Long ago, when PC gaming was still king, the best games would often get expansions that cost a fraction of the full-game price and offered a brand-new campaign or set of levels. Truth be told, those things still exist, although the popularity and distribution methods of PC gaming have changed quite a bit over the years. Back then, though, console gamers were left out in the cold more often than not when it came to extra content; we simply didn’t have the technology to easily deliver that content, nor the integrated hard drives to allow for easy assimilation into existing games.
Times have changed pretty radically, however, and now most people have high-speed internet connections that make the 14.4 modems of the past absolutely archaic, and new consoles come packed with enough storage space to hold dozens of full games. But expansion packs still haven’t made their way to consoles with any sort of regularity, and with the new focus on high development costs and yearly iterations of franchises, I’d say we won’t likely ever see them again. Instead, the flavor of the day is the ubiquitous downloadable content (or DLC, as it has become colloquially known).
I’m not sure any innovation in gaming has distressed me as much as the advent of DLC. I fully understand the need to bump the standard price for a retail game from $50 to $60, given that after 15-plus years at the former price point, we were due for an increase, especially since development costs have risen exponentially (and haven’t been offset by the rise in sales and popularity for videogames). I don’t even mind the extra $10-$30 that gets tacked on for “special editions” as long as they offer something tangible, like a collectable lunch box or other knick-knacks. What kills me is the DLC that you are almost forced to buy to get the full game experience, which often ends up pushing the final cost of the game to $100 or more. It’s a very transparent cash grab by greedy publishers, and it is slowly pushing me away from console gaming.
In the interest of fairness, not all DLC is evil. There are a number of different types of downloadable content, and some developers/publishers use this new medium in the proper way. Let’s take a look at the various types:
1. DLC that adds sizable content that takes place outside the vanilla game, yet integrates well into the existing world. The prime example here is the Fallout series, which has received numerous, excellent add-ons that are purely optional but very well-crafted.
2. DLC that provides trinkets and items that are purely cosmetic additions and are not necessary for the full game experience. See the Ace Combat series for an over-the-top example of this type of content.
3. DLC that provides trinkets and items that drastically alter the balance of the game by providing overpowered weapons or armor to the user. In a single-player environment, these are optional and probably nice for those that struggle with completing the game, but in a multiplayer scenario, they can destroy the competitive balance. The Dead Space series is a good example of this. Often this type of content is offered as a pre-order bonus from various distributors.
4. Map packs in first-person shooters. Occasionally these are provided for free, but more often than not, they cost $15 to add four or five new maps into the rotation for online games, and they are pretty much a requirement for anyone that plans on playing the game regularly. Popular titles can see the release of three or four of these packs, pushing the price of the game into triple digits if you want to keep playing. Check out any Call of Duty or Halo installment to see this.
5. Increasingly popular is the “online pass” that comes with every new copy of the game, but requires a $10 fee to get online with a used copy. Electronics Arts has championed this particular type of DLC, with everything from Madden to the recent Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Blame GameStop for this one.
6. DLC that was once part of the final product but was then stripped out at the last minute (but left on the disc) so it could then be sold later at a premium price, often day-and-date with the release. Many times, the story will feel incomplete and have notable gaps if you haven’t bit the bullet and bought into the “extra” downloadable content. Mafia 2 and Dragon Age 2 are prime examples of this practice.
I certainly have no issue with the first type. Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2 were given additional life by the steady release of fully-fleshed-out and interesting content that came out over the course of a year after the release of the main titles. One could easily spend dozens of hours with just the stock game and never feel like he was missing out on a thing; the extra content was there for those who loved the universe and felt like they wanted to explore it more. I absolutely support any developer who wants to go this route.
I find I have varying levels of distaste for the rest of these scenarios, though. If someone wants to spend good money on horse armor or on having all the cars in Burnout: Paradise unlocked for her so she doesn’t have to play the actual game, well, I might not be into it, but I ‘m not going to get all up in arms over something that doesn’t affect me. Map packs are something that does bother me; oftentimes, these packs are just rehashes of maps from earlier entries in the series and, thus, don’t require much effort on the part of developers – and even the ones that are entirely new seem like they should be priced a tad bit more reasonably. They also serve to fracture the online community, since you can’t play with those that don’t have the new content, and once a game gets older and the online presence starts to die out, such a schism can essentially break the experience for folks who don’t want to invest another $45 in a title they already plopped down $60 for.
The “online pass” is something I understand the need for, but, at the same time, I can’t help but feel like I am being punished for the greed of GameStop (and, now, Best Buy). I fully understand developers’ frustration at used game sales sucking up all of their profits – they obviously don’t get a dime for GameStop’s second-hand wares – and I also understand why stores push so hard for consumers to purchase the used version, given that their profit margin is so much larger. But punishing the end user for this seems a little disingenuous. I pity the poor fool who is convinced he should get a game used at GameStop for $5 off the retail price, only to get home and find out he needs to pay another $10 to play the game online, something the employee likely didn’t mention during the sale. Poor Joe SixPack now has shelled out $5 more than a new game would have cost to get a dinged-up version (often in a generic case) through no real fault of his own, other than ignorance.
But the scourge of all gaming is the now-almost-standard practice of yanking content from a full game and forcing people to pay extra to get the remainder of the experience. I find this to be shady, insulting, and even a bit unethical. This is almost always a publisher choice; I am willing to bet most developers don’t want their games hacked up, especially knowing that many players, since they will never purchase the DLC, will be left with an incomplete experience and vaguely resentful feelings. The latest Prince of Persia offering was sold without a real ending, which was there when the game was developed but which was pulled after someone decided that they could get another $10-$15 out of innocent consumers by selling it a month later. The truth of the matter, sadly, is that most people finished the game, got disgusted with the lack of resolution, and never picked up the DLC – and, thus, were turned off of the series. Any time DLC is included on the disc itself, it’s an extra slap in the face. There is no reason other than pure greed to lock out that content, especially when it is already in the player’s hand. I personally will never pay one red cent for any of that content, and I refuse to support any publisher who wants to go that route. Unfortunately, with the major companies, this approach seems to be turning into the standard rather than the exception, and I honestly feel it is ruining gaming.
I don’t expect any of you to join me in my boycott, but just remember – if you support the wrong sort of DLC, it will only become more prevalent, so much so that, one day, our $60 will just buy us a game engine. If you actually want something to do in that world, be prepared to turn over your bank account details to EA and Activision.