Battle Pass Capitalism
by Daniel Joseph
At the heart of so many games today we see an intimate relationship between achievements, progression, unlockables, and subscriptions. We know that loot boxes are one big part of this, with their roulette wheels of Rare Content. And now, since DOTA 2’s introduction of the concept in 2016, there’s the Battle Pass, functionally a subscription for a freemium game that lets you work your way to predetermined unlockables with a pile of achievements. If you play Epic’s Fortnite Battle Royale you likely pay for one yourself.
By comparison big budget, premium content games, built as elaborate wonders of digital intricacy and mundane storytelling, are not long for the world.
Yet if you watched the many showcases at E3, there was a lot of song and dance about exactly these kinds of games. The big reveals were all about new IPs and the continuations of established, story-heavy games. Some of them were Important Multiplayer Games like Anthem, but the most discussion in and around critical circles was obviously focused on properties like The Last of Us Part II, Cyberpunk 2077, or Death Stranding.
But compare the marketing bacchanalia of E3 with the top digital sales from May, 2018 and the picture is obviously different. Only two of the top 8 console games were narrative games, one was Sad Dad Murder Simulator 2018 and What if Racism: But Androids?. The rest are the usual suspects: Fantasy Westward Journey, Clash Royale, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, League of Legends, and the new rising star of games as a service: Fortnite Battle Royale.
These are business models that are just emerging, haphazardly from the muck of the last 10 years of a massively profitable game industry not so much in crisis but in the midst of immense change. If there is a crisis, it’s the crisis of the growing cultural irrelevance of heavily structured narrative games. It’s not that they will disappear entirely, instead they will be drowned in a sea of Battle Passes, Legendary Chests, and Premium Outfits.
One of the reasons I care so much about games, despite the fact that it’s functionally an entire medium dedicated to disappointing me, is that I think of it as a canary in the coal mine of capitalism’s ongoing appropriation of life and land from what little of it we have left. There’s a strong echo of what economic geographers like David Harvey have called “accumulation by dispossession” happening in and around games, but instead of land it’s through the dispossession of play and culture, rammed through a machine coded by clueless white men to better monetize our lives “for the love of the game”. Colonization and imperialism stole the land. Games are on the front line of stealing everything else.
Play is subsumed for the low price of 950 “V-bucks” ($9.99 USD).
We should work backward from this: how will the ascendancy of these business models begin to impact and change the other things we genuinely enjoy about games? Despite their many shortcomings, there’s an echo of utopia in these digital spaces, and when some critical designers do their work, it’s genuinely wonderful. Yet I know the pressure is mounting on those who are interested in supporting their careers. Certainly strategies like loot boxes and collectibles are options. Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds has decided to move towards the Battle Pass model. Lots of other, smaller developers will do this too. The flow of capital is changing games. We stand at the precipice of Battle Pass Capitalism. ◒
Daniel Joseph is a freelance writer and post doctoral fellow in the department of Arts, Culture and Media at the University of Toronto Scarborough. You can follow him on Twitter at @DanjoKaz00ie.