Friday Roundtable: DLC, Pre-Order Bonuses and Micropayments

The screen fades to black and the credits roll: you’ve completed a game. Congratulations! Let’s have a cold one. But the fun doesn’t have to end there, right? Certainly not! It’s 2011, you buffoon! With developers increasingly looking to downloadable content (DLC) to extend their games’ lifespans like some kind of digital cryonics, your adventures in the fantasy world of your choice need not end so quickly. Hungry gamers in mind, the more ‘opportunistic’ companies have already cottoned on to the fact that their fans will pay for just about anything, even if it’s a new pattern on an NPC’s socks. But, when gamers are forced to download ‘content’ to unlock things already on the disc that they purchased, surely a line is crossed and consumer gullibility is no longer an excuse?

What of pre-order bonuses and micropayments? Should a retail outlet have any say in what goes into your game and what does not? Is it acceptable for a game to offer rapid advancement or new features to the player most willing to whip out the credit card? Or, should people suck it up and, in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, “stop whining”?

In this week’s Friday Roundtable, Declan, Joe, Sebastian and Rexly answer the question: Do DLC, pre-order bonuses and micropayments detract from or add to the gaming experience?

***

The Elder Scrolls VI: My Pretty Horsie

Declan:

DLC divides gamers like the Red Sea: On one hand, it offers the opportunity to continue playing a game you love, and with greater depth; on the other, it’s paying out for something that arguably should have been part of the original experience.

In the latter’s case, let’s not forget Oblivion’s ‘horse armour’ fiasco back in 2006: Cyrodiilian adventurers were charged $2.50 for the privilege of fitting their mounts with decorative armour. It wasn’t so much that this armour did absolutely nothing to improve the game’s terrible mounted combat (wait…what mounted combat?), but rather, it was the fact that players were being charged an additional sum of money, no matter how paltry, for something promised with the main release. It was merely a chance for Bethesda to bleed its fan-base for a few extra dollars. Though the Washington-based developers may have learnt their lesson from the uproar it caused, others have not.

Then, there are pre-order bonuses. Why should Gamestop or HMV have any say in what’s included in my game and what isn’t? Of course, the effects are usually minimal and cosmetic, but why should my friend have cooler gear than me or enjoy an exclusive level just because he shopped at a different store? Whilst I have no qualms with pre-order bonuses that are actual physical collectibles, to exclude someone from something game-altering is just unfair. Micropayments vex me in a similar fashion, especially if a game also allows players to earn their unlocks and upgrades in the conventional way, i.e. by playing. Should the beginner player with the bigger wallet really be allowed to outgun or out-dress a seasoned veteran? Whatever happened to the level playing field?

Joe:

I think DLC and add-ons can add to a gaming experience if done correctly. BioWare is a shining example of this. They’ve released several new episodes for Mass Effect 2 over the year since its release, each one adding an hour or two of gameplay, expanding the story, and only costing a couple of bucks. It’s obvious that’s not a cash-in. It’s a way for them to keep the game fresh in people’s minds as they work on a sequel, and the DLC episodes are just as high quality as the rest of the main game.

Your catchy tunes can't save you from Joe's wrath, Beautiful Katamari.

The worst offender I’ve seen as far as DLC goes is Namco Bandai. I’m a huge Katamari Damacy fan, and I played the hell out of Beautiful Katamari on the Xbox 360. I raised my eyebrow at a few of its achievements, specifically the ones which contained the wording “download stages XYZ” and then “collect X”, or “get a katamari to this size”, or similar. They were withholding achievement points to force you to buy the DLC!

That’s not the worst part, though. When the stages finally did go up for download, the actual file you were downloading was only several kilobytes. You weren’t downloading new stages at all, you were downloading a key to unlock content already on the disc. That is something I cannot get behind. Adding things to a game post-release is a great way to keep the game fresh and give something back to your customers, but forcing them to pay for content that you’ve already given them is outright theft.

Resident Evil 5: another offender?

Sebastian:

At this point, I think that developers and publishers know what’s evil and what isn’t. Borderlands has always done DLC well, despite the collect-a-thons.

Remember the Resident Evil 5 DLC? It was a new mode which could only be accessed with an unlock key, one you had to pay for. I think consumers know when they’re being shafted, to a certain extent. It was clearly something that should have already been in the main release. Not to say that the asshole developers are in the right for ‘locking’ it, but do you really need that mode? If you know they’re scamming you, why would you still go ahead and pay for it? There is no way I would pay for an extra mode like “survival”. They’re still assholes for trying to get people to pay for it, but if you don’t buy it, they won’t take it out of the game and charge for it.

