Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning: Why the Online Pass is Bad for Business

As an astute gamer, you're probably well aware that the release of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning from Big Huge Games/38 Studios is due in stores February 7. The massive single-player game has brought together the talents of Todd McFarlane, Ken Rolston and R. A. Salvatore. What you might not know is that it has an online pass, the same online pass that publisher EA is becoming fond of so quickly.

The text on the online pass reads: "Online pass gives you access to the House of Valor faction quest, featuring seven additional single-player quests."

38 Studios head Curt Schilling (never one to mince words) offers the following rebuttal to the rapidly increasing criticism. Note that all caps are original, but italics were added by Omnicomic.

This next part is likely to piss people off, but it’s a truth and it’s how I feel," Schilling wrote. "You can argue the merits and effectiveness of it, but right now it’s how it’s done and as someone that’s as invested as I am in this company, I stand by what has happened.

DAY 1 DLC, to be extremely and VIVIDLY clear, is FREE, 100% totally FREE, to anyone that buys a new copy of Reckoning, ANYONE. If you don't buy new games you buy them used, and in that case you will have to pay for the Day 1 free DLC content the new copy buyers got for free.

It's clear the intent right? To promote early adopters and MUCH MORE IMPORTANT TO ME, REWARD fans and gamers who commit to us with their time and money when it benefits the company... This is not 38 trying to take more of your money, or EA in this case, this is us REWARDING people for HELPING US! If you disagree due to methodology, ok, but that is our intent... companies are still trying to figure out how to receive dollars spent on games they make, when they are bought. Is that wrong? if so please tell me how.

There are a myriad of problems with this logic, none of which are exclusive to 38 Studios. All studios and publishers are moving towards similar setups, so what follows is more of an open debate on the legitimacy of online passes and not an attack on 38 Studios exclusively.

The issue of EA's Online Pass (and by extension charging used gamers for game content) is quickly becoming a contentious point amongst gamers. From the gamer's perspective, this is rightfully so. After all, why should a gamer be punished for buying a game used by not being able to enjoy the full game?

In thise case, 38 Studios (and other studios) counter that often the content attached to the online pass isn't required to enjoy the game, which, in their eyes, justifies offering it through such a restrictive channel. The problem with that is that even though it may have no bearing on the story, it does have a bearing on game completion.

Achievements and trophies (love them or hate them) are here to stay. If online pass content doesn't have anything to do with game completion, then why are there achievements/tropies attached to them? Sure, the Catwoman DLC in Batman Arkham City really didn't add much in terms of "value" to the game, but there were an additional 150 achievement points tied to it.

Early indications are that there aren't any achievements tied to the House of Valor DLC. The 38 Studios Community Manager though has indicated that the House of Valor content was created as the first DLC, yet instead of offering it as such 38 Studios decided to offer it to early adopters for free. This may very well be the case and we're not here to cast aspersions on the character of 38 Studios as a whole.

The problem with offering the online pass for any game is sort of the video game industry cutting off their nose to spite the face. Yes, 38 Studios deserves to be compensated for their work...there's no questioning that. Instead of resorting to online passes and online activation codes though, maybe the game industry needs to take a look at the habits of the consumers first.

For instance, the biggest reason I (as a gamer) could think of buying games used is time. Typically, the October through December window every year is a glut of titles, all competing for holiday spending. That's all good and well, and the publishers capitalize on the fervor of gamers, but realistically, I don't have the time to buy Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Assassin's Creed: Revelations and Batman Arkham City all within three of four weeks of one another.

I'm going to pick one of those games (in this case it was Skyrim), play it and then if I'm still interested in the others pick them up at a later point. I'm not a used gamer per se and, when it comes time to buy the other games, I just wait for the price to drop. Buying a game new for $35 at Target is no different than buying the game used for $35 at GameStop. The only difference is GameStop makes more of a profit in the latter scenario. (In all fairness Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning actually picked an emtpy window for releasing the game, so they've avoided the typical glut.)

Now, I abhor GameStop and their policies. I'd much rather buy it from another location so GameStop doesn't make any money from me. The reality is though that GameStop is probably one of the biggest drivers for the boom in video game sales and it seems like publishers are jealous that they're capitalizing on the success of the publishers. Why should GameStop make a profit on something they had no hand in creating?

