Pay-to-win games are garbage. Loot boxes are passe. Cosmetics are cute, but not a great incentive to keep playing. Game publishers have cycled through a bevy of monetization gimmicks aimed at keeping gamers putting cash into their games, some more successful than others. Now, more and more of them seem to be coalescing around a new idea—the “battle pass.”
The battle pass is sort of a combination of achievements and DLC. Here’s how it works in Fortnite, for example: You pay $9.99 to unlock the premium “battle pass,” which is kind of like one of those buy-ten-footlong-subs-get-one-free punch cards you get at lunch places. In this case, it’s a list of tasks to check off in the game—killing five opponents with a shotgun, or landing in four different locations—that reward you with specific cosmetic items. You can also pay more money if you want to unlock the items without accomplishing the tasks.
And of course, you have to complete all of these tasks during the game’s current “season,” which lasts for a month or two, or you won’t get the fresh items. But don’t worry—once the season ends, a new one begins, and a new Battle Pass goes on sale for another $9.99 (Update—3:10 pm ET: Players can also put in-game currency earned with the battle pass toward another battle pass). Repeat ad infinitum until Epic’s bank account hits $9999999999.99 and runs out of digits.
In the last few days, both Rocket League and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds have jumped onto the industry’s new money-bait du jour. This Friday, Battlegrounds will debut its own “event pass,” letting gamers unlock items with a progression-based system; and in Rocket League, the “rocket pass” will earn players car goods in the same way. Rocket League’s won’t offer gameplay challenges, while Battlegrounds’ will. There are free versions of both, but they’ll also offer premium versions for $9.99. Like Fortnite’s battle pass, both will take a significant amount of play time to complete.
Unlike other slow-release monetization tactics—like loot crates, which both Rocket League and Battlegrounds offer—the play pass hasn’t sparked lots of controversy. That’s because its design is totally opposed to, say, Star Wars Battlefront 2’s microtransactions, which in their original failed incarnation put features like advanced customization in a real-money gambling environment that players felt should have been basic gameplay features. These microtransactions echoed those in NBA 2K18, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War and other huge games of last year: paid loot boxes, which randomly gift players items of different rarities. Especially in games that players had to pay $60 for up front, loot boxes, depending on their implementation, could come off as greedy or even predatory.
Play passes are not new—DOTA 2 has been peddling its battle pass since 2013—but they’re on trend. Why? Probably because they’re anything but random. They give players clear goals that spice up the experience. Achieving small accomplishments earns players small badges. The biggest badges, like epic costumes, hang from the end of long sticks, with quests that might take 80 to 100 hours of play to accomplish (although in Fortnite, players can simply buy those items for about $100 total per pass). It gives the community a sense of hierarchy. And players walk away with some feeling of accomplishment. It can also hold their hand on a tour of the game’s features and playstyles. Unlike loot boxes, game passes lay out clear, obtainable paths toward enjoying a game more and looking fresh while doing it.
The underlying question here is, “Why do game passes even exist?” That’s thorny. For years now, AAA games have been moving away from a one-time purchase model and towards a model called “games as a service.” Square Enix, for example, has said that in the future it “will approach game design with a mind to generate recurring revenue streams.” These “revenue streams” manifested in Final Fantasy XV as downloadable content, which players could purchase after spending $50 on the base game. Ubisoft’s chief financial officer Alain Martinez has said that the publisher is expecting 25 percent of its revenue to come from player investment in 2019. “The video game industry is littered with the corpses of game studios that took the fire-and-forget approach,” wrote Kotaku editor Jason Schreier in a 2017 article about “games as a service,” the buzzterm for these monetization plays. “This big shift was always inevitable.” Now, after mass backlash from both gamers and governments, companies like Electronic Arts are turning their backs on loot boxes—but they’ve got to replace them with something else that keeps the cash coming in, or, at least, keeps players motivated.
Game passes aren’t as immediately insidious, and perhaps that’s why they’re blossoming in popularity. However, while the model is similar across several games, its contexts and applications are what will validate or damn it in the public eye. Fortnite’s battle royale mode is free-to-play, so the $10 battle pass isn’t a big ask. Same with DOTA 2. What’s $10 for a few cute features? These passes didn’t make big waves because they’re essentially an optional, progression-based mode in free-to-play games. They’ve also earned their publishers unbelievable sums of money.
The main problem, Fortnite players have said recently, is that the battle pass can make a decidedly non-grindy game feel like a grind to play. Since players compete in short-ish rounds, they typically just hop in and out whenever they want. But incentivizing players to get that one rare skin at the end of the punch card means 80 to 100 hours of work and an almost RPG-like dedication to leveling up. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not as predatory as games encouraging children to essentially gamble on loot boxes. Players want that one skin to show off to their friends. Nothing about the progression system is kept secret. They choose to grind or pay per tier.
When it comes to Rocket League and Battlegrounds, the play pass might feel a little different. Neither game is a full $60 triple-A experience like Middle-Earth: Shadow of War or NBA2K18, but they’re still both $20 games asking players to buy in a little more. In fact, on Battlegrounds’ subreddit today, over 40,000 players upvoted a post accusing the new pass of being “tone-deaf.”
“We have supported this game since early access. PUBG has made over $730 million,” wrote the Redditor. “Yet, it’s still not optimized, cheaters are rampant, crates are locked behind keys. Even after charging $30 for the game, they now introduce this $9.99 Event. . . If this were free to play, none of us would care.”
“In times like these, I think it’s a mistake to try to defend against all the complaints,” wrote PUBG communications lead Ryan Rigney in response. “They’re valid, after all. Especially when we’re talking about things like bugs and optimization, the only real response is to fix them. So I’m not gonna come in here and tell you guys you’re wrong. Personally, I just really hope we can make better progress.”
On the game’s Steam page, Rigney noted that one issue with the game’s current crate system was how hard it is for players to get the rare items they want. And while they considered offering DLC as premium content, what they valued most was offering a “trackable progression-related system.”
For its part, Rocket League’s director Scott Rudi said the addition of a battle pass was driven by gameplay reasons, not money ones. “We didn’t even really think about it from a financial perspective,” Rudi said to Variety. “We have enough new players each month to sustain the game, frankly. It’s more about having a short-term experience that engages with players all across the spectrum. I’m a big believer in the one-more-turn compulsion – this idea that, well, I’m only one game away from getting my next tier, so let’s go again.”
Games’ monetization gimmicks strike all players differently depending on how deep their investment is and pockets are. One person might care nothing for cosmetics while, for another, it might be more fun to costume characters than play the game. Another person might have dropped off Fortnite if not for the battle pass grind, which gave them purpose. What’s sure is that, widely, game-players have vocally denounced paid games with opaque, stringing-along tactics that seem designed to suck their wallets dry. Game passes aren’t mysterious, expensive, or similar to gambling. But if more paid games jump onto the trend, we might see a little more pushback from consumers who argue that they already paid for their fun.