When the Cerberus Network debuted a couple of years ago I was one of those people who smiled nodded and didn't think much about it. I was thinking, “Well, it's EA what do you expect. They will figure out that this pass stuff is just not worth the effort and move on.” Boy, was I wrong…
Every publisher out there now seems so interested in this online pass system that there even different versions of it based on what game you get. Some limit you to a number of hours online, number of levels, some games just drop a bunch of stuff behind the pay wall of the online pass like it was extra DLC. There seems like a theory within the publishing community that this will guarantee that people not sell back their games or somehow prevent piracy? Which if I'm getting the game for free, I'm probably not all that interested in the online anyway. But who knows, I might be wrong.
The real problem with all this is not the problem of significantly driving down the prices for games on the secondary market. Whether your selling on Ebay or at Gamestop; if you don't have your unused online pass your game is worth not just $10 less but probably more like half price.
The real problem is that most of the games that have online passes right now, are not big multiplayer games to begin with. If your not Call of Duty, Halo, or Gears of War; Your online is struggling simply to exist. And then you have the audacity to actually limit the number of people playing? This applies to everyone playing online. Whether you are level 1 without an online pass or level 25 who has either redeemed your pass or paid for one. You are significantly impacted by the online pass system. Why? Because people who play the single player of most of these games won't even try the online if they don't have the online pass or don't understand how this system works.
I think publishers were thinking about existing players when they came up with this system. But what are the existing players for a game like Warhammer 40K Space Marine? None… By the end of the first week that the game was out; it was incredibly hard to find a match. This is because the pool of people needs to be very large in order to provide a descent experience.
Matchmaking takes a big pool of people. At least in it's current form. When developers talk about TruSkill matchmaking; it all sounds wonderful. But TruSkill NEEDS a VERY LARGE group of people to work effectively. Call of Duty Black Ops even has matchmaking issues and they are the biggest multiplayer game out there. The idea that a new IP is going to be able to survive with an online pass is insane. A non-AAA franchise like FEAR or even a new to online franchise like Dead Space is not going to be helped by an online pass.
The stated reason for the Online Pass system is to prevent people from reselling their game. What REALLY prevents people from reselling their game is compelling multiplayer and single player content with consistent downloadable content that makes the game worth keeping. While an Online Pass is a cheap way to try and fix a very expensive problem. All the Pass System really does is discourage people who didn't buy your game new from even trying the online multiplayer which when games are struggling to keep online communities to begin with; ends up hurting everyone.
The alternative, of course, is to drop online multiplayer in ALL CASES where it doesn't provide a unique experience. Of course, a completely digital distributed system would completely prevent issues of reselling and online passes. But that is even more expensive and complicated issue than making a good game with good multiplayer. But this is probably the only future that makes sense for everyone in the end.