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Battle Pass or Battle Farce? Another Opinion

Roberts has been a games enthusiast since 1997, a reviewer since 2009 and a cynic since 2014. His thinks Battle Royale is a beef burger.

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Call of Duty: Warzone is my introduction to the Battle Royale genre, the latest fad to hit PC, consoles and somehow the non-Augmented Reality (AR) mobile market. A fad it may be, but it's still a very addictive one. Warzone has had me itching for just one more usually failed match, as its target audience is exclusively Call of Duty fans who play exclusively Call of Duty, which I've not been since the Xbox 360's CoD 2. Despite my failings I've enjoyed it enough to throw some money at Activision—none of which they'll pay tax on—via their recently introduced Battle Pass system.

Activision have gone out of their way to monetise cosmetic tat in their multimillion first-person shooter franchise, such as filing patents to turn players into killer advertisements (which in fairness is what cosmetics in multiplayer games are to begin with), encouraging the watching of loot box openings in Call of Duty: WW2, and handling season passes poorly with Black Ops 4. Compared to previous and sadly expected behaviour from Activision, Warzone is at best inoffensive. Right?

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The idea of the battle pass is simple: you hand over cash and get to begin accessing rewards for playing the game. Similar to a season pass where you get all the content over time for a reduced price, except now you have to play the game to unlock the content you've paid for, and what you don't get before the pass expires simply vanishes into the ether.

Warzone's battle pass features 100 tiers, each becoming increasingly longer to reach. You'll unlock tiers by getting more experience points from matches, meaning good play is rewarded far more than poor play. At least in theory, as opening caches of loot in the game's world, completing even non-lethal missions and just staying alive by hiding for the entire game earns a lot of experience points. Already levels are a mostly poor measure of one's ability to play a game well, so the battle pass rewarding the player for simply remaining in a match (even then you can keep rewards on being disconnected or leaving by choice) doesn't help people improve their play. It just encourages them to stay alive longer.

The tiers of content are full of the overindulgent carry-overs from action roleplaying games (ARPG) where loot quality and rarity (both terms are interchangeable) are colour coded. Some items are purple denoting a "rare" quality, some are green meaning "uncommon" and some are orange denoting they are somehow "legendary", in order to give you a familiar dopamine hit if you've played this kind of game before. The truth of the matter is rarity doesn't matter; most—if not all—of the items in the Battle Pass will disappear upon the pass expiring, and you simply have to hope they reappear in a bundle or in another battle pass.

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While I can "praise" battle passes solely for the virtue of not being loot boxes, as their rewards are the same and progression is linear, you are still paying for the rewards you would normally receive in-game about a decade ago. Though in defence of Warzone I must point out levelling up has its own rewards such as loadout customisation, and the playable Operators have their own missions to be completed for additional skins. Wherein Halo 3 alternate skins could show skill via completing the campaign on Legendary difficulty, or having maintained a solid track record in ranked multiplayer, Warzone—and indeed a lot of modern multiplayer games—rewards you for participating. Given how many tiers there are, it requires a lot of participation. Almost addictingly so.

Not that I can necessarily be too harsh on them, as arcade and pinball machines were mechanically identical. The difference, as loot boxes are to trading cards, in their presentation. Pinball machines aren't as flashy or have as clean audio or suspense generation as Warzone revealing your progress on the battle pass, and at least you can skip all the fireworks unlike the intentionally slow buildup of hype that comes with loot boxes.

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To Battle, and Victory!

As much as I may dislike the business of battle passes which are rarely seen in games that need them (such as, err, games not published by Activision, Epic and Electronic Arts), they're not as terrible as I had imagined them to be. Anything they do has already been done a lot of times before, and I suppose that's the real danger: the apathy toward them, the further normalising monetisation of rewards you used to get in-game. Alas, that apathy has been present for a long time in regards to streaming and subscription services, platform-exclusive games, pre-ordering, used games and so forth.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, it isn't entirely better than loot boxes. You can see what you want which is a plus, but you don't choose the order in which you get it. However in the case of Warzone (I'm not sure if this applies to Fortnite: Battle Royale or Apex Legends) you can buy the specific items from the cash shop with the premium currency packages that always have leftover change. Funny how that works in all games with premium currencies.

Battle Passes use the tactic of fear-of-missing-out (FOMO), frequently used in retail and telemarketing. Rather than boast the value of an item, people are encouraged to instead panic about not getting an item. The first example of this I saw in Activision's history was when I reported this on my channel: developer Blizzard Entertainment's £60 mount with a "free" 180 days worth of subscription fee, depending on how you view it.

If the battle pass is the future I won't be so gleeful as to say I welcome it unquestioningly, but it is a better alternative to other means of monetisation. Of course, just selling cosmetic tat in the first place is the least painful and aggressive if it's totally unavoidable, which in Activision's case it absolutely is.

© 2020 John Roberts