The downloadable content dilemma

Editor’s Note: This originated as an essay for a college English course in April 2012. The essay has been slightly updated and reformatted for a more journalistic read. Bibliography information was converted to contextual references or anchor links.

Grumpy Cat, hate DLC“People are definitely a company’s greatest asset. It doesn’t make any difference whether the product is cars or cosmetics; a company is only as good as the people it keeps,” says Mary Kay Ash of Mary Kay Cosmetics.

When it comes to the video game industry and its success over the past three decades, publishers and developers seem to have lost sight of the above statement. As companies have given into the temptation of making a few extra bucks, the popularity of gutting a game and selling the removed content via micro transactions has grown in popularity.

Furthermore, content that was previously unlocked through hard work or cheat codes and cheat devices has been turned into revenue by companies offering paid unlock keys.

Release-day add-ons for games are practically an expected inclusion in new games and companies are coming up with clever ways of getting more nickels and dime from their customer base, using methods such as including certain release-day DLC with pre-ordered games and retailer-exclusive add-ons.

The games industry has also targeted the used games market by locking out content to gamers that don’t buy new. The worst part is that these corporate giants turn around and market their shady tactics in a positive light. However, as gamers become more knowledgeable about these issues, companies are starting to see that it’s not paying off the way they may have hoped. Let’s take a look at just a few of the ways companies are making an extra buck by scheming on unsuspecting consumers.

What is DLC and when did it come to consoles?

Though downloadable updates, add-ons, expansions and other content has been around in the PC world for years, the origin of console DLC can be traced back to the introduction of Microsoft into the gaming world with the original Xbox console.

The Xbox’s advanced Internet connectivity allowed the previously PC-exclusive ability to offer extra content via downloads to become available to console owners. While Sega experimented with DLC through its failed Dreamcast console by delivering simple, free DLC like roster updates in football games, it was the Xbox that popularized DLC. Microsoft was also the first company to charge money for DLC.

Online passes

Perhaps, the most frustrating type of DLC is an online pass, which according to video game publisher Electronic Arts, is a one-time use code which can be redeemed through a console’s online marketplace and gives gamers, “access to online features and bonus content for [games]”. The online pass was first introduced by EA, but since then, most companies have adopted similar schemes.

The main reason for the inclusion of these passes is that publishers like EA do not make any money on used game sales. So, to help recoup losses, these passes are offered as an incentive to buy new. If a gamer buys a used copy of a game that uses an online pass, that gamer can still play online or access bonus features, but they must pay for the content separately on their console’s marketplace. Individual, downloadable passes usually sell for approximately $10. This can defeat the purpose of buying used because it often times causes a game to cost the same, if not more than a new copy.

I recently purchased a game called, Rage. The publisher decided to include online access and instead lock out a portion of the single-player experience for those who didn’t activate a pass code. I bought the game used, from the website I made this choice not only because of a hefty discount, but because their policy is to include the codes even with used games.

According to GameFly’s website, “You will not need to buy the Online Pass code when you purchase an EA SPORTS [or another company’s] game from GameFly. All new and used GameFly purchases come with the game’s original case, manuals and contents”.

I later realized that the code for this particular game was only included with a special edition of the game and that GameFly only sells the standard edition. This forced me to either have to pay for the pass, which made the game cost more than a new copy, or return the game and buy it elsewhere. I ended up doing the latter and about a week later, I was able to enjoy the full experience. In the end, I still saved about $6 under the cost of buying new, but it was a frustrating situation that left me feeling like I was punished for trying to save money.

Holding back content to sell as add-ons

Another growing trend is the removal of in-game content in order for publishers to sell the removed content as DLC. Basically, developers are creating a full-game experience and then publishers are locking out certain parts of the game, only to turn around and sell the content as if it were an add-on. Some publishers and developers warn customers about this but for those that don’t, there isn’t any real solid proof of this practice, but many gamers have extracted files from game discs using a PC to find that files for upcoming DLC characters, vehicles and other such content were already on the disc.

Using this method, hackers have even been able to unlock DLC on certain games before the content was available for purchase.

According to video game website, Lens of Truth “…It appears hackers have unlocked [all of the DLC characters for the newest Street Fighter game]. The characters appear on the roster, have the correct intros, the right names and titles”.

Street Fighter 4, Ryu, KenOf course many publishers including Street Fighter publisher, Capcom as well as EA, Ubisoft, Activision and others have denied this practice, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that these publishers are engaging in this practice.

If that seems like bad business, consider the cost of this content. New games already range from $40-60, but publishers like Activision are selling downloadable “map packs” (a collection of two to four multiplayer maps) for its extremely popular Call of Duty series for $15 a pack .With at least four packs released per game in the series, gamers are paying well over $100 for the full experience.

Paying for unlocks

Another example of the abuse of micro-transactions is charging for the ability to unlock in-game content without putting in the work to unlock it through gameplay. Unlocking content early used to be done by using a pre-programmed cheat code or inexpensive cheat device years ago. The unlock packs can cost anywhere from $1-5, depending on the game. These particular DLC offerings aren’t even extra content; they simply unlock content that can be unlocked through normal gameplay.

