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Downloadable Discontent

The age of Internet-enabled console gaming, hard disc drives and online community networks has afforded consumers and developers a much broader scope in the videogames industry than was previously available. And yet, at the same time over the past few years an uncomfortable trend has reared its unwelcome head and been at the core of a few notable gaming controversies – that of downloadable content (DLC).

On paper, the basic intentions are positive for all involved – to extend the lives of games after they’ve hit the shelves and allow the consumer to access content which can enhance or extend the game’s lifespan, whilst allowing the publisher and developer to make more money out their existing product. However, a pattern of overpriced and underwhelming content quickly became apparent, not to mention the more occasional habit of locking out content on the disc so the consumer can later buy a key to access it.

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A recent example of this would be BioShock 2; content was listed on Xbox Live Marketplace to download weapons, character skins, and so on, but coming in at just 108 KB it was clear that the 400 Microsoft Points were merely to download an unlock key in order to access data already on the disc. Take Two’s defence was that the content had to be on the disc to allow everyone to access the content (i.e. even those who didn’t pay for the content needed to be able to see the new multiplayer skins). In response, gamers cried out that the DLC description was misleading and that if it’s on the disc it should be part of the initial purchase, but this itself raises a new point.

As consumers, when we purchase a new game, we are not buying ownership of the disc’s contents, but rather paying for a licence to play the game in disc form. Obviously this is not the way gamers perceive their prized collection, but just because we physically own the disc does not mean we own, can access and have rights to all of its content. Furthermore, having content already on the disc before buying the permission to access it makes sense in many regards; there is a smaller file to download (which can be beneficial assuming most of us have monthly download limits) and it means a smaller data file held on the Xbox Live servers.

While many people won’t care if this makes things easier and less costly for Microsoft or Take Two, with downloadable content becoming the norm in most if not all major releases, unlock keys of this type are theoretically the better solution for all involved; if players are going to buy the DLC anyway, is it better to wait 30 minutes for a 600 MB download, or 30 seconds for 600 KB? While locking content out of the finished game to charge back to the consumer is an abhorrent practice, it’s an extra revenue source for the publishers that is proving to be very lucrative, and it’s not something that’s going to go away. The best thing those who don’t like it can do is not buy the DLC, and perhaps eventually publishers would get the message that while they are making more money, at the same time they’re as pissing off many members of their fan base.

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Ubisoft have been up to not entirely dissimilar tricks with their massive seller Assassin’s Creed II; removing two of the game’s fourteen chapters before launch (amidst unconvincing claims that it was so the game was not delayed) before putting them up for sale for 320 Points a few months later – thus effectively drumming an extra £5.50 or $7.60 from customers who actually would like to experience the whole game without a noticeable two-year plot hole and one seventh of the content ‘corrupted’. Whether this tactic was particularly a success is hard to judge because there does not seem to be any official figures to support it as yet, but from acquaintances and forum friends it seems a fair few people bought the DLC for completion purposes and because they were big fans of the game. This is unlikely to have not been a profitable experiment for Ubisoft, and we could well see similar distasteful practices from Ubisoft and indeed other publishers in future.

Lastly, there is of course the big one; Modern Warfare 2‘s Stimulus Map pack – which has just become the fastest-selling content ever on Xbox Live with a million downloads on day one and over 2.5 million in its first week. It’s not easy to be completely objective about a game which has spawned as much vitriol as Modern Warfare 2, but with the series Activision are constantly pushing the boundaries of how much they can get away with charging the consumer, and it’s obviously a strategy that has been an absolute success, so from a business perspective you can’t blame them for it. Whether 3 new maps and 2 old ones from Call of Duty 4 are worth 1200 Points is absolutely subjective, but again, if the maps sell the practice will continue, so any blame should really fall at the millions of consumers who proved to Activision they can charge what they like and the audience will still buy it.

These are of course a few recent examples of DLC that weren’t in the consumers’ best interest, but that’s not to say that some developers don’t do it well. One of the most successful of all was Wipeout HD‘s excellent Fury expansion, which came in at a very reasonable £8 or $12, and almost doubled the size of its parent game with a host of new courses, dozens of new vehicles and even a couple of new game modes. Elsewhere, Fallout 3, GTA IV and Borderlands all benefited from excellent DLC packages offering a lot of content at reasonable prices, becoming available when goodwill and demand for their titles was suitably high. Based on recent examples it’s easier to be negative about DLC than it is to be positive, but let us not forget that many developers have the right idea of extending the game’s lifespan and offering the consumer value for money.

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Ultimately, DLC is a profitable revenue stream for publishers and developers, and it’s not going anywhere, so we’re going to have to learn to get along with it and accept the rough with the smooth. However, while some publishers seem content to fleece gamers for all that they can, the best thing we can do to curb this practice is simply to not buy it – while millions of people are paying for the new Modern Warfare 2 maps at extortionate prices, Activision aren’t going to relent and offer subsequent maps any cheaper. We have to remember that the power is always in the hands of the consumer, but we need to move as one in order to make things happen. Vote with your wallets. Just don’t buy any horrendously overpriced horse armour.

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2007.

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