Downloading the Future
Intriguing industry execs and riling up gamers, DLC is the burning issue of 2010
Downloadable content is, beyond a doubt, the burning issue of the year so far. On every major gaming news site, a story about DLC is bound to attract hundreds of comments, many of them brimming with outrage from consumers with strongly held views. Within the industry, conversations are (usually) more civil, but the question of what it's appropriate to release as DLC and how to integrate it into a business model is hotly debated.
This week, another log has been thrown on the fire, with EA boss John Riccitiello telling BusinessWeek that the company's inclusion of premium DLC codes in new copies of Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins were no coincidences. This is the vanguard of something EA calls "Project Ten Dollar", it seems - an attempt both to limit the appeal of the second hand market, and to claw back some revenue from those consumers who continue to buy used games.
Publisher and developer attitudes to DLC have come on a long way since the infamous "horse armour" for Oblivion back in 2006. Minor fripperies, cosmetic items for characters and the likes persist, of course - especially in the form of Xbox Live Avatar items and PlayStation Home items - but they have been joined by some genuinely impressive DLC, perhaps most notably the two extensive episodes which were released for Grand Theft Auto IV.
Two major approaches to the development of DLC appear to have been established. There are those who view DLC essentially as the spiritual successor to the retail expansion pack - a budget-priced singleplayer episode or selection of multiplayer maps which extend the lifespan of the original game and give players more of what they enjoy without having to wait years for a sequel. Here, the business model is to embark on full development of DLC once the original game proves its success (although much of the pre-production work on the content will be done in the months before the game is released).
There are also those who view DLC as a way to "complete" a game whose original design was a bit too ambitious for the schedule or budget which was allocated. As anyone who has worked in development knows, it's fairly rare for a game to ship with every level or feature described in the design document present and correct. Commercial reality pokes its head up at some point - levels, characters, game systems and even chunks of narrative are dropped from the game to ensure that it actually reaches shelves at some point before the end of time.
For the most part, consumers never notice this. Developers are adept at papering over the cracks this procedure creates, building a seamless experience which hides the "missing" content - and of course, this is no different from every other media industry. Movies, TV shows, albums and even books regularly have content dropped from them before launch - sometimes for creative reasons, but as often as not because of time and budget constraints. On occasion, of course, the process goes too far - Knights of the Old Republic 2 being a "celebrated" example of a game whose content was pruned far, far too harshly before launch.
DLC, at last, provides some kind of remedy to this situation. In the past, this content would never have been finished - it would simply have been dumped, with the team moving on to a new project after the game went gold. There was no financial incentive or reason to return to developing it after the launch of the game, since there was no channel to monetise it - and there was never a sense, as some consumers seem to believe, that buyers of the game were "entitled" to this as-yet-uncreated content. Consumers buy a finished game, not the promise of a design document they've never seen, after all.
Today, however, developers can sit down at the end of a project and decide whether that content deserves an airing - and if so, they can spend the time required to bring it up to scratch and release it as DLC, justifying the additional development effort with the added DLC revenue. Contrary to what some consumers seem to believe, this isn't content which is held back deliberately to milk them of their cash; rather, it is content which simply wouldn't have been created without DLC, extra labour and time which isn't justified in the budget for the retail game.
This remains controversial, however - witness the outpouring of rather childish anger from a vocal minority over Ubisoft's recent Assassin's Creed II DLC, for example. Business attitudes to DLC, it seems, are developing a bit faster than the consumers they serve, which is a trend companies will need to watch carefully or risk losing valuable goodwill from their customers.
EA's "Project Ten Dollar" also seems like a risky gamble on that front - yet on closer examination, the reality is that most consumers will probably actually embrace the idea, as long as EA is careful not to poison its own well with questionable behaviour. What Project Ten Dollar effectively does is to treat DLC not as an additional revenue stream, per se, but as a way to increase standard retail revenues by discouraging the second hand market. New buyers of the game actually end up feeling like valued customers because they get premium DLC for "free" with their game, while second hand consumers aren't locked out of any content, as they always have the option of paying (unlike the ludicrous and ill-conceived "exclusive pre-order bonus" culture which other publishers have cultivated, which does little other than annoy consumers and directly encourage content piracy).
The danger, of course, is that EA veers too close to actions which could be considered to constitute cutting content out of the retail game in order to turn it into Project Ten Dollar DLC, at which point this policy will lose consumer support. DLC still needs to be add-on content; the core game experience needs to exist on the disc. Even the most reasoned of consumers have been adamant on this point since the outset of DLC, and this line in the sand is unlikely to change.
If EA's strategy is carefully managed, however, it will represent the first major positive thing that an industry which does plenty of moaning about the second hand market has actually done to protect its sales, and should be applauded. Crucially, it doesn't attempt to remove right of first sale from consumers, or to actually shut down used game sales - and it's worth noting that what it will actually impact is not the $5, $10 or $15 sales of years-old games in second-hand bins or on eBay.
Rather, this is a policy targeted directly at the retail chains who massively boost their earnings by filling second-hand bins with games only a few weeks old, for only a few dollars cheaper than the brand new copies on the shelves next to them. This is a retailer policy which, frankly, gouges consumers as much as it does the industry itself, and few tears will be shed if EA manages to strike a blow against it.
This is not, however, the end-point of the debate over the DLC business model. Other firms have competing views of how DLC can improve their business, and the influence of consumer opinion should not be underestimated. If last year was the year in which GTA IV's episodes saw DLC's potential come of age, this year, it seems, will be the year in which the creative and commercial ramifications of that potential are finally understood.