Battle passes are making me play games less, not more

Or rather, they're causing me to play one game a lot more to the detriment of all others. I don't think I'm alone, nor do I think it's healthy to the industry.

Credit: IDG / Hayden Dingman

Once upon a time we had loot boxes and everyone hated them, myself included. Remembered mostly as a pernicious ploy to merge gambling and gaming, it’s important to remember that they also worked—for a while, at least. That was why they were so frustrating. Chasing skins in Overwatch, or engrams in Destiny 2, it was junk food I (and many others) couldn’t stop eating. Then loot boxes ran afoul of regulation, or even the threat of regulation, and boom: no more loot boxes.

Having tabooed one form of monetization though, developers quickly moved to another. Modeled after Fortnite—hell, borrowing the name from Fortnite in many cases—we got Battle Passes. A new strategy for a new era, Battle Passes are built for games-as-a-service. They’re supposed to keep people coming back for months or even years to see what’s new.

But I think I’m actually playing games less as a result, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Penrose steps

First, let me say: There is clearly an audience for which the Battle Pass works. Hell, growing up I would’ve been excited by the idea of a Battle Pass. I played Warcraft III off and on for like three years, returning to it every time the Christmas and birthday presents ran dry. After that, it was Halo 2. Those were my forever games, the ones that felt infinitely replayable.

Halo: Reach (PC) IDG / Hayden Dingman

Some people still play games that way, and some people love Battle Passes. It’s Sisyphus gamified, a “Seasonal” progress marker that resets every three or four months. You put in time, you rank up as high as you can, and then juuuust when you’re running out of unlocks the rock rolls back down to zero. Then you look up, and there’s a shiny new hill to climb.

Usually divvied up into 100 levels with 100 piecemeal rewards, Battle Passes are a monumental undertaking to complete. I’d estimate 100 to 200 hours for most, depending on your skill. If you want people to play your game, Battle Passes are (at least in theory) a great hook. They give players a reason to come back, to grind out levels, to play more.

But for me, they’ve become a reason to stop playing entirely.

I’m admittedly spoiled for choice. I could be playing Halo: Reach right now, or Apex Legends, or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Any of a dozen multiplayer games released these past few years.

That’s been the case for a long time though. I’ve been doing this job for the better part of a decade, and before that would usually borrow more games than I could possibly play. And in the past I did jump from game to game, playing all of them. Not equally maybe, but I used to dip back in every few months, struck by the urge to play Halo again, or Call of Duty. There I’d find my progress, frozen in time.

In the Battle Pass era, I find myself thinking, “why bother?” more often than not. Battle Passes are designed to keep people pushing one rock up the hill, not six rocks up six hills, and there are few concessions made for the occasional tourist. With the best rewards reserved for the upper tiers of the Battle Pass, getting partway through multiple is essentially worthless. I’ve stopped hopping game to game as a result—which is what publishers want, in theory. Problem is, they only want that if I’m playing their game, and statistically I’m not.

Bungie is the winner, at least so far as my personal lottery is concerned. I’ve played Destiny 2 for over two years now. It’s taken that “forever game” spot.

Even that is fraught with danger, though. This week, I took some time to play Bloodborne, then to give Sekiro another try. And now...I don’t know if I’ll be going back to Destiny 2. After one week, the spell is broken.

Sure I could catch up, could grind twice as hard next week to make up the ground I’ve lost. Maybe I just won’t, though. Maybe I give up the dream of hitting Level 100—and if I’m going to give that up, then why bother hitting 50 or 60, or even 70?

There’s no real point to it. Worse, it feels like work. That’s perhaps my biggest problem with Battle Passes. By giving me an end goal to hit, I no longer feel like I’m playing any of these games for fun. Thus why I’ve stopped dipping in and out of them, why I’ve stopped sampling from a bunch of different multiplayer games. It’s become “I hope I hit my goals this quarter,” and calculating out how much I still have to play to reach them.

I’m annoyed this is the case, because objectively nothing’s changed. One of the big caveats here is that I prefer Battle Passes to loot boxes. I really, really do. They feel like proper reward paths, rather than slot machines. If you see someone sporting the seasonal armor skins in Destiny 2 or Fortnite or what have you, you know that person played a lot to get it.

And hey, they’re just cosmetics. Who cares?

It turns out that I care though. It’s codified the grind, and amplified my perpetual fear of missing out. As a result, I feel like I’ve become cynical about the games underpinning these Battle Passes, decided that the only winning move is not to play—especially as these games enter their second, third, even fourth cycles of rewards.

Like I said, I can’t imagine I’m alone. Sure, there are people and developers for whom this system works. Fortnite makes money.

I feel like so many must fall off the treadmill and then decide never to get back on though—at least until there’s an expansion, or a sequel, or some other noteworthy event. Not just a change of Season, but a brand new onboarding point. The problem is, publishers are actively downplaying those nowadays as well. Will there be a Destiny 3, a clean break from Destiny 2 that resets all the content to zero? Doubtful in the near term, at least not if Bungie’s smart about it. So where does that leave those who were left behind?

Perhaps it’s not the Battle Pass, but the entire games-as-a-service model. The barrier to entry becomes so high, it keeps people from giving it a try. Path of Exile is a fantastic action-RPG, but it takes hundreds of hours to get into. Final Fantasy XIV is by all accounts an incredible MMO, but you need to play through the entire base game before it gets better. And Ghost Recon Breakpoint flopped in part because Ghost Recon Wildlands already existed. These problems are not limited to traditional PvP multiplayer and to Battle Passes. They’ve come to represent an entire era of games.

Battle Passes are a clear inflection point in my own behavior though. Before, I sampled everything at the buffet. Now I order a meal—and even that, I usually abandon halfway through.

Per usual, it feels like publishers are focused on a certain subset of hardcore fans to the exclusion of all others. And yes, it’s good to cater to those people. They’re the ones who stick by you through thick and thin, and I’ve been that person as recently as 2018, continuing to play Destiny 2 through the lean times around the Warmind expansion.

It’s a lot harder to be an occasional fan of any game these days though, to be someone who plays Destiny with one set of friends and Call of Duty with another, and who takes a break to play Disco Elysium or Outer Wilds for a few weeks. I may be playing one game more than I would otherwise, but I’m playing everything else a lot less—and it’s hard to believe that’s good for the industry.

Bottom line

What’s the solution? Is there a solution? Do we even need a solution? I don’t know. The microtransaction and map pack era was fraught with problems, as was the loot box era. Battle Passes are better in myriad ways, providing steady income to studios and supporting a stream of new (free) content for players. I don’t miss the days of buying new maps and then never getting to play them because the base was so fragmented.

I do wonder if Battle Passes are doing long-term damage, though. Loot boxes seemed new and novel when they first hit Overwatch, and two years later were a firestorm. I don’t think Battle Passes will fall from grace quite so fast, but as more and more games adopt them I feel like everyone will hit a breaking point. Perhaps some of you already have.

I guess the question then is, what comes next?

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Hayden Dingman

PC World (US online)
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