplayer service. Servers cost money, and as long as they're running they don't stop costing money. This means that companies can only afford to run these servers for a limited time before they stop being profitable. It's why you see multiplayer servers for older games just wink out of existence over time. The servers can only be maintained as long as there's revenue coming in, and the ones maintaining them only get revenue from new sales of a game.

But wait I hear you say, surely when one person sells their game they're no longer using the multiplayer service so the net amount of players remains the same. While this is true, it assumes that server load is the issue. It's key to remember that while the maintenance cost doesn't increase, it does stay the same while the publisher's revenue (for that particular title) decreases over time. As such it's not entirely unreasonable to limit access to the service to those that have directly contributed to maintaining those servers.

What many people fail to consider properly is how this affects us, the consumers. A lot of used game purchases just see that an online pass costs $10 and complain because they're going to have to pay extra for their used games. Yet it's the used game customer who's probably affected the least in all this, in fact it's most detrimental to both Gamestop and those who buy their games new and trade them in.

Online passes will actually bring down the cost of used games because Gamestop will now have to take into account the cost of an online pass when pricing them. Gamestop have to price their used games at a price that's attractive to the customer. Which means for online pass games they have to include the cost of an online pass when considering what that attractive price might be. For example they couldn't price an online pass game at $45 when it retails new for $60, because with the cost of the online pass factored in most gamers would just choose to spend the $5 extra to buy the new copy. Gamestop are far more likely to bear the bulk of the cost of the online pass than the used game purchaser is. However this will also mean Gamestop will also probably decrease what they offer for trade ins on games using the online pass to maintain their profit margins.

And another thing people don't consider what the benefits of an online pass could be. With an additional stream of revenue publishers could afford to maintain servers for games for longer than it'd normally be profitable for. After all it's in the publisher's best interest to keep the servers running so that people will continue to purchase online passes. This is beneficial to both new and used gamers alike. After all given the option would you rather pay $10 to access the multiplayer or never get to experience it because the servers had been shut down?

I guess the TL;DR of it all is that online passes, while not great, are by no means the devil everyone is making them out to be. However stunts like the Catwoman DLC, something that should be part of the product and doesn't cost them anything to maintain? That's just a greedy, completely arbitrary tax on used games sales and a practice that SHOULD be condemned.

About Speak Up on Kotaku: Our readers have a lot to say, and sometimes what they have to say has nothing to do with the stories we run. That's why we have a forum on Kotaku called Speak Up. That's the place to post anecdotes, photos, game tips and hints, and anything you want to share with Kotaku at large. Every weekday we'll pull one of the best Speak Up posts we can find and highlight it here.