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DLC: Value For Money Naysayers Are Looking At It All Wrong

By on January 31, 2010
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l4d

A comment in this interview with Rebellion’s AvP Director, David Brickley, got me thinking recently about DLC. Largely thanks to the online capabilities of seventh gen consoles it’s a sometimes controversial revenue stream that’s grown fast over the last few years, and as a result has come under close scrutiny from industry and consumers alike.

On the one hand, paid-for DLC provides developers an opportunity to release material that didn’t make the cut, extend a game’s lifecycle and generally improve a product without upsetting the money men. On the other it’s often argued that content is intentionally held back as a sly tactic to increase a game’s price point.

Brickley has this to say: “If the content is on the disc already there’s absolutely no justification for studios to offer DLC which is essentially an unlock key or something.” He goes on to support DLC in principle by saying, “But I guess what doesn’t come across to some people is that […] while [debugging, approval and manufacturing] is going on, it tends to free up resources at the studio, so they can make items that can be added on as DLC afterwards.”

As the voice of creative idealism (or youthful naivety as it’s usually termed at GAMESbrief) I feel like I need to chip in a defence – those complaining are looking at things all wrong.

While DLC in its current form is a relatively new concept, the central principle has been around forever. Today, extending a game’s lifecycle is done with multiple paid-for downloads. Yesterday that same content was released as boxed expansion packs and semi-sequels – things PC gamers have always lived with. The issue Brickley picks up on is the one I want to challenge – the idea that pre-release DLC is in someway unfair. The big sticking point for gamers is the idea of paying for something that ‘ought’ to have been part of the retail product, and has been held back purely for financial reasons – as in the Resident Evil 5 debacle.

For certain there’s something underhanded seeming about intentionally releasing a less complete product to up your revenues, and for certain this happens regularly, but that’s not something that was invented with DLC – hard and software manufacturers, not to mention just about everyone else, has been doing that for centuries.

The trap is entirely one of perception – and it’s one gamers of all people shouldn’t be falling into. For whatever reason, consumers are judging what ‘ought’ to be charged for based largely on its delivery method. Boxed expansion pack? No problem. Unlock key for content on the original game disk? Issue.

Gamers should understand that what we’re paying for isn’t a disc, or a predefined number of gameplay hours, or an expected set of play modes. You’re paying for an experience. Complaints are often around the fact that a piece of DLC was ‘meant’ to be part of the retail product and therefore shouldn’t be paid for, but that’s assuming there’s a set of predefined rules stating what is and is not considered part of a full game, and the beauty of our medium is that there isn’t. What’s more, in an industry where some products take ten years to produce, the second you start linking pricing to development time you’re entering a whole world of hurt.

Ultimately, what should and should not be paid for is defined by gamers and their buying habits – a piece of code is only worth what we’re willing to pay for it. Personally, I’d far rather buy DLC and end up paying double for a fantastic game than have to pay the same RRP for good and bad games alike. That’s a view that’s supported by the success of releases like Left 4 Dead 2. While not strictly DLC, it was widely boycotted pre-release for being what, in a game like Team Fortress 2, might have been released as a £15 mission pack or as free staggered updates. When the game came out complaints largely evaporated because ultimately £60 for just ten hours of L4D campaigns is a lot better value than £30 for ten hours of most every other game ever made.

Capcom’s Christian Svensson hits the nail on the head. “Prior to the announcement of the Versus mode, no one complained they weren’t getting their money’s worth with [Resident Evil 5][…] So if people were already satisfied with what the package had, when we offer MORE, why is it people feel they’ve been somehow cheated? If you don’t find value in our secondary offerings, the choice is simple, don’t purchase it.”

About Tom Jubert

Tom Jubert is a freelance games writer / narrative designer, best known for his work on the Penumbra series, for which he was nominated for a Writers' Guild Award. His upcoming releases include Lost Horizon and Driver: San Francisco. He was previously the Managing Editor at GameShadow.com, and has also spent time in production.
  • tomjubert

    I think you're bang on – the complaints are irrational, and either consumers need to start being more objective, or publishers need to start taking that more into account.

  • ChrisBateman

    I understand your perspective here, but it is not intuitive to consumers and as such I would claim it is flawed (despite being logical!)

    The consumer sees the situation thusly: I buy the disk, I get what's on the disk. If you put content on the disk (which I paid for) that I must pay extra for, it's a “stealth tax” or hidden fee. DLC is paying additional money for content that I did not already purchase, and is therefore acceptible. (So thinks the average consumer, I'm claiming).

    Neither are consumers alone in this regard: I've spoken to a number of developers who do not like this kind of distribution model, but have had it forced upon them by publishers.

    It's hard to come up with parallels in other media, but imagine if one purchased a DVD which had extra content upon it that the viewer had to pay a second fee to access… this is equivalent, and I don't believe DVD consumers would tolerate this situation – even if there were a logical argument in favour of it. (Even more absurd, a novel with an epilogue, but you have to buy a special pen to paint the final pages to reveal it!)

    I agree that gamers – and DVD purchasers – are buying into an experience. But the problem here is not rooted in this, but in the perception of what the act of purchasing physical media implies to the consumer. And it implies, in any case where there is not a clear role for subscription fees (e.g. MMOs), that one is buying *all* the content included on that physical media.

    Media companies run against this common perception at their own risk!

  • Good points as always, Tom.

    The bigger challenge is that it's hard for developers to “change the minds” of consumers. That is just really hard.

    People's perception of price is very fluid by platform. The same game should be $19.99 on PSP but $0.99 on iPhone, for example. Developers and publishers need to get better at the marketing message about what is “core” and what is “add-on”. It's a PR disaster to cut stuff out into the DLC – it needs to be intentionally separate.

    But it gets really interesting when you give quite a lot away for free. Great marketing, and people find it harder to bitch about price when they got a lot of value for nothing.

  • tomjubert

    Thinking about it, it's very rare that I actually purchase DLC or expansion packs. I suppose in most cases it is (almost by definition) more of the same, so you'd have to really love a game to bother.

    Does anyone buy it religiously? I can see why it would be fristrating having to wodge out every time in order to get the 'full' experience…