In online gaming, more and more young people are no longer simply buying games, but also ‘battle passes’ for free-to-play games. It’s therefore important for parents to understand them and what lies behind the gaming industry’s new business model. The seven key questions.
1. What is a battle pass?
Multiplayer games such as Fortnite, Call of Duty Warzone and Apex Legends are all now free to play, yet they still make hundreds of millions in revenue. Eighty per cent of global eGaming revenue actually comes from in-game purchases, meaning the game itself is free to play, but if you want a cool outfit, more functionality or more powerful weapons, you can buy them. Using real money.
Fortnite is the game that helped this new business model take off in a big way. A battle pass is a time-limited add-on, usually paid-for, which enables gamers to continue playing with additional weapons, weapon customisations (known as skins), dances, outfits, characters, magic spells, and much more – or which simply saves playing time. What was really only practical for so-called Battle Royale (last-fighter-standing) games until not so long ago is now widely used in free mobile games.
A battle pass typically lasts for a few months, during which time certain steps (levels, or so-called tiers) or challenges in the game have to be completed. Successful players receive points, stars, in-game tokens, skins, and other rewards. It is not uncommon for a battle pass to involve additional daily or weekly challenges which also progress play through rewards. On the eGaming scene, unlockable features that provide an unfair advantage in the game itself – so-called pay-to-win features – are frowned upon.
2. How much does a battle pass cost?
This differs from game to game. What most of them do have in common, however, is that the battle pass is purchased not with real money but with in-game currency. In the case of Fortnite, the currency is V-Bucks. Gamers can buy them with real money (using a credit card) from the game’s developer. No real money changes hands in the game itself.
This is a psychological trick, as people find it easier to part with game currency than with real money. The current battle pass in Fortnite (Chapter 3, Season 2) costs 950 V-Bucks, or around CHF 10. This gives players a wealth of extra features for around two months. Those who spend a lot of time gaming can earn enough V-Bucks in a season to get the next battle pass more or less for free.
3. Is a battle pass really necessary?
No, lots of games are essentially free to play. But without a paid-for battle pass, players cannot access certain additional content or they have to wait a long time for it to be unlocked. Because there are so many games providers, the whole system is extremely complex and elaborate.
4. Why is the battle pass a business model?
It costs several million Swiss francs to make a good game. Hundreds of developers and designers work on a single title, often for many years. Under the traditional business model, these games were sold for a fixed price, usually in the region of CHF 60 to CHF 120. With the battle-pass system, games companies can now earn regular income from one game over several years with comparably less effort.
5. What’s the catch?
There is a highly sophisticated psychology at play in the marketing of battle passes. A combination of carrot (new and interesting content) and stick (long-drawn-out playing time without a battle pass) serves as the necessary incentive. And therein lies the real problem, including for parents. In Fortnite, a battle pass enables players to progress by 100 steps. Each step offers a specific reward (weapons, outfits, dances, etc.) that is instantly recognisable to other players. Each step takes around an hour of gameplay to complete. In addition, there are daily challenges, which also entail rewards.
As a result, players are bound to the game by a sophisticated web of incentives. The more regularly and longer they play, the more they are rewarded. This can lead to stress. The battle pass is only valid for a certain period of time. This means players must complete around 100 hours within a specific timeframe. But this time pressure can be alleviated to a certain extent simply by ‘buying’ a few levels with a more expensive battle pass. Thus, almost all games providers offer the option to reduce ‘grinding’ (the performance of mostly tedious and repetitive tasks for rewards).
6. Why are skins more important than the game itself?
In gaming, new content such as outfits, weapons, weapon customisations, dances, emotes, etc. confer the same status on the player as branded clothing does in the real world. They mark the wearer out as something special. So a level-100 player is instantly recognisable to their fellow players. They enjoy more prestige than so-called default players, who play with the original skins. ‘Default player’ is therefore the most popular insult – similar to noob, or beginner.
Fortnite is a community game. Young people meet in the game, chat, gossip and play. New skins, a new dance or a valuable weapon earn a player recognition from the group. This is important in sales psychology. Those who can’t – because they don’t have enough money or time – will likely be ridiculed and might feel like they don’t belong. Sometimes, even the game itself is perceived as boring and difficult – as in the case of grinding, which has to be completed as quickly and efficiently as possible.
7. Should parents provide money to buy battle passes?
That’s the big question. The peer pressure that young people are subjected to is not to be underestimated. Refusal to participate can sometimes mean social isolation. If the pressure to play regularly is too much, it can have adverse physical and mental effects.
The most important thing for parents is to know what their children are doing and to get involved themselves. That means showing an interest in gaming success. When your child comes to you with their eyes all lit up, full of excitement about the new skin they just earned thanks to some epic gameplay, take their excitement seriously.
At the same time, keep an eye on the game version and playing time. The key thing to ensure is that your credit card cannot be used without parental permission.
Most games manufacturers and app providers have the facility on their platforms to cap playing time and make credit cards password-protected. Such facilities also exist on PCs and consoles. Besides these technical tools, it also helps to talk to young people about the game developers’ motivations and the different psychological tricks they use.
And here’s one more tip to finish off with: your children mostly play with friends from school, and a battle pass can really eat into their pocket money. So why not suggest that they adopt a
‘Our squad is V-Bucks-free, we don’t allow ourselves to be taken in by flashy banner ads and we promise not to use real money instead of V-Bucks. We may only be ‘default players’, but every skill we have has been earned through our own effort. Being able to say that is much cooler than any dance.’