In a post-Fortnite world, in a world where loot boxes hit the headlines on mainstream publications, the battle pass is king. But it's not good for every game. In fact, for some video games, it's downright bad.
One game it looks bad for is Call of Duty Black Ops 4, which is currently struggling to keep players on-side because of its battle pass-esque microtransactions.
This week, Black Ops 4 received a Fall Firearms special order, and it quickly set off the Call of Duty community. This special order, which is time-limited and costs 2000 COD Points (around £15), includes 13 tiers of progression, with each tier unlocking a new virtual item.
There are calling cards and other throwaway cosmetics in there, but the real prizes are the two signature weapons - aka fancy weapon skins. These are the Divinity (a skin for the Strife pistol), and the Carbon Cobra (a skin for the Maddox assault rifle).
Thrown in with each signature weapon unlock are two items that must be unlocked via challenges: a reactive camo and a mastercraft. The mastercrafts are the cosmetic endgame for Call of Duty weapons - the flashiest skins the game has to offer. The Divinity's mastercraft is called Divine Justice and looks like this:
The Carbon Cobra's mastercraft is called Street and looks like this:
So, what's the problem? Quite a bit, it turns out.
While all these virtual items are cosmetic only and do not impact gameplay (beyond, theoretically, impressing other players), the fact they're tied to progression even after you've dropped your £15 has got players' backs up. Complete the first tier of progression on this Fall Firearms special order and you'll unlock the Divinity signature weapon and challenges for its reactive camo and its mastercraft. This isn't time-consuming at all. Once a day, you can progress one tier in Black Ops 4's much-maligned Black Market progression system by winning a standard game of multiplayer or a game of Blackout (battle royale).
But after that, you're faced with another 12 tiers of progression to unlock the Carbon Cobra, and then you have to complete challenges to unlock its reactive camo and mastercraft.
Now onto the price. 2000 COD Points (around £15) for the opportunity to unlock a couple of signature weapons is seen as too expensive by pretty much all those who've commented on the special order on the Black Ops 4 subreddit. It's double the price of Fortnite's Battle Pass, so you can see why it's standing out.
Then, you've got the sheer amount of grinding you'd have to do to unlock the second signature weapon. While developer Treyarch has sped up Black Market progression, it's still painfully slow to work through tiers. The fact you can pay 100 COD Points to skip a tier (around 90p) makes the whole thing feel grubby.
Adding insult to injury, both signature weapons were made available to players before. If you pre-ordered Black Ops 4, you'll have unlocked the Divinity back when the game came out in October. If you already have the skin, this special order is even worse value. Amusingly, people have hiked the price of a code for the Divinity on ebay now it's part of a £15 special order.
Even worse than that, the Maddox Carbon Cobra was apparently mistakenly given to players before it was removed via a hotfix. This went unexplained. Now, it's pretty obvious why it was pulled.
This level of monetisation is more aggressive than seen in previous Black Ops 4 games. One of the top posts on the Black Ops 4 subreddit is by a player who outlines how things have changed in this regard. It's not a good look.
And, of course, unlike the free-to-play Fortnite, Call of Duty Black Ops 4 is a full price game. Part of the reason the £8 Battle Pass is a good fit for Fortnite is because it's F2P. Black Ops 4, on the other hand, will set you back £47 on Amazon. Fortnite's Battle Pass is just a lot better for half the price. Not only do you get a lot of interesting challenges to work through, you earn a virtual currency with it. You can earn enough of this virtual currency working through the Battle Pass to buy the next one. No such system is in place for Call of Duty's special orders, which must be bought with COD Points - aka real world money.
The upshot of all this is Black Ops 4 is in a rough spot right now, with players directing much of their anger at Treyarch and Activision, the latter of which will be playing a key role in the pushing and pulling of Call of Duty's live service revenue levers. Activision, a billion dollar corporation that makes much of its money from digital purchases, is under pressure to post revenue growth each financial year, as all publicly traded companies are. Shareholders aren't too bothered by outcries on social media or blow-ups on Reddit. They're interested in the graphs going up. When publishers push too far, you end up with problems like the one Black Ops 4 is currently embroiled in. The video below, from popular Call of Duty YouTuber Prestige (1.2m subscribers) sums up the current sentiment - and it's not pretty.
There are some who counter the discontent by pointing out the situation with Black Ops 4 microtransactions is not as egregious as the one that afflicted EA after Star Wars Battlefront 2's pay-to-win issues. This is true. Black Ops 4 microtransactions, remember, are reserved for cosmetic items only. There's no way to pay for a gameplay advantage. Not yet, anyway.
And there's nothing wrong with the revenue puppet masters at Activision, perhaps mindful of avoiding an EA loot box debacle, taking inspiration from the super popular battle pass system. But, clearly, there's a lot wrong with how it's implementing it for Call of Duty. And with each misstep another outrage and another reason for players to quit the game. The developers at Treyarch, who spent years building one of the best Call of Duty games in years, will no doubt be left scratching their heads.