Pre-order bonuses I certainly don’t like, unless developers are smart enough to make them downloadable afterwards. I wouldn’t shop at Gamestop no matter what they did because that is an awful, awful place, but if I want my game from Amazon and Best Buy has a pre-order bonus I want too, or vice-versa, I shouldn’t have to choose between them. That’s why it would make sense to make them downloadable afterward: that way nobody would feel pressured.

Declan:

Joe, in terms of quality, the Mass Effect 2 DLC ranks among the top, so in that respect, I agree. But the more successful this model is, I can’t help but think that developers will resort to leaving out aspects (or indeed, chunks) from the main release in favour of DLC. Even though downloadable episodes are a great way to continue the experience or bridge sequels, it all boils down to profit. $10 for a few new missions in Mass Effect 2 is pretty steep; if you’ve splashed out on all of them, you’ve nearly bought an entirely new game. But people will pay for them, and as long as they do, I think DLC will become a very regular fixture, and I can envisage publishers very subtly pushing up the price of new content until it’s commonplace for gamers to pay for two games rather than one.

BioWare's Mass Effect 2 DLC has been of particularly high quality.

The problem is made even worse for story-driven games like Mass Effect where players feel compelled to purchase all this extra content so they aren’t left out of the narrative loop. I’d rather play the Arrival DLC (an episode that links Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3) than watch a cutscene at the start of the third game filling me in on all the exciting stuff I didn’t pay for. EA/BioWare have a captive market in that respect.

Sebastian, we’re on more-or-less the same page with pre-order bonuses. I particularly like the idea of releasing store-specific bonuses as DLC at a later date, but when such bonuses are usually cosmetic, it’d still be unfair that a gamer shopping in Gamestop, Amazon or Best Buy would get a certain unique weapon or look included in the price of the full game when someone downloading them as extra content would be forced to pay an additional sum. Of course, it’s all choice, but I think it’s unnecessarily divisive. Oh, the voracious nature of capitalism!

Battlefield 3 is a more current example of a game with shameless pre-order bonuses. Those cashing out the ridiculous pre-order sum of $60/£50 on Steam will receive four of the most popular Battlefield 2 maps (Wake Island, Strike at Karkand, Gulf of Oman and Sharqi Peninsula) as extras. If they’re really so popular, why not be a sport and include them as standard?

Haven't played Kingdom Hearts on the GBA? "Tough", says Square Enix.

Joe:

Pricing for multiple episodes is definitely a concern, but considering how spaced out they are I don’t see it as much of an issue. While it may add up to about the cost of a new game, you’re not dropping all that cash at once; $10 every couple of months is certainly something I’m willing to pay for new, quality content. Hell, I pay more than that every month to play World of Warcraft!I don’t think that there’s been a situation where DLC is something that you need to have to get the whole story. The Mass Effect DLC has featured some interesting side stories, but nothing so integral to the plot that if you haven’t spent the money you’ll start up Mass Effect 3 and go “Huh? What’d I miss?”

Besides, it’s better than what Square Enix is doing with the Kingdom Hearts franchise. We’ve had multiple, full-priced side stories (and re-telling of old stories!) on multiple handheld systems, so now there’s more than double the amount of spin-offs to actual numbered entries in the main games! If you didn’t buy Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories on the Game Boy Advance, you didn’t have any idea what was going on when you first started up Kingdom Hearts 2 when that finally came out.

Borderlands GotY Edition: an elegant scam?

Rexly:

The art to DLC is price. The hierarchy of DLC, starting at the bottom, is: weapons and skins, extra missions and then, at the top tier, important story events. No one would pay $8 for a shiny gun or a Han Solo skin because it’s just not worth it. Extra missions are there to keep players hooked a little longer, but seriously, once they’re over, how’s the game’s replay value then? As for important story DLC, that takes priority over all the rest because without it, we don’t see plot connections between titles in a series.

