Ooh Shiny – Why DLC is treating gamers like idiots
I have a problem with Downloadable Content. I’ve got to get it out there, it’s one of my biggest bug bears. What once was a developer wanting to increase the life of it’s hard worked on product, has now become a pursuit of another revenue stream, a way to milk more cash from already strapped gamers. Titbits and additives, another map, another hat, a prettier weapon, all things that are now charged for in what has become abbreviated and boiled down to one thing: DLC.
Now I don’t want this to divulge into some anti-authoritarian, “it’s all about the MAN… man” article. I have no problem with big business doing what they do best, making money. At the moment it’s what makes our world turn and while triple A titles might not make up the best of games, there certainly are some good ones amongst the tripe. That said, I very much dislike the current trend in gaming, PC and Console, where instead of being given a game in all its glory, things are withheld, with extras charged for.
In this article we also need to differentiate between Digital Distribution and DLC. The fact that we can now download full games from a multitude of platforms like Steam, Impulse, GoG and more is testament to a changing industry where gaming needs are met immediately and without the need for postage costs. However, the seedier side to this is that it’s far easier now for developers to hold out on us: releasing unfinished products, or withholding certain features unless we pay that bit extra. It’s creating a class system in gaming, where online we’re all supposed to be equal; devoid of our natural prejudices and stereotypes; becoming the globally recognised one, the gamer. From now on I will refer to the distasteful practice of forcing players to pay large sums for paltry extras as DLC, and the practice of downloading full games as DD (Digital Distribution).
Now while Hollywood movies may like to play around with narrative, begin at the end, jump back to the start and follow through with alternate plot lines, I’m of the school that the best narratives begin where they truly did; at the beginning. DLC in any form has been around for a very long time, since the early days of gaming in fact. Atari were the first to take up the idea with their 2600 console, allowing gamers to utilise a service called Gameline to download games using their telephone line. While this is really DD rather than DLC, it was the beginning of a wonderful trend that would end with us in our current predicament.
As internet speeds grew and PCs began to peak in terms of their online gaming dominance, user created game mods, maps, patches, skin packs and more began appearing, offering a wealth of freely available gaming to all those that wished it. This type of development fosters creativity on an unprecedented level and continues to this day in a myriad of ways; though unfortunately it is sometimes shot in the foot by content owners. One famous instance was Microsoft deciding they didn’t like the idea of a Command and Conquer Generals: Zero Hour mod based on their property Halo (called Halogen), from being freely available. Not only did they stop this free RTS Halo mod, but they went on to release their own poorly executed version, a full three years later.
Ironically it was that very same company that became the first to start charging for DLC, but not before Sega beat them to the punch by offering freely downloadable updates on their Dreamcast platform. Unfortunately this quite innovative console lost out to the bigger boys in the market. Despite being a breakthrough at the time, downloads were limited by the small size of the then used, Sega VMU memory cards.
It wasn’t until the advent of the original Xbox that current trends for DLC began to appear. While in the early days it was freely available, with games like Splinter Cell, Halo 2 and Ninja Gaiden all receiving varying amounts of extra content, not a dollar was needed to access them. The developers were simply happy you continued to play their games. Heck, you may have even liked them enough for giving you extra freebies that you’d go out and buy their next game. But no that’s rubbish right? Whoever heard of customer loyalty being husbanded?
Mech Assault was the first game to receive the purchasable DLC treatment and despite it’s $5 price tag, people jumped all over it. It added new game types, extra objectives and some additional maps. This practically seems free by today’s standards of price based content, but even back then people failed to notice that this sort of thing was being given away free before this; especially on the PC platform. Bear in mind that Xbox users were already paying a monthly or yearly fee for simply playing online at all, again, something that the PC and the Dreamcast did for free.
