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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.

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Latest comments (11)

Mark Raymond Functionality Tester, SEGA Europe11 years ago
I think what most consumers are afraid of is developers or publishers cutting off chunks of their game and then charging for it as additional DLC. When companies already have the content there on disc and then charge for an unlock key, it comes off as being held to ransom, and it doesn't imbue gamers with a lot of trust.
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Tommy Thompson Studying Artificial Intelligence (PhD), University of Strathclyde11 years ago
I agree with Mark, the biggest issue that can rise are these DLC packs who identity and ideology does not merit a pricetag of £5-15. Especially when all it does is add a small feature that either already exists on the disc or could have been applied with 5 minutes of effort. The versus mode in Resident Evil 5 immediately springs to mind.

People should be aware that the industry is now moving into a development strategy that plans for DLC early. I have no qualms with that provided we see some substantial content that enhances the existing gameplay or story. The GTA4 episodes and Fallout 3's quest packs are great examples of how to enrich the game with new content and bring old players back.

Simply put, the DLC needs to have a sufficient hook to sell itself to the consumer. Extra weapons or armour like in Dead Space, Mass Effect 2 etc. (or as said the infamous Horse Armour from Oblivion) will, for the most part, only aggravate gamers since they will now feel cheated out of content that seems like it should have been on the disc in the first place.

I also feel that the time at which DLC is released is critical to any opinions that form in a gamers mind. The recent strategy by the likes of EA and Activision to release DLC on the day of release will not help matters. If a gamer places their recently purchased game into the drive and discover there is an extra £10-15 worth of content there to buy right now, irrespective of the time difference in development and testing, that will just anger the consumer. Releasing new levels/maps/modes etc. say 10 weeks after release - even it it's already completed and ready to ship - gives the game greater longevity. It also gives the game a chance to develop some word of mouth, get people to buy it and then complete it before new content rolls in.

If the DLC is relevant, enriching and fresh, and the price tag reasonable, people will buy it.
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Ricardo Rodrigues Business Development, Warner Brothers11 years ago
Very interesting article. I understand the argument about how the timing of a DLC release may influence how the business is perceived by gamers - if on the same day as the original game is released = greed; if a few weeks later = commitment to improving the gaming experience. However, this is an interesting point, especially if we try to establish a parallel with the movie industry. Can't this be considered the same as, say, two different versions of a DVD being released on the same day? You have the normal version, with the basic features, and then a 2-disc special with extra features for a higher price point. All content was previously available and ready. But the business reason here is market segmentation (die-hard, less price-sensitive fans). Couldn't DLC be perceived the same way? Basic content for basic gamers and, if you're a 'better' fan than for £5 more you can have access to extra features. Also sounds reasonable to me. But all depends on how gaming companies communicate this to the 'mortal' world outside their usually high and thick walls. It's all about how they engage their audience.
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Show all comments (11)
Mark Raymond Functionality Tester, SEGA Europe11 years ago
I feel that I have to reiterate Tommy's point where he says "the time at which DLC is released is critical to any opinions that form in a gamers mind. The recent strategy by the likes of EA and Activision to release DLC on the day of release will not help matters."

Regardless of whether that content was budgeted separately as a supplement to the main game – stuff that maybe wouldn't have been released at all otherwise – it gives off the impression that content from the full game has been held back on purpose, only to be repackaged as DLC.

A recent example of this sticks in mind, and that's Borderlands. Just a few days before the game even hit retail they had already announced the Zombie Island DLC and some of what it offered. Before you've even got the game home from the shops there's already that nagging feeling that you've not got the "full" experience!

Of course, that isn't true, but, again, it adds weight to the unsettling suspicion of being nickled and dimed. If they had just timed the announcement better, it wouldn't have even been an issue. As a parallel, Bethesda did a brilliant job in spreading across the release of their DLC. Instead of the cries of "Too soon!", people were talking about how genuinely excited they were to pick up their controllers and revisit that world.


I think it is about companies needing to communicate that message across more effectively. I also think it's about what content you choose to make exclusive to special editions, as some things will be seen as acceptable by the gaming public and some won't.