This makes me think about ‘special edition’ games, particularly Borderlands and Mass Effect. Borderlands came out with a game of the year edition with all its DLC, and Mass Effect 2 for the PS3 had all the companion missions as well as some extra weapons and armor, all for $60. It’s not surprising, then, that some people might feel cheated out of paying $60, plus another $10-$20 on DLC, when all they had to do was wait a few months for a special edition with all the extra content for the same price as the vanilla version. I know that players will not have the knowledge of whether or not a developer decides to make a special edition, so it is important to keep a heads-up on that type of news before handing over your money.

As for pre-order bonuses, I am not a big fan of them. It is the way capitalism works. Different stores are selling the same thing, but their unique pre-order bonuses are what creates competition between stores. I actually like Sebastian’s idea of making pre-order bonuses into DLC later so as to give all players an even footing once the dust has settled after the game’s initial release. But, some pre-order bonuses are just ridiculous. Do I really want a shiny new gun, or the “must-have” multiplayer map, or a unique playable character? I feel like these things are not important to players. If you are going to do pre-order bonuses, entice us with better things, not minute add-ons.

Joe:

I have to disagree with Rexly on pre-order bonuses; I think that they should absolutely remain purely cosmetic, otherwise game balancing becomes an issue. Not everyone has the opportunity to pre-order games from specific retailers, especially when you consider games that are launched in multiple regions where the retail landscape varies so greatly. Giving everyone who pre-orders the game a new bad-ass gun that gives them an advantage over those without it is simply unfair. In single-player games, this isn’t an issue, but with so many of today’s games focusing on competitive multiplayer, these kinds of things need to be considered.

Rexly:

Your last sentence actually gave me a new idea, Joe. If balance is a problem for pre-ordering, especially in multiplayer, then why not make the bonuses specifically for the single player campaign? That way, the multiplayer experience will remain even and the bonuses will only affect the offline aspect. People will have the unique opportunity to have their story become more interesting because of the bonus.

Sebastian:

Rexly, that idea seems like it would work – and it should in theory – but it doesn’t in practice. EA tried it: When you buy the limited edition of Dead Space 2, you gain access to a new suit and a new shotgun. Both were cool additions, except for the fact that they made me too powerful. For the most part, I was running around with a lot of money and health packs, and I never had to change the suit,  while the shotgun is one of the more powerful weapons in the game. I felt like I had missed out on buying new suits, because the one I had worked so well there was no need to change it. Bonuses on the singleplayer side have to be cosmetic, otherwise you’ll have such an advantage that the game isn’t as fun as it could be.

Does connectivity + DLC = weeping bank balance?

BnB writers have shared their thoughts, and now it’s your turn. What do you think: Is DLC an unnecessary, expensive by-product of the internet age, or is it no different than a conventional expansion pack? Should pre-order bonuses and micropayments be condoned if a player’s financial situation or choice of store alter the game experience?

The table is yours.


Comments
3 Responses to “Friday Roundtable: DLC, Pre-Order Bonuses and Micropayments”
  1. DLC is bad for gamers, excellent for devs.

    The ‘pre-order here vs there’ stuff has been going on since at least Auto Assault, but at least they threw in other goodies like a baked-in increased magic finding (in Diablo 2 terms) bonus and even a pack of trading cards, for some reason.

    DLC as it is being abused now, is terrible. One of the big reasons behind my gushing of Minecraft is once I bought it, it is done. No monthly payments a la WoW, no stress if I don’t get in as much gaming time as possible. With that mentality, DLC has never been a good idea in my mind for the consumer. This really started ticking me off back in Battlefield 2. Ten bucks for an xpack only a month or so after the game released. And saps actually BOUGHT IT. Why support a greedy mentality? It just further promotes the idea. Look at New Vegas. The game released and that day there was already posters for the first DLC. That drives me up a wall to no end.

    How many times do people ask devs in interviews about, say, how many maps there will be in a shooter? What do they say now? “We are going to aim for 8 maps at release” which used to mean they were crunching for time and those maps are getting polished. Sadly, now it translates to “we have at least 12, but we need to charge you extra for the executives at the top so… 8. For now.”

    Bioshock 2 did the same thing as Kata. All you did was buy the key to unlock the parts of the game already on your disk. That isn’t even technically DLC, that’s just a bait and switch. Snake oils sales men put more work into conning their customers. It was already complete, they just wanted to wring more cash out of that cow. The gamer should *never* have to pay for content that should have been included in the game in the first place. Until people stop paying for it so freely, it will not stop. It will only get worse, as the New Vegas and other games are making so blatant. (And to top it off, they did not want people who did not purchase the DLC to be able to play those new levels, while also making achievements only possible while playing on those new levels. If one person out of 16 did not have that dlc, those maps would never appear to the other 15. And they hardly do, still.)