Now it is at this point that I do need to say, “I get it”. I really do. I understand that as more people get online, we can’t necessarily expect Microsoft and other companies to just let us use their servers for free. As the gamers, we’re going to take a hit somewhere. Either we’re going to have to pay a fee for the servers, or take a hit in game prices. Or do we? Again, I return to the grandaddy of online gaming, the PC. I frequently play a multitude of titles, online, for free. Also, every single PC game I have ever bought has been cheaper than full priced console titles. Xbox 360 games are upwards of £40, N64 games were closer to £50. What is it about console gaming that makes developers feel they can take the piss so much? But that’s another article and a meta argument all of its own.
The real advent of DLC as we know it, was with our current generation of consoles and their independent forrays into online distribution and micro-transactions. Microsoft again lead the way with their Xbox Live Arcade store, but Sony soon followed with the Playstation Network and Nintendo trailing behind with their Wii Shop Channel. Not only did all these DD platforms offer a myriad of DLC, but they also forced you to use their own currency, trading in your real world dollars and pounds for “points”. That’s right, they’re treating you like a child at Disney. The idea behind this phenomenon is that you’ll have less idea about the totals your spending. Who cares about dishing out a few hundred points. What’s a point? It’s certainly not something I can spend in the real world so it has far less meaning. This makes it very easy to overspend, and it’s exactly what the console companies are hoping for.
However, even at this stage in its adolescence DLC wasn’t too harmful. At least the content people were being offered was something often released months after a game hit the shelves. It was more akin to minute expansions and while it could often still be found for free if there happened to be a PC port, it wasn’t as bad as it was going to get.
The real problems cropped up much closer to our present day, with Resident Evil 5 leading the way. Released in March 2009, Capcom announced that within weeks they would be offering additional content in the form of a Versus mode. True to their word, less than four weeks later the DLC was made available on the Playstation and Xbox Live networks; but the download was only 2MB in size. It quickly became painfully clear that the Versus mode content that Capcom had been on about had been on the disk all along, players were just paying to unlock it. This is the equivalent of buying a car, with the proviso that you’ll get your headlights a bit further down the line, only to find that the manufacturer just didn’t install the stalk to utilise them. In no other industry in the world does this occur. Movies don’t have sections cut out unless you pay the full price plus some extra, books don’t have a chapter skipped unless you’ve agreed to your credit card being charged that bit more.
While this astounding revelation was a bit of a shock to gamers, many railing against Capcom after finding out they had already bought the content, but had to pay more to use it, the real insult wouldn’t come until Ubisoft began their own strange methods of revenue increase. It came with the release of Assasin’s Creed II. Let’s not beat around the bush here, it’s a damn good game, but personally I’d have found it a lot more fun if I hadn’t had the nagging feeling that I wasn’t being given the full experience. Mere months before the release of the game, Ubisoft announced that due to “time constraints,” they would be pulling two chapters from the game; it would be released without them. Instead of utilising the extra time to finish these developments and giving them away to their loyal player base for free, Ubisoft felt that they deserved extra for finishing the development of their game and promptly charged users for each individual chapter. So to sum things up, Ubisoft went ahead and charged around £40 for the Xbox 360 version of an incomplete game and promptly charged anyone that wanted the removed content $3 and $5 for each chapter respectively. Now this might not seem like much, but that’s $8 (or most likely £8 if you’re in my area of the world) for something that should and was intended to be included in the original release. Make no mistake, on a PC platform this would be called a patch; and it would be free if a decent developer was behind it.
Oh, and if you think I’m not putting my money where my mouth is by buying a game like this; I didn’t, I rented it; but it seems Ubisoft wants to stop that too and they aren’t the only one. Beginning with EA games, but now including THQ and in a similar fashion Ubisoft, these publishers have now turned their industrial guns on the rental and second hand industries. Not content with the profits they reap from their rehashed and regurgitated sports titles – I’m looking at your Fifa titles EA, and your WWE games THQ – these firms have introduced a system that means you cannot play online unless you bought the game initially or, you guessed it, pay them some more money.
