GamesIndustry.biz had a roundtable this past week over what they call “The DLC ‘Problem,’” where their staff members give their thoughts on something that’s been a hot topic around these parts for some time. The opinions varied on the viability of relying on DLC, especially in the AAA market, the morality of day one DLC, and the other ripple effects of everything above. I figured I could write a long comment explaining my thoughts about that at GI.biz, have it be read by a few people, and have one guy in particular turn it into a way to verbally fellate Zynga.
That’s when I remembered that I have a web site that I pay bills on, an editor who I pay to make sure I’m not saying something stupid, and I can advertise around it to make my money back! Holy crap, one wonders why I even leave social media comments in the first place. Time is money! Hence, you get my thoughts here in one place.
What’s important to remember is that, by its own metric, downloadable content is not a bad thing and neither is it a truly new idea. When I think of DLC, I think of what used to be known as expansion packs. In the ’90s, companies would actually sell or sometimes give away discs, either floppy or compact, that could be used with the base game to add on levels. These expansions—which could be mail ordered or bought in brick-and-mortar retail outlets like Babbages (remember that?)—often added multiple stages or worlds to a game at a palatable cost. In short, they were usually worth the money. Technology, both in gaming and in the speeds, bandwidth, and availability of broadband Internet, made the ability to download games more palatable over the years, to the point where entire services like Steam rely solely on the transfer of often large games and their downloadable expansions. On the surface, this should be the glorious future that Hanna-Barbera once sold to me on The Jetsons.
Unfortunately, as publishers grew bigger—often with the help of this business model—they decided that enough wasn’t enough. DLC’s success, along with a riskier AAA and virtually destroyed AA sector, meant that they had to make more profit and find it elsewhere. The decision was easy: focus more on DLC. To do that, it wasn’t enough to just say, “Here’s an awesome game; now have some more awesome.” Why do that and make maybe $6 off DLC (the total cost of Mass Effect 1‘s DLC) when you can take out things that are important in your main game and stuff them in more expensive DLC, all while charging the same $60 for the main game? (For reference, a crucial squad member from Mass Effect 3 is included in $10 DLC.) Why throw hundreds of people into your fighting game when you can store the same data on the disc and partition off those characters as DLC for $20 a pop with another $13 for alternative costumes (Street Fighter X Tekken)? And what’s wrong with having two cast members sitting in your inactive party who’s unremovable yet unusable until they’re purchased for $1.99 each, while the publisher blatantly admits that it’s a psychological trick designed to pressure gamers into buying the game (Hyperdimension Neptunia)?1
These modern DLC practices are largely practiced by Electronic Arts and Capcom, though no publisher outside of maybe Take Two is exempt. More to the point, they’re showing what David Radd calls a “contemptuous” attitude towards the customer. On the one hand, the customer has shown through their on-demand separation of their money from their wallet that they ultimately deserve to be treated like walking debit cards to be drawn from at will. Rachel Weber of GI.biz is right to point out that the end option is not to buy the DLC, but we’re showing publishers that holding things back and selling it to us at a later date works. On the other hand, what do you do when everyone’s doing it? The only option left is to stop buying what would otherwise be good video games. While that might be the libertarian answer, leaving the games business altogether would be like using a nuke on a problem that requires more of a tactical strike to solve.
What’s truly striking is that this whole conversation is going on while people talk about where console gaming is going, with AAA gaming being guilty by association. Some are saying that the consoles aren’t going away while an increasing number of people are stating that consoles will be gone in five to ten years.2 Part of the reason this is happening is because gamers are tired of paying more money for fewer games, and then having to pay a tariff on top of that either for the console or for a service that lets them get the most out of their games such as Xbox Live Gold, EA’s Season Pass, or Activision’s Call of Duty Elite. For publishers and developers to continue to apply business practices that leave their customers bitter, jaded, and used is the epitome of counter-productivity. It’s a focus on short-term black numbers on quarterly reports at the expense of the future, but that is indeed what’s occurring. For goodness’s sake, I don’t even know where to buy these freaking games anymore as everyone has their own preorder incentives that are incompatible and unloadable from elsewhere.
On the flip side, even the current DLC model is preferable to the freemium model, which is usually sold the same way drugs are. “Sure, come on in! First shot’s free! What’s that? You want a new gun? Well, what’s three bucks, right?” A quick hit becomes another quick hit, and in some games, a constant stream of money is needed just to maintain whatever the current level of achievement is—not even to advance, just to keep from regressing to the mean. Then, when the game suffers attrition and is no longer viable for publishers to maintain, they close it down, and the previously spent money goes down the sinkhole, never to return. Compared to this, the current DLC-centric mndel is a beacon of benevolence. However, as someone who grew up in an era where we paid a set price for a game with no strings attached, this model is like choosing between a root canal or a full extraction: both suck, but at least the root canal leaves the tooth in.
The irony is that the one game that seems to be bucking the trend in regards to exploiting their customers is the one that bucked so many others. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a single player-only game without a tacked-on multiplayer mode (and the $10 online pass that comes with it), lots of things to do in the base game, no way to purchase cheats with real world money, and a definitive conclusion. Now, they’ve released one bit of DLC, Dawnguard, that follows the old expansion pack logic: wait until people have absorbed the original game, then give them a reason to go back for one price. “Thanks for playing Skyrim! Would you like more of it for $15?” “Yes, please!” Reviews of the expansion are mediocre by modern standards, but it doesn’t matter to me because I’ll be buying it. Indies also have it largely figured out; I’ve bought every bit of DLC for the Steam roguelike Dungeons of Dredmor, amazing enhancements for an already outstanding game that wouldn’t have been financially feasible had it been necessary to do them via physical media. Even as far as AAAs go, I’ll be buying the DLC for Mass Effect for our streams. All that said, I’ll be hard pressed to buy the DLC for Mass Effect 3, which shows that the problem’s getting worse over time.
I’ve been playing video games for almost thirty years now, literally since I was in diapers. I’ve been writing about them in some form for eleven years, professionally for six. So when I say that I barely touch AAA games at this point—even my sports game purchases are way down—it should resonate to AAA publishers. They’re burning their customers out, and DLC is one of the tools that they’re using to do it. The tool itself is ambivalent, but it’s the intentions of its craftsman that matter, and AAAs are basically showing that they don’t care about offending people so long as they keep getting paid. Eventually, that’s going to bite them in the ass, and when it does, it’s going to wound AAA publishing as a whole with it. The industry crashed once, and it would be naive and foolish to think it couldn’t happen again just because there are more zeroes next to the financial numbers.
1 – Josh Moore is working on a review of Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 for us as this article is being written.
2 – I don’t have enough thoughts on this to make a 1,000 word column, but I think the next console generation is going to be the last. Video gaming is happening more and more on ubiquitous devices that can do a lot more than just be entertainment consoles, and it’s not easy to just pigeonhole upcoming services onto existing technology, like Xbox tries to do by letting us use Twitter if we’re Gold. It’s only a matter of time, and the next generation will be the final straw.