    Another issue I have is, while I’m no Achievement junkie, whenever new DLC is added it wipes out your 100% completion trophies. If you slaved away to get all the difficult nooks and quest lines and collecting stuff, it should not be in void because the company wanted more cash from you with a DLC. It forces people who actually care about those trophies to either give up on their hard work, or plop down even more cash to get what they already had in the first place.

    It should be distinct. You should have trophies for Game A, and then another listing entirely for Game A Dash DLC Title. This would also force devs into actually releasing worthwhile content, for once. Keep the cosmetics in, that does not change much. But if you are adding enough to alter the game world/trophies people grinded for, you better darn well make it worth the effort. The new Mass Effect 2 DLC is not immune from this, either. 10 bucks for two hours, basically one quest line, and something that could have be summed up in the beginning of ME3? And, lookie lookie! It has achievements of its own so, sure enough, it reset anyone who previously had 100% completion trophies. Bra-vo. (Yes, I know they did a lot of little free stuff and weekly things for some time, I’m just talking about the DLC specifically though. 10 bucks is not worth 2 hours. It might be cheaper than a month of WoW, but there are more than 2 hours in that month.)

    It all comes down to caring about their customers. Companies that come out with patches and DLC left and right, clearly do not. Nor do companies that withhold information you paid for that is already complete, just to charge you on top of the normal cost. Their lack of respect and utter focus on the almighty profit enrages me. Make a decent game for once and people might actually buy it, that is what you should worry about. If they only put as much effort into making the game in the first place instead of focusing on these half-arsed nickle and dimey, slimy schemes, they’d be making more profit as a byproduct of their customer’s satisfaction.

    The BF3 bonus is a different matter, and is difficult to weigh in on as it is a bit of a loaded issue. As much as I loathe DLC, the purpose of those maps/content is not to egg people on into buying it (as Strike at Karkand *was* the best map in BF2 imo) but to avoid GameStop from banking as much coin as they have from resales. The current idea is to come out with freebies for preordering or just purchasing the game within the first month or so. That is tied to your account as you have to fill out the key unlocks and all that. If you sell that back to GameStop, and they sell it to another gamer, that person will only get the core game and not the goodies. They will have the option to fork over 10 bucks for it all, though.

    And that is the problem.

    In the effort to dismiss the rampant cash flow to GameStop, they are putting the consumer in a bad spot. Of course you could just buy the game full price and get it all for free anyway, but people like to game on the cheap. This is (hopefully) going to force GameStop to lower their prices from a new used game down from the outrageous one dollar off, to eleven. I do think GameStop is making money in a legal way, but at the same time they have stuck it to their customers for years. (Funcoland was way better haha Actually had decent prices for used things!) But in regard to this as an issue, I think it is a non-issue. Buy the game new and unused = free stuff to unlock. If the game was good, people should not sell it back in the first place.

    • Masterfully put, good sir. You’ve essentially summed up my thoughts.

      Sadly, with online marketplaces as ubiquitous as they are, I struggle to envisage DLC declining in quantity. How long will it be before we’re buying our games in parts? The average consumer is a fickle creature apparently indifferent to the notion of paying a full price for an unfinished product, then paying disproportionate sums for DLC to finish a developer’s work. “Snake oil salesman” is right. It’s this consumer complacency that’s dangerous.

  2. Eric says:

    I’d have to say that there are cases where DLC is bad and good, but I’d have to say that the only thing that disturbs me more than companies willing to go overboard with DLC is the companies that don’t do a damn thing with DLC. There’re tons of games that could benefit from, and are often strongly asked for, DLC, but either the company doesn’t have the capacity or willingness to do it (Nintendo) or they just completely ignore their gaming audience in general (Capcom, Square-Enix).

    Anyway, as for pre-order bonuses, I’m a bit on the fence about them. From time to time, I’ll plunk down some money for a neat pre-order bonus that doesn’t really effect the game (for example, I pre-ordered Dragon Warrior: Realms of Revelation for the Slime plush, and got a good game out of the deal), but typically, pre-order bonuses, I’ve found, are often released as DLC or sometimes, even for free, later on, so I don’t honestly see what the fuss is about.

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