It usually boils down to shipped versus sold. Shipped is the term used to describe the games sold to the retailer, whereas sold is the term used to describe the games sold to the end user (gamers). My MBA is a little rusty, but the fact that shipped units are still "sold" to retailers implies that no matter what happens after the game leaves the publisher they're still making money. There could be some backchannel stuff that isn't publicized (unsold units returned, profit margins, etc.), but the publishers are still making money.

It's hard because no matter how you spin it, it comes off as greed. Schilling and others should be lauded for offering the content to users who are that thrilled about the game they're buying it day one. Once they buy it though, it becomes theirs to do with as they please. If times are tough and a gamer wants to sell Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, they should have that right. And to be able to sell a complete game.

It would be one thing if a publisher promised to support a game forever, but that's not going to happen. What happens to owners a year from now? Two years from now? We're supposed to just stare at the game for all eternity, not able to do anything with it because it's a neutered copy? Meanwhile, 38 Studios (or any other publisher for that matter) is already moving onto the next game, working in an even more archaic scheme to prevent used copies from being sold. I would hope that studios and publishers aren't so bullheaded that they assume gamers keep their games forever and ever. Right?

I'm not against a company being rewarded for their hard work. The online pass though is basically becoming something that subsidizes other games by a publisher that don't do as well, meaning the gamer is the one left making sure EA, Activision and any other publishers are still making money. It's a problem similar to that of movies and music.

The problem with movies and music wasn't solely pirating (which is a big problem that needs to be addressed), but it was also that there were just bad movies and music being churned out. If you want to stop the used game market, make the game so good that gamers will hold onto it for longer, and then when they go to sell there will be less people to buy a used copy.

I still have my copy of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion despite not playing it in years. In fact, my friend is borrowing it to finish up the Shivering Isles expansion. If I went to sell that game now, I'd probably get $10 for it...maybe. Sure, it might be sold for $20-$30, but it's the standard edition. I'm sure the Game of the Year edition with all the content brand new will set you back the same amount.

I have no idea whether or not Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning will be good or bad. Judging by the top tier talent collected for it (and I know some guys at Big Huge Games personally) I have no doubt it's going to be solid. A lot of other games though are made that just don't hold up, meaning the gamer is left with paying for a publisher's bad decision.

This isn't all about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. It's more a comment on the idea of online passes as a means of curtailing used games. Again, I respect Schilling wanting to offer the content to day one gamers, but I have trouble coming to terms with the notion that's the whole truth of it. It's just a slippery slope that publisher's are creating. I'm worried for the day when what we're paying for one day one is more content than actual game.

If this is really about rewarding the early adopter, then maybe make it where the day one DLC is available at a certain date well down the road. For instance, if the game comes out February 7, 2012, make the House of Valor DLC available to everyone for free on February 7, 2013. You can still charge for the content to those who buy it used up to that point all you want, so it will still stop used sales.

I have no idea what the DLC release schedule is, but say there are three DLCS released between now and September 2012 (as an example). By February 2013 everyone will have had a chance to play all aspects of the game, including all the DLC. At that point if those early adopters whom you care about so much want to sell the game, they don't get stuck with a neutered copy for being an early adopter.

It goes both ways. Yes, we'll buy the game day one because we're really looking forward to it. But it's also a slap in the face in a sense, because then we're forced to make a decision as to whether or not we activate the content. At that point, it's tied to our account and if we do go to sell (which is a stark reality regardless of the game), we're selling a copy that's worth less than a full copy.

Or offer the game digitally on consoles and PCs day and date. The publisher could offer it via Xbox Live or PSN for $40 (actually, even I'm not naieve enough to think the digital copy would be any less than $60, but I'm a dreamer). Then, the entire game is altogether and can't be sold used if the owner wanted to sell it. Broadband is at the point now where we can download the game rather quickly and hard drives are quickly becoming bigger for storing games in this way. And the profit margin is much, much higher on a digital copy versus the physical copy.

To me, the issue isn't the day one online pass stopping used gamers. The issue is that a publisher has sold me a product with terms and conditions. Yes, I can refuse to activate the DLC, meaning I miss out on the "reward" DLC, but when I go to sell the copy it's still valid. Or, I can activate it, play the two to three hours tied to the DLC (could be more in this type of game) and then sell a watered down copy. The choice is mine. At the end of the day though, you've slowed the sale of the game used, but at what cost?