Hot Topic: The Price to Pay for DLC
Written Tuesday, March 23, 2010 By Martin Gaston
When 2K decided to lock Bioshock 2’s first DLC package - Sinclair Solutions - on the disc, they were almost definitely aware the move was never going to go down well with their customers. It never does: consumers cannot stand the idea of being denied content. And why should they?
Meet BioShock 2's Sinclair Solutions.
The main concern for most gamers, though, has very little to do with Bioshock 2’s surprisingly tolerable multiplayer mode. Most people haven’t even tried it, after all, and even the ones who have will almost definitely be playing something else by now. The hyperbolic worry, however, seems to be that the DLC issue is a slippery slope and that, if we as consumers, allow 2K (or, by extension, any publisher) to think that we find this an acceptable practice then it will become standard for the industry. The end result? Down the line, we won’t be able to load up our copies of Modern Warfare 9 without buying an additional 4200 point license for the multiplayer from Xbox Live.
It’s a bit of a complicated area. Just like with a DVD, when you purchase a game you haven’t actually bought the content but instead a license to use it - but try telling that to most customers. Who actually thinks of it like that when a shiny copy of a new game arrives in the post? Certainly not me.
Responding to the public outrage over Sinclair Solutions, 2K’s answer as to why they released the content on the disc was absolutely spot on: releasing it as a pack via XBL would have divided the userbase or, more likely, forced all users to download it to their hard drive regardless of whether or not they’d be purchasing the ability to use the content themselves. When you consider how many ISP’s have bandwidth restraints and that people with 20gb hard drives are unlikely to have megabytes to spare, it is, by a considerable margin, much easier just to have the content on the disc. 2K might be right then, but that doesn’t make it right to do it in the first place.
Sinclair Solutions, conceived from its beginning as premium DLC, was never going to be free. Which brings me to the second big thorny issue: when developers should be allowed to release DLC in the first place. The most common belief is that if the content is made within the game’s original development cycle it should be included - in an unlocked state, that is - on the disc when you buy the game.
Playing content that just wasn't ready for release. Result.
Ubisoft deftly dodged a backlash earlier in the year with their two ‘missing’ chapters for Assassin’s Creed II. Chopped out of the game (for quality reasons) in order for the title to hit shelves in November 2009, the levels were fiddled with for a bit and then released onto the DLC market to satisfy ardent completionists. This content would never have been released otherwise, so the community were happy to accept it.
When the whole process feels like paying for the milk when you’ve already invested in the cow, however, gamers sour to the prospect of spending their money. That’s why last year’s Versus DLC for Resident Evil 5 proved contentious, with Capcom burying a mode most fans considered unnecessary on the disc and asking for 400 points if they fancied a go. Exactly the same situation as Sinclair Solutions, basically.
It’s almost a guaranteed certainty that if 2K had forced players to download 60mbs of ones and zeroes there’d have been less negative sentiment. Ultimately, it’s all a case of consumers perceiving (or the opposite, as seems to be more often the case) value when buying products: being forced to download a hefty chunk of data provides a tangible sensation of exchanging goods.
Consumers perceiving (and attributing) value to digital products is still something that publishers are exploring, and I’d also wager the all-important sweet spot has still yet to be found. In recent years, for instance, the price of the average XBLA title has managed to leap from 800 to 1200 points, so when Perfect Dark showed up last week at 800 points, it’s largely regarded as a huge bargain. Microsoft told us at X10 this year that this raise in price was down to increasing production costs and an overall general improvement in quality.
We’ve also seen this questioning of value in the announcement of Modern Warfare 2’s Stimulus package. With 3 new maps and 2 ported over from Call of Duty 4, many gamers have declared the 1200 point asking price a little on the steep side.
Gee willikers! These Nazis get uglier every year...
Development rival Treyarch released their map packs (which would contain three maps and another for zombies mode) for Call of Duty: World at War at 800 points, likely imitating the price point set by Infinity Ward themselves with Call of Duty 4’s Variety Pack a year prior. That’s 200 points a map, but with the Stimulus package Infinity Ward has bumped up that asking price to 240. The biggest problem in the eyes of many users, though, is that they’re being asked to spend a combined sum of 480 points for two maps from the original Modern Warfare and they simply do not perceive this as good value.
The problem, of course, is that digital goods are intangible, so one of the more compelling ways for gamers to calculate their worth and value comes from comparing them to other digital products: have one item priced too high and it’s an anomaly, have everything cost that much and you’re just selling at the norm. The fear that customers might stop paying if too many goods appeared on the marketplace for free is likely one of the reasons Microsoft put their foot down and forced Valve to charge with their DLC packs for the original Left 4 Dead, for instance.
It’s a clever system of economy that, at its heart, is far more complicated than I could ever possibly hope to understand. What’s readily apparent, though, is that buying and publishing trends have definitely caused the market to shift in recent years: if a publisher had tried to charge for maps a decade ago they’d have been laughed at until they declared bankruptcy. It is on this point that so many people find themselves bothered over the issue, seeing their post-release content rising from free to 800 points to 1200 points and dreading the idea that it will continue to rise in the future.
What’s definitely worth remembering with the issue is that paying for content isn’t an inherently bad thing: it keeps developers in business and helps the games we enjoy stay lucrative enough for the businessmen with money hats to commission a sequel. The Stimulus Package might cost 1200 points, but if you’re an active Modern Warfare 2 player that money is almost definitely going to provide you with more hours of gameplay than if you’d have purchased a single-player game at RRP. Not that there’s anything wrong with doing the latter, of course.
Cure "Mapathy" by playing maps you played in 2008.
The real crux of the issue is this: only the individual can deduce what makes for a good investment for them. The first step to understanding the modern game cycle is to realise that premium DLC is here to stay, and after grumbling about it for a minute - which is perfectly understandable: nobody wants to spend money if they can help it - we need to open our wallets and decide what’s worth buying on a case-by-case basis. If you’re a massive fan of Bioshock 2’s multiplayer, for instance, then dropping 400 points on Sinclair Solutions doesn’t seem like such a ghastly prospect at the end of the day.
Ultimately, the best thing to do in situations like this is to vote with your wallet. If nobody buys Sinclair Solutions then you can be sure 2K would think twice next time, and if the Stimulus Pack doesn’t sell nearly as well as Activision are expecting, then rest assured you’ll see it reduced to 800 points in an Xbox Live Deal of the Week before long.
One man’s rubbish is another man’s Stimulus Pack, basically. Feel free to suggest some of the most flagrant rip-offs currently on the marketplace, too. Mine is the 1200 point map pack for Stranglehold, because at least people are actually playing Modern Warfare 2.
Editor’s Note: Hot Topic is an all new experimental monthly feature here on X360A, where we take one of the month’s talking points and discuss it until your eye-balls bleed through sheer delight. Now that's intense! How experimental you ask? If it's popular, we'll keep them coming.
Martin Gaston is a freelance writer and a long-term friend of the site. His work can be found over at MegaDerived.co.uk where he spends most of his days weaving words into a wonderful illuminating basket of awesomeness (my words, not his).