With UFC Undisputed 2010 two weeks ago, and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 this week, the era of pay-to-play multiplayer has come to sports video games. Nothing we've seen so far suggests it'll be a brief experiment.
It absolutely remains a 100 per cent free feature for those who buy a new retail version of a game. But used games and rentals - two areas considered key to value conscious sports enthusiasts - will have to shell out $US5 to $US10 to go online. That's thanks to one-use codes enabling access. They're printed on the back of the game's instruction manual. But you don't get a manual with a rental. And for a used game, everyone must assume the code's no longer good.
This is expected to diminish the trade-in and resale value of sports games, once consumers know they'll have to pay another premium back to the publisher, through Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network, if they want to face a friend online. Two weeks after UFC Undisputed 2010's release, the game is still new to the mind of the consumer. But it's also around the time when heavy buyers start flipping games, trading them back in and putting the proceeds to something more compelling.
"Usually we see them start coming back in four, five days later," said Keegan Gormley, owner of the independent store Big City Gamin' near me in Eugene, Ore. Sports games, perhaps more than any other variety, are used as a kind of currency. Other games, obviously good and well regarded ones, may retain value longer, but in the current year, especially when the sport is in season, a traded-in sports game can reliably knock half off the price of your next new purchase.
So far, that still seems to be the case.
Visiting a GameStop in Eugene, I learned an Xbox 360 copy of UFC Undisputed 2010 got $US17.50 in cash and $US22 in store credit. Current promotions and the bonus given to Edge card members there took the store credit all the way to $US35. The cash value is nowhere near what you usually get selling a sports game for cash through Half.com or Glyde - where the same title is listed north of $US40 - but if you're using the proceeds for another game, it's not so bad.
"GameStop has been dropping the starting trade-in value, before Edge bonus and other promotions, for most new releases from $US30 to $US25, but of course there are exceptions," Cheapy D, the owner of the widely used gaming values forum Cheap Ass Gamer. "As of right now, GameStop hasn't changed the trade-in value drastically on UFC 2010, but their used price for UFC 2010 is $US44.99, which is $US5 cheaper than other new releases. So GameStop has taken the online pass factor into account."
My local GameStop was indeed listing used games for $US44.99. But the clerk there, like Gormley, said he hadn't seen much flip traffic yet. They only had one used title in their inventory when I visited. Similarly, a retailer on my side of the Willamette River, Video Games Headquarters, said they'd only seen one trade-in in the past two weeks, after selling six copies since.
It's possible the game's one-use code has diminished resale expectations; it's more likely that it's an enjoyable game (Metacritic reviews it well) and buyers, who tend to be passionate about the sports on their consoles, haven't finished having fun with it yet. Further, one analyst recently predicted slower sales for UFC Undisputed 2010, especially as compared to the game's breakout debut last year. That necessarily means fewer copies to turn.
It's also possible that online access simply doesn't matter for many who buy this type of game. "Is that something people really jump on and play online?" said Gormley, a bit nonplussed. One-use codes present a headache for him, but he's heard more complaints from people picking up used copies of Mass Effect 2 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 without them.
Regardless, the first few titles with online codes may not provide as much of a look at the market reaction as the winter catalogue, when EA Sports' two big football titles release. NCAA Football 11 hits in July, Madden NFL 11 in August.
"Not only is there the potential for customers to buy less of these used titles, but depending on how proactive GameStop is about notifying customers about online passes, there could also be increased product returns through their seven-day return policy once shoppers discover they can't play online," Cheapy D notes. "The releases of big sellers like NCAA Football 11 and Madden NFL 11 should be excellent test cases to see how the Online Pass really affects the secondary market."
GameStop clerks also have routinely solicited or noted I could trade in my NCAA 11 toward the pre-order of Madden 11. How much they offer at the outset could indicate the long-term effect Online Pass really has on used games.
"It's possible that we see the starting trade-in value of these games dip below $US25 if GameStop thinks the Online Pass will really affect their ability to move these used titles," Cheapy D said.
Online Pass and one-use codes are easy to hate, sure. But THQ and Electronic Arts are public companies carrying obligations to investors, not least is growing business in new markets, and used sales is one. I'll readily admit I pick up few used sports titles, even before working for Kotaku, so it's fair to criticise my reaction as just borrowing trouble.
But the Online Pass, at least, has also been couched as a fair means of getting gamers to pay for a service that is increasingly used and isn't free to maintain on their end by any stretch. I'm not sure how that squares with EA Sports' revelation that 350,000 gamers try Madden's online mode once and then never return to it. It's also fair to ask that question.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games.