If you go out today and buy a game from any developer bar these three, you can go and sell it on, happy in the knowledge that not only do you have some money in your pocket for your next purchase, but that you’ve made it possible for someone with less money than yourself to have the same wonderful gaming experience you had for a slightly reduced price; because it’s second hand, that’s how it works everywhere, though these three think differently. Should you be unfortunate enough to wish to purchase one of the latest UFC titles second hand, or want to rent the latest Need For Speed, you won’t be allowed to play online unless you give EA or THQ around $10. Returning to the car analogy, you buy that car second hand from a dealer and then have to send money to the manufacturer if you want the fifth gear to work.
My mind is simply blown away that these companies consider this a fair way to treat their customers. It’s staggering that instead of wanting to be the best game developers out there, producing the best games, they decide to squeeze money from their consumers at every turn. You could say that this is their way of cracking down on the second hand industry, one that threatens their own business but that’s not their place to do so. In fact, in big business you know what it’s called when you deliberately hinder the development of other firms and industries that threaten your own? Anti-Competitive. Intel were recently fined over a billion euros by the European courts for stifling AMD’s advances. Here’s hoping something similar happens to these idiots.
However, things don’t end there. Not only are features withheld until DLC to make extra money, but it’s designed – believe it or not – to make the developer look better. That’s right, while clued in gamers or those that regularly read whistle blowing gamer sites may know which developers are pulling content from their titles and trying to sell it as bonus material, the less knowledgeable will regard these DLCs as continued support from the developer. Imagine you didn’t know that Ubisoft had pulled those two chapters from ACII. You might think to yourself, “god damn, that’s a nice thing to do. They might be charging me for it, but look, they’re continuing to develop and support the game.” Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
Misguided fanboys may cry out,“This is just the way the industry works”. But it really isn’t. There are still gems out there that do things the right way, or at least they want to. Epic Games are one company that certainly understands how brand loyalty can maintain strong sales throughout a game’s lifetime. While Unreal Tournament 2004 might not have been a favourite among UT purists, the continual release of new maps, game modes, mods (while not created by Epic, the free availability of their level editor was paramount in allowing many of these) and even full retail packages with previously released additives kept sales and gamer numbers strong throughout the games lifetime; that is until we all played Unreal Tournament 3 and got bored quickly.
While they aren’t the giant of the PC gaming world that they once were, Epic has been making strong roads in the console market, most notably with their Gears of War franchise. Considering the strong revenue streams that this new series had given them, Epic were more than keen to release DLC for free as they had always done – so too in fact were fellow developers Garage Games, makers of Marble Blast and Bizarre Creations with their Geometry Wars – but when they handed over this extra content to Microsoft for “certification”, they found that there was an indefinite hold put on its release. It turns out, the software giant puts a permanent stop on free DLC, forcing any companies that want to release extra content on the XBLA to charge at a minimum of $5 for it. Not only does this make Epic look like ass holes, but it means that this growing trend is only going to snowball. There’s no way to put the break on when you aren’t even given the freedom to give content away if you so choose. In short, developers have their hands tied.
At least once you’ve bought your DLC though, you know that it was worth it. I mean, not everyone gets this stuff so it was worth you spending that bit extra for it right? Wrong again. While much content is released with the proviso that it will only be available to those that purchase it in its current form, this is often not the case, with developers re-releasing the DLC as part of a repackaged game or bundling it free after a certain period. This would be ok if developers were open about it, and perhaps charged less, but saying that something is going to be specific to a group of players that pay you money for the privilege, only to completely go back on what you’ve said is tantamount to fraud. One famous example was in 2009 when Lucas Arts released extra levels for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. These levels were then repackaged in a new disc called the “Ultimate Sith Edition”, which included all recent DLC and a new Hoth Level. LucasArts made it clear that they would never release the Hoth Level as DLC, forcing anyone that wanted to play it to pay for the entire contents of the disc, despite many owning all other DLC that was previously available. Unsurprisingly at this point in the article, it was not long afterwards that Lucas Arts announced that in-fact they would in fact be releasing the Hoth Level as DLC; understandably angering consumers tremendously. They felt duped and rightly so. Not only had they bought things twice, their second purchase was then made redundant by that fact that the content they originally wanted was then available for a far cheaper price.
