So, Let’s Discuss Season Passes…

 

There’s been quite the furore around the news that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will have a $20 season pass.

Truthfully, I expected this kind of news. I mean, Nintendo has done this before – Mario Kart 8 and Smash Bros. were two of its biggest games on the Wii U, and both came with DLC and Season Passes. So too did Hyrule Warriors, adding an enviable amount of content and a diverse new roster of characters to toy about with. Pikmin 3 had DLC Packs, and Xenoblade Chronicles X and New Super Mario Bros. U also had expansions (though the West got the X content bundled in for the wait we had). DLC and Season Passes have been used by Nintendo to great effect and there are very few who’d suggest that Nintendo got any of this wrong in the past.

Of course, people are angry and upset – I think I will never really understand why Nintendo gets it in the neck when it adopts industry standards, my guess is that most still deep down believe Nintendo is ‘special’ in some way and should be different (whilst often in the same breath bashing Nintendo for not being ‘the same’ as Sony – c’est la vie!). But the thing is, I don’t think Nintendo is doing the Zelda DLC ‘wrong’. It’s spaced out enough, not front-loaded. It has the same sort of content we’d expect from most Season Passes – an arena/horde mode thing, a Hard Mode (not the first game to do this and not even the first game to do that this year), new dungeon/s, some additional story content, additional challenges and quests and some costumes. All perfectly serviceable notions for a $20 season pass. Nothing that hasn’t been done before.

So, why does Sony and its third-party support get away with season passes? I ask this not to be a douche, but as a matter of interest. Truthfully, I’ve found many of the DLC/Season Passes on PS4 games to be worryingly lean or just generally terrible. Dark Souls 3’s first DLC pack was four hours worth of confusing, not-high-quality content. Resident Evil 7’s first DLC offering just felt like cutting room leftovers, if not things which one can argue would have made the lean offering in the main game more worthy of a £45 price tag. Fallout 4, Arkham Knight, Shadows of Mordor… there’s a lot of bad examples, and some okay-ish ones like Bloodborne.

Heck, sure, the Zelda Season Pass is being detailed two weeks before release. Oh noes. Anyone remember when the Killzone: Shadow Fall season pass was being pushed months before its release? Or how about the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided DLC being pushed during the pre-order campaign as a perk to get people to pre-order? Mortal Kombat X, because of course WB Interactive had to make a bad situation worse for itself – it’s kind of what they do now. Evolve, Star Wars: Battlefront… anyone getting the picture yet?

The Zelda DLC may be poorly timed and perhaps even poorly executed so far, but that’s not the problem here is it?

The Zelda Season Pass is a thing that is in the wrong place at the wrong time, perhaps signifying a curiously Nintendo problem (ugh) but mostly also highlighting how utterly terrible we, as consumers, are at tackling this problem ourselves. The content from Resident Evil 7’s “The Banned Footage” packs has been woefully inadequate – experimental modes with the depth of a shallow grave and the longevity of Francium’s chemical half-life – has been knocked but still heralded by a games press afraid to criticise it for what it is; a bunch of short modes totalling maybe a couple hours of actual content with only one of those modes (Daughters) having any bearing on the actual game story itself – and even then, it doesn’t say anything we couldn’t already have figured out! We’ve become afraid to speak out against some Season Passes for some reason.

So when Nintendo comes along with a Season Pass offer, it seems to be getting the additional pent-up bile that should have been expelled on such egregiously limp offerings as we’ve seen in Resident Evil 7. And whilst I think Nintendo does need criticism – and a healthy dose of it – to keep them in check, I also think giving them the additional splenetic juices we’ve stored up just gives off the impression that we’re dumping all our pent-up frustrations of this kind of business practice on their door. It doesn’t actually say anything except “You Can’t Do This, Or We’ll Bully You Into Submission”. Kinda like what’s happening in the US Political Scene right now…

So, let’s do something radical. Let’s remove the Sony vs Nintendo bias going on in this and talk about Season Passes as a thing with no additional fluff.

The whole point of a Season Pass used to be as a means of discounting planned DLC Packs. After all, three or four packs at £8.99 each quickly adds up, so why not just say, “You can have the lot for £25!”? It was initially about good consumer practice – I know, hard to grasp that isn’t it? It was about saving us some pennies, by offering multiple DLC packs at a knock-down price so the publishers/developers could get our money, because otherwise what motivation is there to download every single DLC offering? Rather than letting us pick and choose, just sell it all in one job-lot and call it quits.

Thing is, like any good idea, the games industry has taken the grain of nobility at the heart of it and soaked it in sulphuric acid for the past few years and now there’s very little ‘nobility’ left, if any at all. Now, more often than not, a “Season Pass” is a glorified pre-order for content which may or may not actually exist yet.

