iRate:- The DLC Season Pass

With game publishers looking to extract every single dollar from gamers they can in a world where the idea of free costumes for playing a game is antiquated and Gamestop (along with the various online grey market sellers) are looked at the same way as the Eye of Mordor, the newest trend is to bundle a bunch of DLC together in one package and sell it to you in bulk, even though you won’t get it all at once.

It’s a topic that’s been debated on numerous gaming podcasts on the interwebs (including the two I co-host) but my purpose today is to examine this phenomenon in depth and see whether it’s actually worth your money.

Like many great ideas in the gaming industry it started as something small and innocuous that is growing into a behemoth. Most people don’t realize one of the biggest gaming trends of 2011 actually started in Nov. 2010. The game: WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 by THQ.

A month before the game launched THQ laid out its plans for post-launch additional content, its cost, and a bulk price to buy all of this content at, in what it called “Fan Axxess,” named after the mini-fair the WWE throws outside of its venue for Wrestlemania each Spring. You got over $16 worth of content; including the unlock all extras key, extra wrestlers, and extra outfits, for $10.

Given the limited appeal of a wrestling simulation to the mass market the idea, and the credit, fell into the annals of history. THQ only put the pack on sale 1 time (on PSN only) to try to stimulate sales of the package. Other publishers though saw potential in the idea, and it was tried by games that were two of the biggest sellers of early 2011: Mortal Kombat from WB Interactive and L.A. Noire from 2K Games via its Rockstar Games label.

The Mortal Kombat Season Pass granted access to four downloadable characters

Mortal Kombat developers saw the mixed reaction to Capcom’s sometimes disk, sometimes DLC approach to adding new characters and decided to go with the Season Pass model of offering the 4 characters (to be revealed just shortly before their release) at $15, which could also have been seen by customers as buy 3, get 1 free. But this program had its problems also as, for some unknown reason, the pass was 360 exclusive for the first few months after MK’s release. Then suddenly sometime in the summer after two or three characters had been released, and PS3 owners thought they would have to buy each characters separately, the pass appeared with little fanfare on the PlayStation Network.

Rockstar Games looked at the season pass option to silence critics of publishers giving exclusive DLC to various retailers for pre-order incentives by making its Rockstar Pass have all of the pre-order DLC (which included 2 extra cases, 2 extra detective suits that buffed certain abilities, and a collection quest that yielded a third suit when finished) and the two extra cases saved/cut for post-launch release for an almost 50% savings at $12. It even rewarded people who bought the pass in the first 3 weeks after the games’ launch (before any of the pass content was available) for $10. The pass was also put on sale 1 time on the Xbox Marketplace for a 1-week period in mid-Sept. for $8.

This version of a pass had the least amount of issues, except for a clamoring for more content. These issues were with the developer, Team Bondi, in that it went bankrupt just a few months after the game’s release. Despite its big sales, demand for the game flamed out as it was sold away in mass quantities and Rockstar, in order to get one last push of sales for the year, is putting out an ultimate edition of the game including the DLC a mere six months after its initial release. This will also coincide with the release of the game on the PC for the first time (which has all of the same content as the ultimate edition.)

Fast forward to the big fall gaming season and the exclusive games from two console makers and the biggest 3rd party behemoth title, Call of Duty from Activision, are going to try their hands at the season pass.

Much like the previous versions of this DLC system, it’s available for customers to purchase at the game launch, but this time, the customer is not told what exactly it is they’re buying. Just a brief description of the type of content, how many packs the pass will cover, and how much the pass costs vs. buying the content separately. Not only that, but these passes are more expensive, anywhere from $25-$50 instead of the $10-$15 the previous ones have been. Time will tell if these season passes will be either embraced or shunned by the games’ respective communities, but so far it’s not looking so kind for two of the four passes.

The first part of the Gears of War Season Pass has had... issues.

Gears of War 3 (released on Sept. 20) just had the first of its four DLC packs launch this week, and to say there were issues would be an understatement bigger than there may still be some issues with the worldwide economy. First off it didn’t show up as a free download for Season Pass owners and Microsoft had to take it down for several hours before fixing the coding and people were actually able to download the 1.5 MB file. That’s right kiddies, you paid for an unlock key that was content already on the disk!

Forums and blogs all over the Internet sprang up with outrage as Epic pulled a similar excuse as Bioware did with Dragon Age Origins as to why it had two extra DLC quests available when the game came out. Since the game was delayed from spring to an autumn release, they had a team working on the maps and, since they were done before the game came out, Epic decided to have the content put on the disk. However, as they still had plans for periodic DLC’s to keep the game relevant vs. all the other shooting games competing for Modern Warfare 3’s leftovers they hid this content behind an unlock key. At least Epic didn’t have a natural disaster to blame like Capcom did for Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

But like classic 1980’s Mike Tyson the first hit was not the knockout punch, it was the second one. Epic announced that the meat of the content, the extra maps for the game’s online modes, would be available for free in 3 weeks. So all the paying customers got was the few extra weapons for the online co-op Horde mode, extra weapon skins (the other weasely way Epic was making more money from the game,) and the extra achievement points.

Microsoft’s other big title to offer the season pass this fall, Forza 4, came and went without much press, but I think that’s because a lot of casual fans of the game know it’s idiotic to buy a Forza game within the first year of the game’s release. That’s because both Forza 2 and 3 had a Greatest Hits version come out about a year after the initial release that put all the extra cars that were available for download since release on an extra disk. Even if you buy the car packs ala carte when on sale, you get a much better deal waiting for a year then buying the game. Forza 3 saved the pretense of initially charging $60 for the P.H. copy of the game because it had extra content and made it $30 to start with, screwing over anyone who had bought Forza 3 to begin with (like this writer.)

Sony, who is just now starting to accept the trends of online passes and more DLC, hastily before launch announced a season pass for Uncharted 3 (entitled The Fortune Hunters’ Club) at $25 that would save $20 over the 7 downloadable packs planned for Uncharted 3. Well three of those packs were out for the game’s release, and they were just the exact same premium skins from Uncharted 2’s MP, costing $2.50 per pack. Even those who had these from Uncharted 2 would have to pay for them again. So now early adopters have to see if the 4 competitive/cooperative focused packs are worth paying $25 for instead of $37.50.

Call of Duty Elite, more than just a season pass? Only time will tell.

The biggest question though will be if the mass market adopts Activision’s Call of Duty Elite program in the same way that CoD MP map packs at $15 a pop were adopted. Being the most expensive package at $50, Activision has positioned this as more than just a season pass. They tout the extra space available for video uploads, expanded clan options, map and weapon analysis from developers and pros, premium video content, and other things in addition to getting maps monthly instead of bi-monthly and sooner than non-subscribers.

While one can argue this has the most value of the 7 season passes that have come out in the last 13 months, I think it’s not going to sell like the CoD map packs have sold since the original Modern Warfare. Malistre of the Powcast has often had to critique my point of view in that while I’m always looking for game deals via, Joe Gamer doesn’t think that way and can’t understand that $50 upfront is going to be cheaper than $60 or more over the course of the next 9 months.

Unlike the other big trend from 2010, the online pass, the future of the season pass is a murky one as while each program has had benefits, the detractions of them have slowed its adoption across all games. As an owner of the Uncharted 3 and Call of Duty passes I hope I don’t regret these purchases this time next year.

- Jason Billingsley

Wed, November 9 2011 » Articles, iRate

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