For instance, I think EA's day-one DLC for some cool armour and accessories worked really well. If, however, they'd done that for an MMO or a competitive online FPS, it would have been a bit different.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Mark Raymond on 12th February 2010 2:44pm

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Patrick Williams Medicine and Research 11 years ago
An excellent article reviewing several of the problems of past DLC.

Value: GTA's expansion vs frivolities like character skins.

Completion: ACII's major problem is that it REALLY looked like it was missing content because these missing DLC episodes were actually mentioned in the game as missing content. This is a classical example of how it looked like you're being sold something that looks like it should have been included in the first place.

I think Rob Fahey hit the nail right on the head that EA's new project is about targeting the GameStop trick of selling a used game for 5-10 dollars less than the new version. It adds extra value to people buying the original game. Not everyone who buys the used copy will pay for the extra stuff, but a few will, so it gives EA some of the money they wouldn't have received anyway from the used sale. I think EA will need to sweeten the deal a bit more to make things interesting. ME2 and DA:O both had new valuable and interesting characters, an extra level and some equipment (Zaeed vs Shale, Vido Santiago vs Cadash Thaig). If EA contiue the trend of adding 'free' content to the Cerberus Network in ME2, it would add further motivation for players to 'subscribe' to it. Something that wasn't mentioned about EA's DLC is that if you purchased DA:O, you had a code for extra content in ME2. This kind of cross-game 1x DLC also is a good motivator to purchase the original titles. I think a good move for EA would've been to include a similar cerberus network to DA:O and funnel the Ostagar and Grey Warden's Keep DLC through there because of how short each episode was. This would address the value discrepancy in DLC, where you can get so much out of a $20 episode of GTA, yet so little from spending $20 on extra DA:O content.

Companies are experimenting with DLC differently and they should be careful not to alienate potential customers with poorly thought out plans.

The only thing this article did not mention that it should have is the proportion of people who are aware of DLC and are willing to purchase it. GTA's episodes sold well, but nowhere near as well as they could have considering the monumental sales of GTAIV. When marketing DLC, companies are only reaching a fraction of the potential user base.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Patrick Williams on 13th February 2010 1:22pm

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Arman Borghem Studying Juristprogrammet, Stockholm University11 years ago
"Can't this be considered the same as, say, two different versions of a DVD being released on the same day?"[...]"Couldn't DLC be perceived the same way? Basic content for basic gamers and, if you're a 'better' fan than for £5 more you can have access to extra features. Also sounds reasonable to me."

Some games are released with a special edition containing extra features such as a commentary track and behind-the-scenes content. I don't think we'll see any controversy over that kind of thing. As for deleted scenes, you know that they are just that. They were deleted for a reason – because they didn’t fit in the movie for whatever reason. As for Director’s Cut, you still know exactly what you’re getting on the original DVD: the movie as shown in cinemas. There’s no guarantee that a Director’s Cut for every single movie is going to show up down the line, but for bigger releases you can be reasonably sure. I don’t think they’re usually released simultaneously anyway. It’s a much more predictable process than DLC is for games.

What I think some consumers find provocative is the idea that actual gameplay or narrative content directly related to the experience of playing the game they bought is released as DLC, for a price. It all depends on the DLC, of course. Whether the Versus mode for Resident Evil 5 required a download of X or Y amount of megabytes should be irrelevant (a legacy from the past, when more CDs equaled a better game?). Not only is the added value of the DLC under scrutiny, but the development effort required to make it becomes of vital importance. Scratch that, I meant the perceived development effort. The price point of a game can be seen as everything from too high to a bargain, and the same is true for DLC. If the development effort really does justify the price, it becomes an issue of communicating that fact.

There is also the issue of consumers not being sure if the “full” game they buy has been developed to be a complete experience from the start. Does the game really stand firmly on its own, without the need to pay for more? The worth of the game proper becomes paramount. DLC that should have been included in the game from the start is not a sign of bad DLC, it’s a sign of a bad game, period. Thus, it has suddenly become much more important for consumers (or at least hard core gamers) to know in advance exactly what they are getting in a game before they buy it. In this sense, they feel an extra burden has been placed on them: they have to do more research in advance when choosing which games to buy in order to make the best deal.