Publishers also use clever marketing for these unlock packs in order to play on the emotions of gamers who have jobs, families and little time to sit down and play games. The use of the phrase, “Time-Savers Pack” in place of the phrase “Unlock Everything Pack” (Unlock Everything is a phrase that used to be used for cheat codes, so most gamers are familiar with it) is an interesting way to make gamers think they are getting something special, despite the fact that the same outcome used to be achieved for free using a cheat code and can still be achieved by simply playing through the game. While these companies do warn the consumer that the content can be unlocked for free via regular gameplay, it can be confusing if a gamer is not familiar with this type of content.

A failed DLC approach

Some companies have been a little more creative in their approach when it comes to DLC. A recent racing game from publisher, THQ entitled MX Vs. ATV Alive was a sequel in a long-running series that started off strong in the PlayStation 2 days, but was doing poorly in the current generation. In an attempt to revive the failing series, THQ decided to try something new. Instead of charging $60 for the game and then releasing add-on content, the publisher decided to sell the game with less on-disc content at $40 and offer the rest of the content as DLC right from the day the game released. The idea was that some gamers would be satisfied with the core experience, but those who wanted the full game could buy the extra content. At the same time, THQ hoped more copies of the game would sell, overall, considering the lower price of the game.

While this was an interesting idea, the base game was too shallow, which hurt its review scores and caused the game to sell poorly anyway.

In the July 2011 issue of Xbox Magazine, reviewer Andrew Hayward summed up the game’s shortcomings by saying, “It almost feels like the game is holding tracks and vehicles hostage, constantly tempting [players] to drop a few bucks to purchase additional courses or even snag the unlock-all DLC key”.

MX vs ATV Alive, THQ, Sac City GamerAt least THQ admitted it was a failed experiment with THQ’s then CEO, Brian Farrell claiming in a PlayStation Lifestyle article that “Our takeaway there is, it’s not a great model in the console market because with the high fixed cost of goods in the current console model, you can’t get the price low enough to drive that installed base for the client out there to drive the DLC”.

The real issue may have been that the cost of the extra content was simply too high. An extra motorcycle was $3 and an extra helmet for a rider was $1. The content too expensive and for gamers to gain the full experience, it still would cost well over $60. To buy every single piece of content offered, it would cost over $100.

Of course, there is always a good side to consider in any situation. From a business standpoint, companies are losing millions of dollars each year on big-budget games that sell under the projected sales goals. The high cost of development in an HD gaming market makes profitability difficult. The MX Vs. ATV fiasco contributed to THQ’s $56 million loss in 2011, says News Editor Alexander Sliwinski. Due in part to this and a few other financial blunders THQ recently filed for bankruptcy and sold all of its assets.

DLC from the view-point of the developers and publishers

Still, from the view of the publishers and developers, it is important for these companies to recoup their losses, and not all DLC is bad. A lot of it is done correctly as proper add-on content, which is developed after a game is released. Other content is given to gamers for free, like an offering for EA’s SSX snowboarding game that included two new characters, four new snowboards and a new mission at no extra cost, as detailed in a PlayStation blog post by Grace Chen.

Some developers and publishers defend their DLC, even the DLC that has proved to be the most hated by gamers. Capcom, which has had ten complaints with the Better Business Bureau in the last year, told Joystiq’s Richard Mitchell that, “the on-disc content ‘will provide more flexible and efficient gameplay throughout the game’s life cycle.’ The statement adds that the only difference between on-disc and off-disc DLC is delivery method, with Capcom noting there is ‘effectively no distinction’ between them.”

The good side of DLC and a solution to fix the problems

So what’s the solution to the DLC dilemma? There is certainly a divide among gamers when it comes to answering that question. Some gamers have abandoned certain companies and others simply refuse to buy DLC at all. However, an April 2012 PlayStation: The Official Magazine article entitled, “The best and worst DLC on PS3 and how to make it better” by Richard Cobbett shows that a large majority of gamers like DLC if it’s done correctly.

Undead Nightmare, Sac City GamerA statistical chart included in the magazine, showed 55% of gamers in preference of longer, more involved DLC that is an actual add-on to an existing game such as, Rockstar Games’ Undead Nightmare (a full add-on single player campaign mode) for its popular game, Red Dead Redemption.

The chart also showed 32% of gamers reported preferring new locations and objectives in the single player campaign, despite very little DLC actually being offered by developers for the single player experience. Additionally, only 13% (combined from three separate statistics) preferred deleted scenes, multiplayer maps or character skins and costumes.


Even though, I’ve hardly scratched the service of the DLC issue, PlayStation Magazine’s chart shows a clear solution.

Developers and publishers should push for longer, more involved DLC that is created after a game’s release, release free content to help drive sales, and be up front with consumers about what type of content they are getting and how it is being delivered. Holding back content to sell as DLC, charging for unlockables, and engaging in elaborate DLC schemes in an attempt to control market share are definitely not good for business.

In the end, having the ability to download extra content for a game that’s already in a gamer’s library can be a great way to extend a game’s life. But, it’s clear that many companies have taken advantage of the consumers and come up with ways to increase revenue that will prove to be detrimental to a company’s bottom line in the long run.

For the sake of gamers everywhere, hopefully developers and publishers will soon realize the error of their ways and become smarter about the way they handle post-release game content.

There are a lot of right ways to offer this content and a lot of wrong ways too. When it comes down to it, developers and publishers need to realize that gamers will support them more in the future if they treat them like human beings, not dollar signs. Content needs to be enticing, game-extending, and most of all, needs to be delivered in a way that doesn’t feel like the consumer is being taken for a ride by a back-lot hustler.

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