Season Passes: Here’s When They’re OK

With ever-continued talk of season passes and whether or not they’re good or bad (they’ve been around for almost ten years, can you believe it?), what isn’t discussed quite as often is what specifically makes a season pass acceptable, good, or great. Nintendo revealed this morning that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will sport a season pass at launch, so now seems as good a time as any to recap, or even just discuss, what it is exactly that people find so controversial about these upfront transactions.


I’ll start by quickly assessing Nintendo’s Zelda offering. Firstly, they’re calling it an “expansion pass” as opposed to a season pass, which I’ll be the first to admit warms me up to the idea a bit more off the bat. I expect this is due to the conscious or subconscious association with traditional “expansion packs” for PC games, generally known to offer substantial content and a good value, as opposed to what we generally know as “DLC,” which has a far more spotty track record. Of course, it could also just be that there are more people on the internet these days adept in calling out publisher BS.


As has been noted by many before myself, the primary dilemma with season passes is that you’re paying for something that you aren’t certain will deliver value. There’s an irony here, in that gamers love to make a very similar gamble when pre-ordering $60 games year-in and year-out. So shouldn’t passes be pretty much the same? Well, not exactly. A developer with a great reputation will generally deliver a great game, and if they don’t they’ll face backlash from reviewers, customers, and maybe their  publisher. The ebb and flow of these relationships has been honed now for many, many years.


Zelda's offering holds quite a bit of potential, but the majority of the value hinges on the quality of story DLC.


Downloadable content is less ancient an entity, and introduces a whole host of other variables; is the publisher determining the price structure, or the developer? How much budget will be allocated? Is that enough to meet expectations? And, in the case of season passes, will the entirety of the DLC content be of high quality, or will only some of it be? Of course, in many cases individual DLC purchases are available as well, but then you’re subjecting yourself to what often feels like an artificial price hike buying one-by-one. Or at the very least, a value reduction. Nobody wants to walk away from that “everything discount” that has become so common.


With Breath of the Wild, I do feel there’s an opportunity for giving the season pass (pardon me, expansion pass) a boost to its reputation. While the opportunity for every bit of DLC to be of the highest, purest order has already passed (hard mode and the fun but traditionally throwaway Cave of Trials are among the content locked behind payment), the largest and presumably most worthwhile piece is the story DLC slated for Holiday 2017. Will this story expansion take place after the main plot? Or will it be completely isolated? Given remarks from Eiji Aonuma about the non-linearity of the game’s progression and narrative delivery, this could very well be a one-off sans particular designation in Breath of the Wild’s trajectory of time and plot-important space. With that said, I am of course merely speculating.


Thankfully the entire pass is just $20, so much like with Mario Kart 8 it would be difficult to feel entirely unfulfilled post-purchase. To me, a good season pass features at least one extraordinary piece of content, several worthwhile ones, and if there are cheap or purely “fun” bonuses tacked on from there I’m OK with it. Of course, the closer the price of the pass inches toward that of the $60 game itself, the higher my expectations rise.


Batgirl: A Matter of Family was short, but awesome. The rest of the season pass material? Not so much.


Off the top of my head, season passes I’ve felt were quite good are titles like DriveClub and its continuously worthwhile updates, or BioShock Infinite with its superb Burial at Sea, the rest of its offering meeting the “good enough” threshold. Meanwhile, titles like Batman: Arkham Knight offered a single intriguing, fun, but short story romp in the form of Batgirl: A Matter of Family, while the rest of the content fell flat and was, in some instances, embarrassingly cheap and thrown-together. Fallout 4’s pass proved to be a bit more controversial, with some players enjoying and others detesting, though it became difficult to retain the former opinion once the price went up to $50.


Clearly the season pass is a difficult beast to master, especially when you’ve got developer, publisher, and player interests so commonly at odds. Nintendo has an advantage here as a unified publishing and development entity, and $20 is, despite adding to overall cost for those interested, a respectably modest starting point.


What do you think will become of Breath of the Wild’s expansion pass and DLC? Will it deliver? And which season passes have you most enjoyed or most hated of late? Let us know.