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I finally get the love-hate relationship with season passes

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Fortnite and For Honor aren’t really my jam. But Formula 1 is.

tilt-frame shot of a Formula 1 car racing into the foreground at Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir
F1 2020’s new “My Team” mode makes collecting liveries and racing suits more enticing than ever.
Image: Codemasters via Polygon

Lord help me, I’ve succumbed to the season pass. As a guy who spends his free time lurking in single-player modes of sports titles, the rolling collections of emotes, skins, and virtual bric-a-brac in Fortnite or Rainbow Six Siege nonplussed me. Only now, after my favorite game, F1 2020, is in the second season of its first “Podium Pass” campaign, do I understand.

Now I understand how a season or a battle pass is both the greatest thing and the worst thing, and in either case I find it an indefensible guilty pleasure, like many fans do with their favorite game’s pass model. I’m cringing as I type out my thoughts here, but every morning for the past week, when F1 2020’s Series Two content launched, the first thing I’ve done is check the daily items offered. They recycle every morning at 6 a.m. ET. I tell myself to think of this ritualized behavior like Christmas morning, because otherwise it feels like waiting for a liquor store to open.

What’s in store? New liveries. Motorsports geeks are nuts about liveries. New helmets or firesuits to match. I must have them. Now I understand why For Honor’s fans were upset when, three years ago, the game launched with so many unlockable customizations; completionists could never collect them all, or would go broke if they tried.

For Honor’s makers at Ubisoft Montreal never intended for everyone to have everything — they thought they were offering a pick-and-choose marketplace akin to World of Warcraft, where at least people could get exactly the item they wanted. But battle passes were mostly a new thing in 2017, even if they’ve been around since the first Dota 2Compendium” sold to fund The International’s prize pool. Many console games at that point were distributing optional cosmetics with loot boxes, which were due for an industry-wide reckoning at year’s end.

I thought Ubisoft Montreal’s position on this was so obvious at the time, and the angry reaction to a then-new game was so overblown, that the controversy wasn’t worth writing about. I now realize that dismissive reaction is because For Honor wasn’t my jam. And motorsports is.

This year, Codemasters introduced a new mode, called My Team, in which players get to create and manage their own two-driver racing team in the game’s career layer. Part of the fun of this is nailing every single detail available for you to change. So it’s no surprise that, in a game with swappable liveries, helmets, firesuits, and team emblems, a battle pass model works for F1 2020 like it can’t in other sports games.

animated gif cycling through multiple custom livery options for F1 2020
Who needs more liveries when you already have this many? Well, I do, for starters ...
Image: Codemasters via Polygon

Sure, in F1 2020 you start with free, baseline versions of your driver’s celebration emote, their gloves, and the car’s paint job (in fact, one livery is even called “Baseline”). But the good stuff is found in the 30 tiers of the Podium Pass. And, again, in Codemasters’ defense, you can easily churn through those 30 tiers for free, especially if you race 100%-length events (you always get XP for completed laps). More likely, you’ll plow through the XP by completing certain trials (as simple as completing three races, any difficulty, with a certain driver). And that’s fine, too; I like being encouraged to try all of the game I bought.

Yeah, I bought this (I was furloughed when F1 2020 launched). Moreover, I bought the $69.99 special edition that gave me enough “PitCoin” (a virtual currency) to unlock the whole shooting match for Podium Pass Series One. Hell yes, I did that on day one, and I regretted it — because it completely mooted most of the reason to beat all of the different challenges for this Series, which is intended to be a new mode of play.

I regretted it also because, like some kind of sunk cost fallacy measured in virtual currency, I’m now tuned up to make a full run of this and get everything — even though I’m 100% committed to my team’s livery (Ember Fade), badge (Centaur), colors (Chrysler National School Bus yellow), and helmet (a representation of the Maltese flag), with the headcanon justifying this shit already written.

You have to buy into the Podium Pass to start unlocking loot for that series, and that’s 9,000 PitCoin — and PitCoin is only acquired with real money. But if you complete (or buy) all 30 tiers of the current series, you get 10,000 PitCoin back.

That means, theoretically, you only have to buy into the Podium Pass once (at a real-world price of about $8), if you set aside the cash it pays you back, and use that to ante up for the next series of unlocks. I doubt most, or any F1 2020 players, will actually do this. Instead, it’s more like, get in once, spend everything you get back in the daily items store, and you’re on the treadmill.

Closeup of a selection screen showing a racer’s custom helmet, racing suit, and gloves, with fictitious sponsors and team badge affixed.
My driver’s firesuit, gloves, badge emblem, and livery were all unlockables from Podium Pass Series One.
Image: Codemasters via Polygon

It’s hard enough parenting my inner child’s instant gratification; if there was an Owen Jr. with access to my credit card, or at least whining to use it, I’d probably want a Congressional investigation, too. Now I understand what all the fuss is about. And I apologize if anything I wrote seemed to belittle the unease people feel — loving all the new stuff that comes each day, but hating some part of what you have to do to get it.

Do I want the Podium Pass gone from my favorite game? God, no. If anything, I want more of this good, good crack. The most recent patch updated the color sliders with number values, so obsessive aesthetes like me can perfectly match our suits to our liveries (before this, no lie, I was using a spreadsheet and a ruler held against my TV screen). Give me more ways to use customizations, and I will want more customizations. I am sure this behavior is listed on a whiteboard somewhere.

But I do wonder, for myself, what the off-ramp is here, and I think that’s what troubles so many people about season/battle/podium passes in the games they love. Until F1 2020, I think I had been focusing on the wrong question about these microtransactions, and others.

It’s not what do people get out of these things? It should have been how do they get out of them?

Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.