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Oblivion's Horse Armor was ahead of its time

10 years ago this month, Bethesda launched its notorious DLC, "Microsoft will inevitably succeed in Japan," and Nintendo learned no lessons from the GameCube

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, will run a monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Whoa, Nelly!

"Horse Armor."

Even 10 years down the road, Bethesda Softworks' first DLC offering for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion remains the shorthand of choice to refer to downloadable content whose insignificance is exceeded only by the exorbitant price a publisher is asking for it. The thing is, for all the gnashing of teeth and outrage and mockery Oblivion's Horse Armor attracted, there's fundamentally not that much different about it than the sort of DLC some companies base their entire business models around these days. The price of 200 Microsoft Points ($2.50) isn't entirely out of line for a mostly cosmetic purchase (the armor increased the horse's health, but honestly, frail horses were not exactly a common pain point for players of Oblivion). These days, people spend more money on dumber stuff online all the time.

But in April of 2006, this was practically heresy. This was a time when the idea of a console game requiring a mandatory update to play online after a patch was cause for grave concern (not to mention worthy of an article on, a time when players were shocked that publishers would charge extra money for content that developers had finished making prior to the game's release. We've spent a decade holding up "horse armor" as an example of DLC gone wrong, all the while publishers and players alike slowly but surely converged on that model of moderately priced cosmetic upgrades as a mainstay of DLC done right. It's time we put the Horse Armor stigma out to pasture.

Microsoft can't stop being wrong

At the time, it seemed Microsoft was having a pretty good month in April 2006. Demand for the Xbox 360 was still outstripping supply, Half-Life maker Valve committed itself to bringing multiple titles to the system, and Microsoft added to its first-party lineup with the acquisition of highly regarded studio Lionhead. Clearly, it was making at least a few calls right.

That said, April also saw the company put its money on a few bets that simply wouldn't pay out. For example, after the Xbox 360 launched in Japan to a collective shrug, Microsoft doubled down on the market. Microsoft Japan's Xbox division manager Takahashi Sensui stressed that the catalog of games would more than triple by the end of the console's first year on shelves, and tried to downplay poor hardware sales by focusing on how many consumers had accessed the Xbox Live Marketplace. (Who would have thought?) But honestly, Sensui's mostly being mentioned here for one quote as impressively gutsy as it was embarrassingly wrong.

"Since the launch of the original Xbox in 2002, there was one thing that we have consistently said: Microsoft will inevitably succeed in Japan," Sensui said.

Granted, while that hasn't happened yet, it could conceivably happen at some point in the future. That's less the case for another of Microsoft's predictions a decade ago: that HD-DVD would win the format war against Blu-ray.

"Blu-ray right now reminds us of another technology from Sony: Betamax," Microsoft's Chris Lewis said at the time. "A bit like VHS - we think that HD-DVD is the format that consumers, film studios and publishers will embrace."

While Sony was planning Blu-ray compatibility as a key feature of the PlayStation 3, Microsoft had chosen to sell an external HD-DVD drive as an optional peripheral for the Xbox 360. Lewis said it was about giving consumers a choice of paying just for the features they want. Predictably, the PS3 and Blu-ray benefited greatly from one another, while the HD-DVD add-on that launched later in 2006 was an ill-fated curiosity that never caught on.

But perhaps the most costly of Microsoft's mistakes surfaced late in April, when the Wall Street Journal reported the Xbox 360 maker was acquiring in-game advertising firm Massive in a deal estimated to be worth $200 million to $400 million. (The deal would be officially announced in early May.) Massive lasted just four years before Microsoft shut it down, saying that Xbox Live--a platform it created and already had up and running at the time of the original acquisition--had proven to be a more lucrative advertising platform. Maybe they shouldn't have listened to all those analysts.

The Definition of Insanitii

For almost two full years prior to launch, Nintendo's Wii console was publicly referred to by the codename "Revolution." It was the Revolution in June of 2004, when Satoru Iwata revealed its first big feature in a Japanese news conference: that it would connect to PC monitors as well as TV sets, with no extra hardware needed. (Seriously.) It was still the Revolution in September of 2005, when Nintendo first showed off the system's unorthodox TV remote-style controller at the Tokyo Game Show. But in April of 2006, with months to go before the official launch, the Revolution was renamed the Wii.

"While the code-name 'Revolution' expressed our direction, Wii represents the answer," Nintendo said in its marketing materials. "Wii will break down that wall that separates video game players from everybody else. Wii will put people more in touch with their games... and each other."

Nintendo wanted the Wii to represent not just a break from the types of console experiences that had been offered in the past, but a break from its own previous missteps. Earlier in the month, Reggie Fils-Aime said the Revolution would launch alongside 20 titles specifically to avoid an early mistake that hamstrung the GameCube right out of the gates.

