Battle Passes, Season Passes, and all kinds of passes with an adjective before them are becoming more and more common in gaming. But features like these don’t become near-industry standard overnight, so it begs the question: how did gaming reach this microtransaction-fueled point?
Video games are more technologically advanced today than ever before. There are in-game worlds brought to life with realistic graphic effects, new generation consoles and modern gaming PC’s that continue to get better technology, and production standards that are on par with the big screen . Along with visuals, games have evolved and shifted in other ways, too: today, multiplayer games are arguably more popular than single player games, DLC is more common than ever, and gaming systems come standard with a built-in game marketplace.
Aspects of gaming like graphics and story/gameplay balance are largely based on personal opinion, which varies largely from person to person. However, there is one aspect of modern gaming that is generally considered negative: subscription passes. These are a kind of paid subscription that goes through time-sensitive “seasons”, during which players are encouraged to progress through the rankings to unlock all the items of the season in time. Often, there is a free pass for players who don’t pay, but they are also more limited and sometimes even have greyed out icons showing what you would be getting if you had paid. Extra content in games did not follow this formula until very recently, but a short look through the history of downloadable content can reveal how it got to this point.
DLC in games started as large expansion packs, often bringing entirely new experiences and gameplay or at least giving players more gaming time. As time went on, and digital marketplaces and updating became common with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3, expansion pack style DLC generally gave way to smaller, more cosmetic microtransactions. Season passes, which are more in line with older DLC, were still common with large franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield, but those same games and many others had implemented cosmetic DLC as well. The developer mentality of smaller purchases that didn’t make any gameplay changes, but made players unique in some way, culminated in both implementation and success in Epic Game’s 2017 release, Fortnite Battle Royale.
A game that probably needs no introduction, but one will be provided just in case, Fortnite Battle Royale is a new game mode for the original game, Fortnite Save the World. In Battle Royale, matches of up to 100 players skydive onto an island and fight it out to see which person or squad comes out on top. During the entirety of Battle Royale’s lifetime, the game has been free to play, but there has been a “battle pass” that fits the subscription pass style formula described earlier perfectly. What makes this one so noticeable is that Fortnite, at least for a time, was globally popular and a pop culture phenomenon. They were also one of the earliest major games to implement this system, especially in a F2P format. Fortnite’s success with this up-and-coming method of monetization wouldn’t go unnoticed, and the industry notably changed in the years afterward.
The 2020 title Warzone, Call of Duty’s battle royale endeavor, clearly takes a lot of inspiration from Fortnite. It is free to play, with similar gameplay and mechanics, and most importantly, contains a battle pass. The system in this game is almost exactly the same- tiered rewards, paid and free versions, and time limits. With 80 million-plus downloads as of October 2020, and 75 percent of Activision’s revenue being generated digitally, it’s safe to say that following the battle pass system worked well here, and likely boosted its popularity even more.
Mobile games, already associated with free to play elements like microtransactions and consumable purchases, are also moving in this direction. Mobile game giant Clash of Clans has had a season pass system for a while, as well as Fornite and Call of Duty’s mobile offerings. Though the season pass system is on a smaller scale with mobile gaming, with purchases generally being cheaper and less content being offered, it’s still a clear sign of the changing playing field for DLC in gaming.
Essentially, the rise of subscription services in gaming is indicative of a few things: that developers will continue to innovate ways that they can get money from the players, that companies are prone to follow new, popular trends even if there are already better liked systems in place, and that all it takes is one huge game to change the industry for years to come.