Columns, Opinion

Gaming the System: Should battle passes be the future of video games?

In this day and age, buying a game one time at full price with no additional transactions feels like a rare occurrence. The paradigm for most large games of all genres is to offer downloadable content — or DLC — for an extra cost on top of the base game, or otherwise require a transaction to unlock it.

In multiplayer games in particular, a new monetization scheme based on this principle has been on the rise in the past few years — the battle pass. Popularized in large part by Fortnite, the model is essentially a system in which the player pays for the opportunity to unlock various in-game items. 

The items in question are on a tiered progression, meaning that the more a user plays and reaches higher levels, the more rewards become available to them. Because the most valuable rewards are available at advanced levels, the farther along in the pass they go, the rarer and more desirable a player’s cosmetic items are. 

The battle pass model is inseparable from the fact that a given pass is only purchasable and usable for a limited amount of time. This amount of time is referred to as a season, and usually lasts a month or more. If a desirable item is in a high tier of the pass, the player must not only log plenty of playtime to unlock it, but also get those hours in before the season ends. This fear of missing out is a powerful motivator, and when the season finally does end, a new pass must be purchased and the cycle starts anew.

Smaran Ramidi / DFP Staff

Using Twitch and YouTube viewership metrics, it seems that the market for online First-Person Shooter Games is now dominated by battle pass monetization. Of the top five most-viewed FPS titles in the past week, four of them—Valorant, Apex Legends, Call of Duty: Warzone, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive—offer seasonal battle passes to players. 

Although I do dabble in Apex Legends, my favorite FPS, Overwatch, sits at a humble eighth place on the top 10 most-viewed shooter games. This is but one of many indications that Overwatch has been on the downswing in the past few years. 

In 2019, its sequel Overwatch 2 was officially announced to the public, but it still hasn’t been released, and developer Activision Blizzard has focused so heavily on working on Overwatch 2 that the original game has languished without major content updates.

One proposed solution to this problem, as indicated by the brief Twitter popularity of #MakeOverwatchF2P—F2P stands for free-to-play—is to make Overwatch follow the newer battle pass model. Indeed, one of the many ways Overwatch shows its age is its monetization.  PC download still costs 20 whole dollars, and the in-game microtransactions are limited to randomized “loot boxes” rather than preset rewards on a stable track of progression.  

The fact that its battle pass FPS counterparts attract far more players and views is hard to argue with, but just because a free-to-play, paid battle pass model is one way of reinvigorating a game doesn’t mean it has to be done. Making a game free-to-play is only profitable because a lot of users are going to pay for the additional content anyway.

In the case of Apex Legends and Valorant, for instance, only a few playable characters are actually unlocked by default, and most — including all new ones — cost money. Overwatch may have cost $40 to $60 on release, but it launched with 21 characters, and the 11 added afterward were all free. Moreover, the fact that battle passes expire and get replaced every few months means that dedicated players who want the new items will effectively be making a recurring purchase every season.

The rise of the battle pass is just another example of the incredible growth of subscription-based purchases in the modern world. “Everything’s becoming a subscription,” noted the title of a June 2021 Washington Post article, and it’s difficult to disagree. Everything from razors to food can be bought as a mail-order subscription these days.

In the tech sphere, this shift is even more overwhelming. Almost every major web platform or service that comes to mind has some sort of premium membership paid on a renewing schedule. 

Amazon, YouTube Premium and Spotify are all examples, and they are only the tip of the iceberg. Subscription payments are the modus operandi of all TV streaming services and productivity software, with examples of the latter such as Adobe and Microsoft and their exorbitant yearly rates.

At least in the tech world, the one-time purchase is dying and being replaced with nagging monthly or yearly fees for everything. It’s an annoyance in video games too, and the battle pass model epitomizes everything wrong with the future of tech.


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