Tuesday, 20 July 2010

DLC: Elongating gaming experience or simple profiteering?

DLC may now be an institution in gaming, but it is not a universally acclaimed practice. There are complaints about cost, and the deliberate withholding of content by game developers from the release of titles to ensure extra revenue streams shortly after the bulk of initial sales are made. DLC add-ons for games like Fallout 3, GTA IV, and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are touted as a great value by developers and gamers alike, as they represent entirely new content created after the game's release.

Other "DLC," however, such as the downloadable costumes for characters in Street Fighter IV were not, in fact, downloads. They already existed on the disk. Players pay for unlocks, not downloads, and therefore many of them feel they are paying twice for content. Many gamers also feel cheated when add-ons are released shortly after the release of the game proper, for example the extra downloadable missions for Assassin’s Creed 2 and Mass Effect 2. If this content was available so close to the release of the game, why wasn't it included to begin with? Capcom faced criticism over Resident Evil 5, which had a downloadable Versus mode. When players paid and downloaded the content the file size was a mere 2 megabytes, leading players to believe that this mode was on the disk already.

When loyal fans discovered that the first batch of content for Bioshock 2 was already on the disk, they felt rightly affronted and expressed their anger on forums and with direct appeals to 2K Games, the developers. But is there a reasonable explanation for 2K’s choice to block content like this? They retorted to criticism in a calm and low-key fashion, explaining in a short post that the decision had been made due to the way that post-release DLC is made. 2K argued that if the extra multiplayer levels were developed separately at a later date then gamers would be separated from their friends in online sessions, if one set had purchased the DLC and the other had not. This is apparently due to how players are grouped in multiplayer. They seem to suggest that if you have downloaded post-release DLC then you will only be grouped with other players that have it, but if the extra content is present on the disk then players can be grouped together when playing the basic multiplayer levels, even if some had the DLC and others don’t.

So this begs the question: why not simply make the maps available for all? The customer had already paid a lot of money for the game, so why don’t they deserve to have access to all of the content? It brings us to the sad conclusion that developers do see DLC primarily as a way of generating cash. Even with 2K’s explanation, which if true could hold for the Street Fighter and Resident Evil examples too, then they are making a conscious choice to charge more for content available at the game’s release. From a business stand point this is understandable, as selling DLC can net vast sums of money. Call of Duty: World at War generated $70 million from its map pack sales alone; but there is a clear line between what people consider to be value for money and what is seen as simply profit generating extras within the realms of DLC.

It is possible that DLC is produced on a separate budget from the main game, and that it is developed in tandem. If this is the case the 2K’s explanation may hold some water, as the development costs would need to be recovered. It also leads to the conclusion that if multiplayer DLC is so difficult to integrate then the future of DLC may be on-disk. That being the case then I would suggest that the DLC tag be dropped and the term “unlockable content” may be a suitable substitute. This doesn’t make the players feel any better about shelling out cash for more game, but it doesn’t wrongly lead them to believe that what they are paying for is being downloaded separately either.

Judging from what is posted in the forums and chatrooms of the gaming world, gamers don’t mind paying for DLC if they deem it value for money. There are many examples of excellent DLC which adds so much to the gaming experience, but the large sums of money created by DLC has made the industry greedy it is now rare to find a game release that doesn’t have some form of DLC attached. Ultimately gamers are the judges in this trial and the only way for their complaints to hold weight would be to boycott the purchase of DLC considered below par, or which is obvious profiteering.

That all said, Xbox LIVE is the biggest online DLC provider and a business model that remains extremely profitable, so as long as we keep downloading it appears that they’ll keep charging. Perhaps players should take a look at what it is they’re paying for though, before they part with their hard earned Microsoft points.

I wrote this article for Game Kudos, a new web publication. It can be viewed in its edited format here.

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