Every time I bring home a new video game I have this ritual: I take a fish boning knife and slide it under a fold in the shrinkwrap, then twist. Then I try to remove all of the cellophane in one piece, like it's the world's biggest peel-and-eat shrimp. If it's an Xbox 360 game, I slip it down under the obnoxious seal across the edge and lift that out. I have to do all of this because American retail packaging insists on treating every customer like a potential shoplifter.
In 2010, video game companies added a third step to remind you that your purchase was not yet legitimate: The Online Pass.
Publishers did a lot of dumb things on the last console generation but the online pass, an odious response to the imaginary crisis of used games, stands out even among their worst ideas. It's a one-use code, shipping free in every shrink-wrapped, store-bought and, more importantly, non-used copy of a game (though you could sometimes find valid codes in them.)
With it, you get access to the multiplayer servers and any features dependent on them. Without it, well, you either play only the offline portions of a game like the ungrateful potential shoplifter you probably are, or you pay $10 over Xbox Live or PlayStation Network, ostensibly giving the publisher its cut (and the platform holder, too) of the resale of a used game.
The practice goes by many names, but "online pass" is the one EA Sports adopted in 2010 when it became the second publisher to restrict access to multiplayer features to a one-use code. As such, "online pass" became a shorthand for every instance of the concept—and perpetuated its Orwellian value proposition. Why, this isn't a restriction, it says, this is a pass. You're part of the club! The club of people who pay full price and get the same thing they'd always gotten in years past. It was like putting a velvet rope in front of a 7-Eleven just to make sure people weren't bringing their own cup to the Slurpee machine.
"Invariably, the consumer is getting a boatload more content to experience than they otherwise would," John Riccitiello, then the CEO of Electronic Arts, told investors in 2010. "We think it's a great idea. We think it's gonna build our business. And we think it's a positive consumer experience."
Within a year, Riccitiello would be proven wrong, and as the industry's largest seller of Online Pass restricted (oops, enabled) games, it also proved this had nothing to do with offering value to gamers, or even delivering revenue to publishers, and everything to do with protecting retail sales, particularly those on day one. Electronic Arts pulled in all of $15 million in revenue from Online Pass sales in their first year, the equivalent of loose change found vacuuming under the passenger seat of a 1987 Buick Regal.
As for that argument about freeloaders sucking from the teat of servers and online modes that cost time and money to maintenance, well, most of these games had some kind of a trial period built in, allowing rental customers a weekend or a week to play the game's full spread of offerings—exactly what gamers got for their money in 2009.
For that first, glorious year, though, it was like the One Percent of video gaming had found their magic bullet. It's probably no surprise that lackluster editions of Madden in 2011 and this year still set year-over-year sales records. I'd argue that being conditioned to not buy used certainly helped their performance.
It wasn't just a sports thing, either; shooters like Resistance 3 and Homefront placed their multiplayer behind one-use codes. THQ actually went and raised the price of online access to UFC Undisputed 2010—the first sports title to use the concept—from $5 to $10. Rage kept its sewer levels inaccessible unless you had a key to open them. Developers with cult-of-personality followings could score brownie points by saying they were all against online passes, until The Man came in and made their game use one.
There didn't seem to be that much value to lose from the resale price of sports video games, anyway, and sellers of them didn't suffer that much, either. GameStop still sold used titles at the same jacked-up price, and you still got the same pittance for a sports game once its newest version released and your old copy turned into a pumpkin. Eventually, we grew to accept it. New game. Boning knife. Twist. Insert disc. Input code.