One thing the industry does well is marketing; it’s able to take bad ideas and give them nice names – like “Triple-A”, or “Open-World”. I said as much back when I discussed how the industry has taken the root of gambling and dressed it up in buzzwords like “Loot Crate” or “Crowdfunding” – it doesn’t make them any better than what they are, just sweetened with honeyed words to suppress the gag reflex. When you get to the root of it all, what lies beneath the carefully-constructed outer shell of the games industry is frankly rather ugly and mean-spirited, not always by intention or design but still warped enough to be truly surprising.

The ‘Season Pass’ is just the latest term to be dragged through a hedge backwards. The core notion is sound – even good business, with how we’re influenced by people on YouTube more than ever before now it’s become common practice to wait at least a day or two before piling into a new game en-masse. Better to sell everything in one go than break it into little pieces, where people might choose not to buy one pack over another.

But more and more, this is being pushed before a game even launches. And yes, Nintendo is doing this with Zelda and yes, it’s a DLC Pre-Order and yes, yes and thrice yes, it’s a terrible thing to do. Still, where is the anger over Capcom doing this? Or Sony? Or Square-Enix? Or FROM Software?

They’re ALL doing it! And you’re pissy Nintendo is jumping on board -now-? When we, the consumers, have firmly established this as a thing the industry can do and get away with?

This is the real point at the heart of it all. After years of demanding Nintendo follow industry standard practices, why are we shocked when Nintendo actually deigns to follow the industry standard of a Season Pass – particularly for one of its bigger releases and launch titles for the Switch? This may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but I suspect that despite lambasting Nintendo, we’ll go right back to preparing to have our wallets violated by any number of third-parties on the PS4 or even on Steam. So most are clearly okay with some season passes. So why is the Zelda one so egregiously bad in comparison to others?

It’s worth asking the question.

After all, For Honor has a season pass priced at £32.99 – which offers a few extra heroes, costumes and some EXP bonuses. Sniper Elite 4 has a £28.99 season pass which has a few extra gun skins and costumes and gives purchasers a brief fling with multiplayer maps which in a few weeks would go live – so effectively, you’re paying them to beta-test some multiplayer maps! Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’s season pass is £40 for four multiplayer map packs (and some of the older Call of Duty passes are still more than £30 each!). What makes any of this better than the Zelda Season Pass?

And no, this isn’t a defence of Nintendo. I think we should be critical of the Zelda DLC content – particularly because it’s all in one pack (though other games are doing this too). But we should be critical of -all- season passes. Far too often we’re letting off some really bad examples with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. But now, oh now Nintendo does it we must boycott the Switch launch? Looking awfully precarious up there on that high horse, want a ladder?

I’m saying that Season Passes are sadly here to stay. So rather than pushing all our anger at one entity – this time Nintendo (front-loading our 2017 anger at Nintendo like a bad season pass. Yeah, roll that sensation around in your mouth!) – we need to spread it around. With more and more games launching with season passes, we’ve got to find ways of encouraging the good ones and punishing the bad ones. That’s a difficult thing to do in a games industry where people can be suckered into a purchase with hype and marketing, but we’ve still got to find better ways of doing this than getting angry at one specific instance that may or may not turn out to be decent enough – Nintendo’s track record is certainly better than most.

Personally, I think we just have to wait. A Season Pass is a pre-order and frankly you don’t have to buy it the moment the company announces it. In fact, you’d be best served waiting until there’s far more detail in what is being offered. Pre-ordering a sofa only to find out it’s smaller than you wanted is a bad thing, but if you’re not being cautious and buying it with no measurements offered, it’s a simple case of Caveat Emptor (Buyer Beware). Make the marketing departments at these companies work for your money – make them sell it to you, through footage and details and perhaps even adding extra because we’re dragging our feet. Wait until you’re absolutely sure that you’re going to get your moneys worth. Heck, play the game first! See if the game is worth sticking around for before you buy additional content on top.

Stopping season passes is as impossible as stopping pre-orders. But we can, at the very least, make these people put in more effort than a glossy high-res piece of art or animation alongside vague terms and buzzwords. Then, and perhaps only then, will we start seeing what is worth buying and what, ultimately, is worth skipping. We’ve become far too accustomed as gamers to buying blind – getting a game before we know much about it, then spending weeks and months after being shocked and appalled by how we’ve been disappointed. What good does this do when they already have your money?

When we stop that, we start reminding the games industry that we expect better. And maybe things might improve. Possibly. But I won’t hold my breath.

After all, bashing Nintendo is so much fun, isn’t it?

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