Last week DICE announced a $50 season pass for the next entry in their hugely popular Battlefield series, Battlefield 1. While this was not necessarily a surprise, it was perhaps more surprising than it would have been a few years ago. Recently, several high profile developers have foregone the traditional map pack DLC model in favor of more player base friendly models. In doing so, they are changing the way the industry thinks about season passes. Let’s take a look.
On October 27th last year, Halo 5 released. While a new core Halo game releasing is a large event in itself, one of the more notable features of the game was that due to the new “REQ” system, all future multiplayer content for the game would be free. 343 Industries’ reasoning for this seemed sound. Their statement was that dividing the player base by having paid DLC created issues for friends, player skill calculations, and playlist offerings. Instead, they promised all future DLC would be free with monthly content updates through at least June 2016. While this certainly wasn’t the first game to offer multiplayer content for free, it was notable given recent DLC offerings and the size of Halo’s fan base.
The initial response to this statement was mixed. Some thought it was an excellent idea and echoed 343’s sentiments regarding a unified player base. Others worried it would encourage 343, and potentially other developers, to add “pay to win” microtransactions within full priced games. For the unfamiliar, the REQ system equates to packs of cards that include cosmetic unlocks as well as additional bonus weapons and vehicles that can be used in the Warzone game modes of Halo 5. You earn points to buy packs through normal play and are at no point required to buy packs. However, for those who want to speed up the process, you have the option of buying packs with real money. While these types of systems aren’t new in games, they are typically reserved for free to play games. Given the initial divide and potential pitfalls, it was apparent that 343i’s plan would be quietly watched by both players and development companies alike over the course of the following year.
The Halo 5 requisition store
Now nearly a year later, I can confidently say 343i made the right decision. The majority of the Halo community has been pleasantly surprised at the level of support Halo 5 has received from 343i, with the game offering far more content today than it did at launch (though some would argue it lacked content at launch). The Warzone mode with REQs blossomed and pay to win never became a problem as evidenced by the very successful Arena mode play and Halo Championship Series (HCS). Just last week, 343 announced another large content update coming in September named “Anvil’s Legacy”. The new content update will introduce Halo 5 custom games and Forge to PC players (the first officially supported Halo on PC since Halo 2), add a new public file browser, and add new maps, weapons, and skins to the standard game. Again, this continues to be free for all players. Perhaps the strongest evidence backing 343i’s decision is the success of Halo 5 multiplayer itself. In July, 343i announced the monthly player count for Halo 5 is continuing to grow and the largest since Halo 3. For a game eight months post-release, that is very rare in today’s highly competitive market.
While I personally applauded the idea at launch and even more so now (especially as a Halo fan who plays with friends), I didn’t know at the time the type of impact it would have on the industry. Coinciding with Halo 5’s launch, a different DICE developed and EA published game, Star Wars Battlefront released with a $50 multiplayer season pass. Almost immediately, there was a negative connotation with the announcement and it became a conversation point within the gaming community. It became such a vocal discussion, that shortly after SWBF’s launch DICE announced they would be providing some future content to Star Wars Battlefront for free outside of the season pass – something that did not seem to be initially planned.
Since the launch of these games last year, the topic of free multiplayer DLC has come to the forefront throughout the industry. Earlier this year, Naughty Dog announced that all updates and DLC for Uncharted 4’s multiplayer would be free. Even though the game only launched in May, it has already seen multiple updates and a high level of support from Naughty Dog. Shortly after, The Coalition, Microsoft’s new development studio now solely responsible for the Gears of War franchise, announced they would be releasing all multiplayer DLC, including two multiplayer maps per month, for free for Gears of War 4. And just recently, Respawn Entertainment announced that all future updates and DLC for Titanfall 2’s multiplayer would be free as well. The latter announcement is the most notable for one simple reason – Titanfall 2 is published by EA and therefore not a first party franchise like Halo, Uncharted, or Gears of War. Lastly, while not a direct correlation to the above examples due to the game’s model, it’s worth mentioning that Overwatch, Blizzard’s massively popular team based multiplayer shooter, is also releasing all future DLC for free.
Naughty Dog published this roadmap for free content in Uncharted 4
The question that arises is this. How are development companies expected to continue to provide new, meaningful content for multiplayer without additional funding? The answer, at least partially seems to be by taking advantage of the in-game progression and unlockable systems. 343 Industries recouped at least some of the development costs of the DLC using the Halo 5 REQ system. While we don’t know exactly how much revenue 343i has generated with the system overall, just 4 months post-launch 343i released a statement quoting that over $1.5 million had been spent on REQ packs. Uncharted 4 has used a similar format in that you can buy boosts and cosmetic unlocks using real money should you choose, and Gears of War 4 is using a very similar “card pack” format as Halo 5 as well. It’s yet to be seen what Respawn has planned with Titanfall 2 but I would imagine there would be an offering in the same vein. Likewise, Overwatch offers loot boxes that can be earned with points (by simply playing) or purchased with real money. The limited amount of data we have on these systems shows that while the percentage of players that typically spend real money in-game is small, the ones who do are willing to spend a significant amount.
All of the above now brings me back to Battlefield 1. DICE has announced the premium pass will include four expansions that consist of 16 multiplayer maps, new vehicles, new weapons, and some other small features. The premium pass offering is very similar to what DICE offered with Battlefield 4. The difference is Battlefield 4 was released in 2013, at a time when multiplayer expansion passes were almost standard. However, given the state of the industry and other large development companies leading the way with free DLC and focusing on the player base first, will players still find this acceptable? Keep in mind, Battlefield has systems already in place that are somewhat similar to the other games we previously discussed. Battlefield 4, even beyond the premium pass, offered additional purchasing options for “Battlepacks”, Battlefield’s version of card packs that include weapon and camo skins, dog tags, and weapon unlocks. Additionally, Battlefield offers player progression boosts for people who want instant gratification along with the ability to host your own servers for the game shortly after launch – all of which generate additional revenue for DICE and EA.
Personally, I’m of the opinion that the multiplayer expansion passes and paid DLC map packs need to go away permanently. The modern progression systems in these games allow many options for companies to make additional revenue without the need for paid map packs. Character or profile customization, disposable items (that don’t equate to pay to win), progression shortcuts, etc…are all already built into most of the multiplayer shooters we play today. Dividing the player base shortly after launch with map packs not only complicates server and matchmaking management for developers, but more importantly it creates issues for the player base. It can detract from the enjoyment of new content, even for those that have purchased it. Having a unified player base behooves everyone involved and as we’ve seen with some major releases lately, it translates quite well to player longevity and satisfaction. It goes without saying the more people who enjoy playing your game, and continue to do so for an extended period of time, the more revenue will be generated as well.
While I’ve used Battlefield 1 as an example here, Activision will offer a season pass with Call of Duty Infinite Warfare as well. The two franchises are the largest cross-platform shooters on the market and so it doesn’t surprise me they are continuing to offer season passes this year. As they are direct competitors, I wish one of them would have stepped up and made a statement by offering multiplayer DLC for free. In my opinion, that would have been a large marketing point and brought the discussion to the forefront. Let’s hope other developers continue to make positive examples across the industry going forward until it becomes the standard rather than an exception.