"You've got to deliver software, not just at launch, but you've got to deliver software in the first six to nine months after launch," Fils-Aime said. "In GameCube, we didn't have that, we had kind of a drought for six months after it launched. By that time your reputation starts to solidify and it's hard to reverse that after awhile."

One can argue Nintendo avoided a post-launch software drought with the Wii (I wouldn't, but I suppose one could argue that), but whatever lessons it learned from the GameCube's failure were short-lived at best. The 3DS launched with an uninspiring lineup of games and did little to add to it post-launch, forcing Nintendo to deeply discount the system to spike sales. The Wii U lineup was just as spotty, with Satoru Iwata publicly apologizing for a lack of new releases after delays to a wide swath of first-party games that had been planned for the system's launch window.

Reheated Hot Takes

  • Last but not least, congrats to Yannis Mallat, who this month will celebrate 10 years as CEO of Ubisoft Montreal. It's fair to say the studio's had a pretty incredible run under his stewardship.

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Latest comments (6)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 5 years ago
If god can hold a grudge over some apple for that long, then surely man can be angry about horse armor for longer than 10 years.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
Heh. I always thought the furor over the Horse Armor was stupid. I wasn't a MANDATORY purchase and it later popped up for free in the Game of the Year Editions for PC and consoles. Hell, I'm more annoyed and even more amused by this ACTUAL (and a lot more expensive to create) horse "armor:

than I was at Bethsoft for their digital one. Still, now I want to see that suit appear in the next Elder Scrolls game or maybe as an option for Roach in The Witcher 3.
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We all buy some things knowing they're cynically offered and shite. It's only the charade of pretending it's not shite that's embarrassing.
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Show all comments (6)
Benjamin Solheim Sole Shareholder, ESPN5 years ago
The funny thing is that the codec from the HD-DVD is still used by everyone for everything from DVD's to mkv to your movies files stored in your video games... so they may had failed to understand the market on hardware, it good to remember that some of the most technological advances happen because people try to advance technology.

As far as the horse armor it was expense compared to all the other stuff out there... every one has simply started raising their prices to match the growing cost of development because people have two paths these days retro it has to be fun, or aim for as much eye candy as your game can handle, which means if it has heavy amounts of geometry it needs to look good not simply add more edges, but place them so things like Fresnel effects and light hitting and bouncing from ray tracing engines hits a contiguous surface instead of hitting non-manifold quick and dirty hobbyist art. People will pay for quality, what they generally balk at is paying for a something that sorta is there. People want to look at their video games and see something appealing. Everything that takes away from that is one more maybe when it comes time to take out their credit card and everything that that makes them smile or drool is something that causes impulse buys. People waste ten times on impulse sales than they will ever spend on something that makes them stop and think about it or has to be budgeted for. Of course that also means if the impulse buys ever hit a point where the person see the credit card statement and goes ouch... that game is on the chopping block as a potential issue.

Personally I have a budget I try to keep so much money in my video game fund and when there is not something fun or interesting the money stays in the account and if there are ten sales going on that up to more than is the fund I look at what has to be bought now as bad thing and what can be bought later even at a slighter higher non sale price. The forced sale items those are usually companies using bad car sales tactics and thus those games as whole I simply put lower in the list of what I have money set aside for that month. I'm sure there are people with enough disposable income and no idea what to invest in that simply buy one or even five of everything but most of the people likely have to live on budgets either self imposed in my case or spouse imposed in many of my friends cases. We still spend money but we accept that just because we want it does not mean it is a good idea to buy it. Companies that think people are made of money tend to target kids, when I was at Disney half the support tickets dealt with a parent freaking out because the kid spent a their parents money and the parent was worried about eating and trying to figure out how to say that without feeling bad about themselves.
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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios5 years ago
As far as the horse armor it was expense compared to all the other stuff out there...
As far as I remember, Horse Armour was the first ever paid DLC in any console game - certainly on Xbox360. There was nothing else out there, and no mobile market at all. It was, perhaps, predictable that they would draw criticism whatever the content was, and far from certain that console players would spend any more on an already full price game - but it's laughable for being overly tentative and cautious, really. If they'd offered the sort of hefty expansions they later released, I think they'd have a very different place in games history. Game expansions were already a thing on PC, and fully downloadable games were selling fine on 360, so a little more confidence in their offering would have made a big difference.
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Srinidhi Naik Founder & Lead Programmer/Designer, SprySpire5 years ago
As far as I remember, Horse Armour was the first ever paid DLC in any console game - certainly on Xbox360.
Actually, there are earlier instances of paid DLC on consoles. Halo 2 had several paid map packs for a while, but they were eventually changed to be free.

The PC has a bit more history with DLC. Iin 1997 Interplay released the Cuss Pack for Redneck Rampage on their online store. It was just $1 and replaced the game's dialogue with adult oriented language.
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