Last week I talked about the different types of DLC, and more importantly that it’s important to remember that different types of content cater to different people. In that article I promised to talk about the uglier side of the world of downloadable content this week, and that’s what I’m here to do.
Before I get on to day one DLC and “pay to win” controversies, I’d like to address cheap and numerous DLC first. The biggest and most popular example of a game that utilises this is Team Fortress 2 and its Mann Co. store, which boasts dozens upon dozens of weapons, hats, accessories and hosts of pointless crap, many of which cost no more than a dollar or two. Some people are annoyed by this, citing the fact that they already paid for the game and thus should not have to pay for additional content that offers so little. This may have been the case with TF2 before, but since the game went free to play in June of 2011. However, even if this had not been the case, this type of additional content isn’t inherently wrong. The main thing to note here is that most of the add-ons available on the Mann Co. store are purely cosmetic, and as such bear no impact on gameplay. Furthermore, the weapons available for purchase can be picked up randomly or crafted for the large part with no monetary investment. Most importantly, however, next to none of the weapons on the store are particularly better than the starting or common weapons for each class. Many of them have strategic benefits in certain scenarios, and some are strictly better, but the game is balanced in a such a way that it is rare for a barebones player to feel helpless against someone who invested a few bucks into their character.
TF2 notably uses the monetization method that many Zynga games took to the extreme. It is possible to get all of the best equipment in Farmville without spending any money by simply harvesting strawberries for days on end, but it’s also possible to shortcut your way to rustic glory by paying for it. EA took this to an arguably shameless degree when they released the Ultimate Shortcut Bundle for Battlefield 3 that unlocked all the weapons, gadgets and vehicle upgrades for anyone willing to fork out $40 for it. This is the cost of a whole entire game, and effectively lets the player skip 20+ hours of gaining experience to unlock the content. Some would argue that you paid for the game and so all content should be unlocked from the get go, and there is some merit to that, but in the case of a multiplayer game the content is locked as a form of balancing to give players who have worked harder a small, but measurable, edge on the newer players. The problem with releasing a bundle like this is that players who played for those hours now feel cheated as Richie Rich gets to the same level as them. On the flipside, the kid who paid the money for the pack will often have his ass handed to him by more experienced players, and will learn that not all of their advantage came from superior tech, but much of it from superior and honed skills.
This begins to enter into the dark area of “pay to win,” in which a monetary investment gives a player such a significant advantage over people that have not made the same investment, that they win often enough for the other players to feel disillusioned and cheated by the game. This is naturally unfair, but the line between this system and the “shortcut” system, like in Battlefield, is a very thin and often blurry one. How much of an advantage does the content have to give before it is deemed broken and how long is an unreasonably long time to unlock the content the normal way? These are both questions with extremely subjective answers, and many would argue that that warrants staying away from the area completely. Alternative methods of monetization, such as a free to play game like TF2 with optional add-ons, episodic releases of games such as The Walking Dead or even the game streaming market which is still in its infancy are all exciting, and different ways to pay as a general rule are interesting, but perhaps short cutting errs too much on the side of pay to win for most players to be comfortable with it. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the idea in and of itself, but it’s too easy to abuse if the company selling it gets a little greedy and makes the content on offer overpowered in order to entice more purchases, thus ruining the balance of the game. Obviously, this ideology only applies to exclusively multiplayer games, or games where multiplayer composes a huge part of the reason that people buy the game in the first place, such as with Battlefield or Call of Duty.
The other half of the dark spectrum of DLC is the idea of day one content, or on disc content. Day one DLC is where an add-on for the game is available on the day of the game’s release, which raises the question of why it wasn’t included in the base game. This does ignore the fact that a significant amount of time may pass between a game being finished and the game hitting shelves, however. On disc DLC takes this one step further by including content on the game’s disc, or in the game’s original package, that cannot be accessed without downloading an unlock code for an additional charge. The most famous example of this was Javik in Mass Effect 3, a squad mate that was on the disc and could be unlocked by exploiting the game a little, but was not officially playable without the From Ashes DLC for the game. Bioware’s Mike Gamble stated that because of Mass Effect 3’s storytelling style, it was impossible to simply shoehorn in an additional character through DLC only;
“As we’ve mentioned before, that character has to be planned and the framework has to be established ahead of time for us to build off of with the DLC module”
He also cited the DLC’s size, of over 600Mb, as an indicator that the character was not complete in the initial game. However, videos online showed a combat-ready version of Javik running without the DLC.
The validity of Gamble’s claims is largely irrelevant, the question remains; how okay are we with paying for content that is on the disc we already paid for? The answer would generally be a resounding “not at all,” but there are a few additional things to consider here. A large part of the question hinges on whether or not the consumer is privy to the knowledge that there is locked content on the disc that is inaccessible without a further payment. If this does not bother the consumer, then that’s fine. We should be ready to acknowledge the fact that not everyone will want to play all parts of a game, and that it’s acceptable in theory to charge more for people who want to unlock further content. The issue that arises is that resources were put into that additional content that could have been spent on the core game, and that now the consumer can’t access that part of the game without paying for it. Furthermore, in a digital download setting, the locked content will increase the size of the download. This adds time to the process, and will push some users towards their bandwith cap, which is far from irrelevant.
Again, similar to the shortcut downloads, the scheme may seem reasonable at its core, but upon further inspection gives rise to several issues that ultimately contribute to the detriment of the core game.
All in all, DLC is far from bad. It offers more content to those who are willing to pay for it, and allows people to get more out of the games and franchises that they love. However, the model is easily abused, as is often the case with any situation in which money changes hands. We, as consumers, have to vote with our money if we find something that a company is doing unsatisfactory. We have to refuse to buy the content, or even the core game, in protest. Blog posts and angry youtube comments may make us feel better having vented, but the investors that pay for the games largely don’t care how you feel about their product so long as you pay for it. If we want to change our medium for the better, we have to give credit where credit is due, not just with our opinions and reviews, but with our wallets as well.