It also means that marketers and game journalists have an even greater responsibility than before: to give as accurate an image as possible of exactly what is in a game, and what is not. The same goes for DLC: what does it add and does it have aspirations to “complete” an experience that was supposed to already be just that? Consumers might ask themselves if marketers are the best people to ask that kind of question. Will the “you want to own the complete experience, don’t you?”-card be played so many times that it loses its credibility? Will we hear it regardless of whether the DLC in question has those aspirations or not? Isn't there a conflict of interest here? Worst case, pre-release hype is diminished because gamers are used to know what they're getting – now they don't, because games have traditionally been perceived as one experience, the role of expansions being larger, packaged releases in their own right. So will we see a trend towards more easily communicable DLC? It might be more difficult to communicate the ramifications of an intricate addition as compared to X number of additional maps. On the other hand, the intricate addition might be more interesting and rewarding for players.

There is also the conundrum of when to announce and put out DLC. If announced in advance of the game’s release (and possibly even released on the same day as the game), consumers might feel, correctly or not, that the game they paid for isn’t complete. Some amount of disappointment might emerge. Or worse – it could prevent purchase in the first place. But if a company waits to announce DLC until shortly after release of the full game, and the DLC is put out say a month later, gamers might feel cheated: they didn’t know that more stuff was coming, it wasn’t part of the deal (of buying a “full” game). Again, it depends on the DLC. Also, it’s probably within the first month of a game’s release that it’s played the most, and when most people can be exposed to the possibility of buying DLC, especially for smaller sums. A new character skin is more attractive before you have played the game rather than immediately after (although it could provide an incentive to replay the game later). If developers start to put out DLC after the game’s release but don’t wait long enough, some people might wait to purchase the game, wanting to examine what any DLC brings to the table before they make up their minds. Waiting too long could on the other hand mean a new marketing push is needed (this is of course justified when we’re talking bigger DLC releases such as those for Fallout 3 or GTA IV).

Again, the reason why there might be a backlash against EA’s “Project Ten Dollar” is that it complicates matters. Is the 10 dollar’s worth of DLC a bonus for first-hand buyers or a punishment for second hand buyers? Even if the proverbial line in the sand is never crossed, even if the DLC in question is really just an addition to the core game experience, wheels are turning inside the head of gamers: “Where is the 10 dollars worth of content coming from? The standard game development budget? Isn’t that content which would have been included in the game if it weren’t for Project Ten Dollar? Maybe the initiative will finance itself in the long run. But what about now? I used to buy some games new and some second hand, now I have to prioritize!” Project Ten Dollar equals more things that consumers have to think about. Because I think they do, or maybe that should be could do, because the process was transparent enough before that they could see the business model if they thought about it. Now, things are turning less clear.

While I'm sure it's true that a lot of content has never seen the light of day because there was no way to distribute it, this is not true for all content. Before, any free post-release content was considered a bonus. And while the amount of post-release content has surely increased, it's not considered Pareto optimal because now there’s a price tag attached. And so gamers might also perceive DLC to be a threat against these kinds of free post-release bonuses. Business people might be inclined to think strictly along the lines of marketing and delivering a very specific product and charging for it. But in some ways, this is the model we’re moving towards now, not the one that has dominated before.

Finally, and this concerns primarily PC gamers, DLC can be perceived as a threat to mod support from developers, and in the long run a threat to the PC as a platform. Compare the post-release models of Dawn of War II/World in Conflict to the one for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The first two are strategy games on the PC, and the developers that made them have focused on selling bigger expansion(s) instead of bite-sized content such as new maps. An expansion requires a relatively substantial effort to make, with new art, units, cut scenes, items, gameplay elements, voice acting etc. The kind of project a mod community usually doesn’t try to compete with (although there are certainly exceptions). New maps, on the other hand, are easier for a mod community to make. A map is less likely to take two years to make and then be canceled half-way into development, a fate I’ve seen far too many mod projects face.

And so. You might argue that DLC allows a developer to reach a bigger audience. Modern Warfare 2 is a multiplatform title. How many people will Infinity Ward reach with their DLC content? People on all three platforms. How many people would mod makers reach? Only those on the PC.

