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Roundtable: The DLC "Problem"

Our staff discusses the issues surrounding DLC and whether gamers are being exploited

According to GameStop, every major game release for the rest of the year now comes with downloadable content (DLC) available for purchase on day one. Publishers have seen that GameStop has been able to get almost half of game buyers to add DLC to their purchase, and the result has been an ever-growing array of DLC.

Some publishers have even put additional content (that could have been DLC) on the initial game disc, which the game buyer can unlock buy spending additional money. (Capcom's use of this technique with Street Fighter X Tekken caused a consumer outcry.) Are publishers taking content that previously would have been included with the game and turning it into DLC? Are publishers using DLC as a way to increase the price of games without being too obvious?

DLC also has an effect on the pre-owned game market. When you sell a game, the DLC doesn't go with it; the new owner will have to buy it all over again. From the publisher's point of view, that means they're finally making some money from a used game sale. From the player's point of view, it means there's no way to recoup any money they may have spent on their DLC. Does this make a game less valuable?

The sheer volume of DLC being offered for some titles raises a further question: Will players feel like they're not getting their money's worth for a game when there's a lot of DLC right away? Perhaps there's a halfway point between free-to-play and a $60 game. Why don't we see a $20 game with lots of DLC to give the publisher an opportunity for profit? DLC does mean that publishers can extract more than $60 from fans of a game, but the danger is that fewer people may buy the game initially if they feel the publisher isn't giving them $60 worth of value to begin with. If publishers put more resources into developing DLC, does that mean there are fewer resources for developing brand new games? Will players turn away from games if they feel the DLC is just too much?

GamesIndustry International's staff discusses the DLC strategy in the roundtable below.

David Radd

DLC is a very dicey subject for AAA gaming and for good reason.  As a hobby, AAA gaming is already fairly expensive, particularly if you're the sort to buy games just as they come out.  Economics have meant that regular PS3 and Xbox 360 games come out at $60 - most people are willing to accept that.  Special and collector's editions can run between $80 - $100 or more, but usually the extras are secondary to the game itself or not deeply impactful... but some exceptions with day one DLC are disturbing.

"This is a service industry and we have to remember that it does no one any good if our customers are slowly becoming more bitter and jaded"

David Radd

BioWare games are a good example of getting day one DLC both right and wrong.  Dragon Age: Origins gave "The Stone Prisoner" DLC with an exclusive companion for free with every new copy of the game... but at the same time, there is a character that appears in your camp asking you to purchase the Warden's Keep DLC, which as Penny Arcade artfully pointed out, is both immersion breaking and manipulative.  While Dragon Age II gave all the paid day one DLC for free to everyone who pre-ordered (before a certain date) Mass Effect 3 felt like a regression; the day one DLC "From Ashes" including a companion who is generally regarded as a huge addition to the story, only comes with those who purchase the collector's edition and everyone else has to pay $10 for something that should probably be included in all versions of the game.

No company has done a worse job handling their day one DLC than Capcom. Capcom's tact of including DLC on the disc has led some to accuse them of being lazy and contemptuous of customers.  Some examples, including hidden characters in Street Fighter X Tekken, the real ending of Asura's Wrath and extra quests in Dragon's Dogma - it's debatable whether any of this should have been paid DLC at all, let alone locked on the disc.  Capcom caused such an uproar over on-disc DLC that they announced publicly that they are changing their corporate mindset.

It's a positive that companies like Capcom and Bethsoft are learning to deal with DLC in a correct fashion.  After the "Horse Armor" debacle with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the first DLC release for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was "Dawnguard", releasing several months after the original game, modding it quite a bit and bringing a host of new additions.  Regardless of whether one thinks it's a great addition to the game or not, "Dawnguard" is an example of how to add to an existing product.

Certain DLC options are a little more difficult to parse - for instance, multiplayer.  If a company wants to have an "online pass" and perhaps charge for content in that game mode or release it for free (or some combination of both) I feel they should be allowed to assuming it doesn't disrupt game balance.  However, all additional costs are another barrier to entry, and that diminishes something very significant if impossible to measure: good will.  Mobile games that cost a fraction of AAA games give out new content for free all the time - granted it costs less to make that content, but nothing happens in a vacuum and most customers are well aware of whatever value proposition they're getting into.  This is a service industry and we have to remember that it does no one any good if our customers are slowly becoming more bitter and jaded about our games because of the way parts of them are sold.

Rachel Weber

"Wait up, Johnny Tolkien, you mean I just bought this Rings book, and you're already writing another one? Screw you!"

"No one in the posh offices at EA or Activision or Sony is watching what you're saying on the forum; they're watching where you put your credit card"

Rachel Weber

As gamers we seem pretty quick to call shenanigans, and as far as I can see, so far, it isn't justified. There may be a day when I get halfway through an epic RPG and it demands my credit details for the ending, or my space warrior is naked until I spend money to buy her some pants and some dignity, and then I'll shenanigan with the best of them. For now it's a basic transaction, a bit of extra content for a bit of extra cash.

