DLC doubts and digital distress
10 Years Ago This Month: Epic and Rockstar ponder their digital futures as Media Molecule reckons with its own online woes
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, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.
Problems with pirates
Phrases such as 'DLC,' 'post-launch content,' and 'digital sales' are so standard in the industry in 2018 that we barely think about them, but 10 years ago this month, the question of what digital meant for the video game industry was still widely debated and examined. That's even true for companies that are now synonymous with digital content - in this case, Epic Games.
Then-president of the company, Dr. Michael Capps, spoke with GamesIndustry.biz at the time and shared some interesting perspectives and predictions about the company's approach to digital content. For context, at the time Epic was mainly known for the Gears of War and Unreal Tournament games, both of which have eventually lent themselves nicely to DLC. But at the time, Capps was concerned about how retailers might approach the encroaching threat of digital content to physical sales, and how piracy would affect even AAA titles:
"Way more than twice as many people played Gears than bought it"Dr. Michael Capps
"I'm not sure how big it is here [in Europe], but the secondary market is a huge issue in the United States. Our primary retailer makes the majority of its money off of secondary sales, and so you're starting to see games taking proactive steps toward that by...if you buy the retail version you get the unlock code.
"I've talked to some developers who are saying 'If you want to fight the final boss you go online and pay $20, but if you bought the retail version you got it for free.' We don't make any money when someone rents it, and we don't make any money when someone buys it used - way more than twice as many people played Gears than bought it."
Though Capps' predictions regarding piracy and how DLC was treated for physical editions of games didn't quite pan out, he did accurately anticipate that digital was still "a long way" from totally decimating impulse buys in brick and mortar stores.
Niko Bellic and the Big DLC Release
Epic Games wasn't the only company with DLC heavy on its mind 10 years ago. Dan Houser's been a familiar name in the news this past month with Red Dead Redemption 2's launch, but in November of 2008, Rockstar's co-founder was struggling to put a date on the release of GTA IV's DLC, as well as manage audience expectations.
That DLC turned out to be two pieces of episodic content - The Lost and the Damned, and The Ballad of Gay Tony - that would later be released as a standalone game, but on initial release were exclusive to the Xbox 360 following a $50 million deal with Microsoft for the content.
"Doing a big digital launch is something we've never done before," Houser said. "It's virgin territory, but at the same time, we feel very exposed because there's no case history. No one ever came out with major DLC for a major game like this before.
"No one ever came out with major DLC for a major game like this before"Dan Houser
"How to price it. Whether to release it day-and-date everywhere...Europe and the US. I'm sure will be day-and-date or within a few days, but I'm not sure about Japan. It's a small Xbox market...You even have to ask what time to release it at. We have some experience of doing through releasing our trailers. It can slow down sections of the 'Net. What works as a great time on the east coast may be late for Europe and too early for the west coast. Those are all things we wouldn't normally think about."
The end result of both the technical challenge of these episodic DLC releases and the uncertainty of when and what to do with them was that they released almost a year or more (10 and 18 months, respectively) later. The first, Lost and Damned, apparently set Xbox Live records and both eventually went on to get physical releases.
Though at the time Take Two CEO Ben Feder felt the late timing of the releases affected their performance, they were apparently successful enough that as recently as 2017, Rockstar was pondering future single-player DLC strategies based on their success.
While single-player giants were pondering what to do with their digital escapades, Media Molecule had its own headache. 10 years ago, LittleBigPlanet was seeing a flood of copyrighted material inserted into the game's user-created levels, including content from games such as Metal Gear Solid, The Legend of Zelda, Batman, and Scrubs.
Predictably, users were less than thrilled at the prospect of hours of hard work down the drain. The issue at the time was that rather than simply removing the offending content from the levels themselves, users were seeing entire levels deleted, often ones that had taken hours to create. Once those levels were deleted, there was no way to bring them back or re-edit them to remove the offending content. Some users at the time were reporting that levels were deleted not for containing copyrighted imagery, but for sharing titles with existing properties.
Media Molecule was forced to look over its moderation system and has seemingly had far fewer troubles since. And fortunately, the studio has also had 10 years and a sequel to perfect content moderation ahead of the far more ambitious Dreams, so there should be nothing to worry about now...right?
● Activision appeared in the news a few times that same month. The first and tamest instance involved the company continuing its spree of acquisitions. After picking up FreeStyleGames in September, the company took on another Guitar Hero partner in November of 2008 - Budcat Creations.
● Unfortunately, late-2008 was right on the tail end of Guitar Hero's popularity, and in a story that wouldn't be out of place had it occurred this year, Activision shuttered Budcat two years later in 2010, laying off 88 workers.
● In other, unrelated news from 2008 Activision, Infinity Ward director of communications Robert Bowling decided 10 years ago he'd had enough of Activision producer Noah Heller's casual comparisons of Call of Duty: World at War to various Infinity Ward-developed Call of Duty games, and unleashed an absolute onslaught of insults in a since-removed blog post. I'll leave the worst of it to the original posting, but suffice to say Bowling felt Heller was "completely fucking wrong."