But PC gamers also see the other side of the coin. They see the lack of mod support in games like Modern Warfare 2 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Something considered a given before has now turned into a possible addition. And for what? Because people pay for DLC on consoles while it is expected to be free on PC? Because other people pirate DLC on PC but this is impossible on consoles? I’m not sure myself, but I can see how some people think along these lines. And meanwhile, one thing remains certain: there is no mod support in Modern Warfare 2 and Bad Company 2. But there was in Modern Warfare, and there was in Battlefield 2.

Consoles scare hard core PC gamers. And consoles and DLC go hand in hand.

What do you guys think?
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Christopher Bowen Owner, Gaming Bus 11 years ago
My issue with DLC isn't so much with things that add functionality for a game so much as it is when the DLC feels necessary.

On the one hand, you have games like Tales of Vesperia. They have DLC that gives you gold, levels, etc. It's not necessary to play the game, but it definitely helps, and someone who doesn't feel like grinding for levels can certainly see that purchase looking mighty good, especially since in the old days, a quick Gameshark code did the same thing. This isn't too bad, but what I'm noticing in my favourite game IS bad.

In NHL '10, there are downloadable "boost" packs that make your player better in Be A Pro mode. This wouldn't be too big a deal for me normally; they only get your guy started, and once he hits a certain point, those boosts no longer help. But those boost packs are also useable online. Now, you have a completely different standard: this is a game that requires a LOT of playtime to get your avatar to a usable point. I'm a professional; there's only so much time I have in my day, because I have other games I have to play and I don't game in all of my free time. I don't have the time to sit there and play this game enough to be good. But if I don't buy this boost pack, I'm suddenly ten to fifteen, and in some cases twenty points worse than the people I'm playing against. In a case like this, for playing in OTP, I have two choices: buy the boost pack (I forget the cost), or be at a significant disadvantage against other people who either did put the time in, or do have the boost pack.

THIS is where DLC comes into play. Add that to the point that consumers just don't trust a lot of game developers. How can you blame them? Game reviews are selectively embargoed based on score, so reviews are skewed. Companies like Activision are on record as saying they're trying to bring the price up of their goods. What's to say some company - especially in the era of release day DLC, where you can buy things for a game the day they're released - isn't going to pare away a part of a game that wouldn't be released otherwise? How can any reasonable man assume that's the case when companies are selling little more than downloadable codes for information already on the disc?
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Chris Karpyszyn Programmer, King Beaver Software11 years ago
I feel the direction Electronic Arts is taking with "Project 10 Dollar" is a brilliant move to not only thwart second hand sales but piracy as well. Lately consumers have felt like they have been punished for purchasing a game with restrictive anti-piracy measures.

Now there is extra incentive to buy the game as well as consumers feeling rewarded for buying the game. I really feel that this is the first time day one DLC is done properly.
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Ignatius Fernandes Studying Computer Science, Kingston University11 years ago
DLC's are fine they arent really grabbing money from gamers when they are released appropriately to ensure the longevity of the game.

But when you get publishers who release DLCs from the day of the games launch is kinda taking a bi too far. Why not release the content in the actual game rather then the DLC which is released on Day 1
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Arman Borghem Studying Juristprogrammet, Stockholm University11 years ago
"Why not release the content in the actual game rather then the DLC which is released on Day 1"

Because the game proper has its own budget and sales expectations, which the DLC is separate from. And all other things being equal, it's better to have the opportunity to buy DLC than not to, wouldn't you say?

So it comes down to whether the game itself is worth the money or not. If you think that it's not, but would have been worth the money if the DLC had been included, then I understand your frustration. But you can't possibly argue that it would have been better if the game had been exactly the same but they didn't release the DLC at all. As for releasing the same DLC on day one or day thirty... well, read my lengthy post above. I'm certainly not saying that DLC is always without its problems.
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Before DLC some games would struggle to get an ‘expansion’ pack because the potential market of say 25-30% of the original games sales weren’t exciting enough for retailers to give up the shelf space for.

With DLC the economics are much more interesting for the dev/publishers and therefore many, many more games are getting extra content. I doubt that this will be used as a way of getting extra $ for content that should have been there originally.

The trick is to make it easy for the legitimate consumer to get hold of the DLC – I had to wait until the GOTY edition of Fallout3 came out such was the rigmarole of trying to buy and use the DLC…
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