Do you know what I wanted to do when I finished Mass Effect 3? Play more Mass Effect 3. And I could do so right away thanks to the From Ashes DLC. I wanted the same from Skyrim, but Dawnguard is still a mile off on PS3. There's a good chance by the time it rolls around I'll be obsessed with something else. Developers know that, and they've adapted. It's not a scam, it's not a way to make games more expensive, it's not going to make gamers stop buying traditional £40 titles. It's supply and demand.

Developers have big teams; they can create a damn good game and DLC at the same time. It doesn't mean you're getting ripped off any more than it does if you go to a restaurant and you order the side salad. If you don't like it, don't buy it. No one in the posh offices at EA or Activision or Sony is watching what you're saying on the forum; they're watching where you put your credit card.

Steve Peterson

I think publishers have to be more careful than ever that a game contains enough value to justify its $60 price point. Really, you want the purchaser to feel great that they only paid $60 for this amazing game. The odds of selling DLC are much better if the customer feels they got a great value with the initial purchase. Conversely, you're not going to do well with DLC if the purchaser felt the game was too short, or wasn't interesting enough to want to play more.

"Poorly done DLC can poison the waters for all publishers, if players feel they're being exploited"

Steve Peterson

Customers get really angry if they feel that the DLC is necessary to really enjoy the game. Making me pay extra to find out how the game ends would really make me mad. The controversy over DLC included on the disc is misguided, in my view. It's more convenient to me if I don't have to download the content. I'd be happier if the whole disc was filled with content that would allow me to keep enjoying the game, paying for what sounds interesting and ignoring the rest.

I really think that digital distribution makes a hybrid model possible, something between freemium and traditional. Sell a cool game for $20, then have a steady stream of DLC if people get into the game. This needs a game design that lends itself to the business model, of course. Telltale Games has been doing episodic games for a while with some success. Maybe other games could be split into smaller chunks; maybe a racing game has a dozen tracks and a couple dozen cars for $20 instead of 70 tracks and a thousand cars for $60, but you can buy more tracks and more cars in smaller chunks. Or an FPS starts with only a handful of maps and weapons, and expands later with more maps, characters, and armaments.

Really, the publishers have to start thinking and designing outside the box... the box they ship to retailers, I mean. Digital distribution and DLC should be freeing up game designs, not being stuck onto the same old designs as a way to generate more profit. Poorly done DLC can poison the waters for all publishers, if players feel they're being exploited. Remember, there are more and more free alternatives out there competing for gamers' attention.

Mike Williams

I love me some downloadable content. Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Assassin's Creed, Saints Row: The Third; if I've bought it, I've probably picked up some of the DLC for it. Pre-order freebies, additional game modes for buying new copies, and additional characters are all versions of DLC I've enjoyed.

Can DLC be handled poorly? Of course. Despite being a lover of additional content, when Capcom announced its byzantine DLC plans for Street Fighter x Tekken, the game became a no-sale for me. The NPC in Dragon Age: Origins pointing you towards the Warden's Keep DLC was jarring. Nothing is more frustrating than retailer-exclusive pre-order DLC that you can't buy after launch through other means.

"The problem for publishers is that consumers are now more price conscious than ever before"

James Brightman

These days, DLC is planned and teams are set aside specifically to work on additional content. The argument that we're losing out on content that could've been in the game without DLC is the vaguest of hypotheticals. There's an entire website dedicated to content left on the cutting room floor because ultimately a game has to go gold. It's just as relevant to ask: what if DLC had existed before now? How much of that content could you have played?

A larger problem is console publishers not willing to experiment enough with DLC. There's no reason for the binary choice between $60 + DLC or free-to-play. Telltale has been successful with its episodic model, but others don't seem to be picking it up. THQ tried the cheaper $40 price point with DLC for a single title (MX vs. ATV Alive) before running away from the entire idea. Publishers need to realize the DLC is offering them flexibility. Deciding not to take advantage of that flexibility is short-sighted.

Additional content for games is great. Being able to decide a la carte what you want to pay for is great. We should turn our attention to publishers that implement DLC poorly, not the idea of DLC itself.

James Brightman

The problem for publishers is that consumers are now more price conscious than ever before. With the economy still depressed and a flood of free-to-play titles available for gamers, many will think twice before plunking down another $10 or $15 to make an already expensive $60 title effectively a $75 title.

That said, as others have pointed out, so long as consumers feel they are getting value, and the DLC offers a robust extension to the main game experience, no player can rightly complain. Nobody's holding a gun to any gamer's head, forcing a $15 purchase. If the DLC "problem" is so terrible, then there's a very simple solution: don't buy it. Publishers will take note of that in a heartbeat.

In truth, though, I think that DLC is just the start of the evolution of this industry to a digital, services oriented business. While free-to-play may not successfully capture the whole triple-A console audience, an a la carte option to offer chunks of that $60 experience and more could be compelling. Many people don't even complete games they are playing, so why pay for that last $20 worth when you've already lost interest or have better entertainment options pulling you away.

And if physical is still predominant, there shouldn't be a problem with putting it all on the disc. If all games sold for $20, I'm sure the business would see a jump in software sales. The player could then have the option to unlock the full game right away for another $40 or wait to see what the experience is like before paying to unlock in increments.

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