Now if this article has done what I hoped it would, the thought of DLC and micro-transactions should leave a sharp taste in the back of your throat, but it needn’t do that. Micro-transactions can be a very valid way to make your game work; that is, make it profitable for the developer, while not sucking every dime from your consumer at the same time. Let’s look at the PC industry once more. How about League of Legends, Riot Games’ free to play DotA like RPG. Doesn’t cost you anything to play but if you want a different skin, or you want to advance faster in levels you can do so with a bit of cash. Again they utilise a point system which I’m none too fond of, but the game is free. The same with many MMOs, Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Cryptic’s Champions Online; all of these allow me to pick up and play the game for as long as I want. If I like the game and want to support the developers by buying some aesthetic extra I can do so. The difference is, I haven’t already forked out £40 for the game, £5 to play online for the month before deciding that in-fact my character probably would look cool in that DLC hat.
They aren’t the only companies doing it right either. Relic games have been patching their Dawn of War II title ever since it went gold. On top of that they released Last Stand, arguably the best thing in the series beyond the campaign; completely free by the way. So too have Valve with Team Fortress 2, releasing over 11 content packs, all adding extra weapons, items, clothing and more, totally for free. Of course that’s not the case on the Xbox, but we know the reason there. Hell, if you want to discuss one console developer that certainly doesn’t go too far it’s Rockstar. While GT4 wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, the Ballad of Gay Tony and the Lost and the Damned expansions, or even the more recent Red Dead Recemption "Undead Nightmare" are what I’m talking about. Genuine additions that expand the game and justify their price tag.
While I can’t pretend that I’ve played every game and have done the worlds most extensive research to give you the definitive list of good developers and bad developers, one other good guy I would like to mention is Paradox Interactive. Founded in 1998, this small Swedish Developer is most well known for their historical hack and slash strategy hybrid Mount and Blade. This company, while minute compared to the industry heavyweights like EA or THQ has managed to do exactly what we want a company to do as consumers. Since the release of Mount and Blade, they’ve been consistently patching it. Removing bugs, improving game play, adding new features, new items, new weapons and tweaking multiplayer; much of it based around fan feedback. On top of that they made the game extremely moddable and supported those that chose to do so through regular interaction in their online forums. The point is, this developer has me as a loyal fan, and you know what that means? Last night I heard about their new game, Magicka. It was only £8 so I bought it. As it installed I didn’t even know what it was about, some wizards and elements and stuff. I handed over my money, almost without thinking, because I trust them. There are very few other developers that I would do that for but Paradox is one of the; and it’s because they treat me well as a customer.
The point is that it’s not wrong to want to charge for your efforts. Hell, if I could figure out a way that you’d pay to read this article I would, but I can’t, because honestly, why would you? What is wrong is pulling content from games and putting a price tag on it. It’s also wrong to make DLC the focus of your development, and it’s wrong to force people to follow the pricing scheme that you devised. The gaming industry thrives on innovation and updates, but as consumers we already fund this with the purchase price. We pay more for our content than other medium, leave it at that and let us enjoy your work; don’t force us to drain out wallets to find out what happens next.
So where do we stand at the end of this article. Do we refuse to play anything made by EA or THQ? Do we boycott Ubisoft and the Xbox Live Arcade? I’m not going to tell you do that, I’m not a preacher or an activist and I certainly don’t have all the answers. All I would ask you to do is to think before buying. It may not matter to you that you have to pay a bit for DLC and in reality it shouldn’t. DLC is great, if handled with care and if the customer is treated with respect. If you truly think the developer isn’t laughing every time you spend up to $10 on a map that a PC developer would give you for free, then go right ahead. But please, spare a thought for the meta game here. Understand the motives of the money grabbers, and spot the real diamond developers in the rough. They’re out there, and they will use your money wisely. They won’t develop new and draconian DRM that costs millions to devise, they’ll use it to make the next game better and ultimately more fun. Which is what we’re all doing this for right? To have fun?