If you like to keep your ear to the ground when it comes to gaming news, you have no doubt heard your fair share of controversies that seems to have a large portion of gamers up in arms. Recently with the release of Gears of War 3, one such controversy has risen to the surface again: DLC already present on game discs. It seems that no matter which gamer you ask, he or she is going to have a polarized opinion on the subject. And since individuals with opposing views on the internet tend to be incapable of making civilized arguments, I thought it might be a good idea to share my rational views on the subject.
So what is DLC anyway? It stands for Downloadable Content. The idea behind DLC is that after a game has been released to the public, the game developers will continue working on some sort of add-on to the game that enhances the experience. This could come in the form of an extra level to play in campaign, extra weapons, new characters, more multiplayer maps, etc. Things such as bug fixes are not considered DLC because they (typically) do not add new content.
Back in the days before the Xbox and the Playstation 3, DLC was in large part free, mostly because it was only available to PC gamers. The reasons for being free varied. Some reasons stem from the fact that it could be difficult to ensure users installing the DLC had actually purchased it. Another reason is that DLC was typically free while expansions were purchased separately in a store and required a separate CD key to run properly. As a result, DLC was usually a small addition to a game while expansions were reserved for the larger content additions.
In any event, DLC entered a new era with the Xbox and the Playstation 3 because these new consoles were being designed with an “always on” broadband internet connection in mind, coupled with internal hard drives for storage. All of a sudden consoles could get patches for bug fixes as well as DLC content. It was a very different console experience than gamers were used to. With the capability to download and install DLC also came the ability to ensure payment for DLC. Both Microsoft and Sony require users to log into an account linked with a credit card in order to obtain DLC, and various methods of DRM (Digital Rights Management) ensure that you cannot simply give the DLC to friends so they will not have to purchase it too.
Microsoft (and I would assume Sony) has a standing policy of forcing game developers to charge for DLC released over Xbox LIVE. In an interview with Eurogamer, Valve explains that while they managed to persuade Microsoft into allowing the first DLC pack for their game Left 4 Dead to be free, they were unable to do so for the second DLC pack. Valve, being in the unique position of having its own content distribution system through Steam, is making the DLC available for free to all PC gamers. A similar situation happened to CD Projekt RED, developers of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. In an interview with Rock, Paper Shotgun, when asked about DLC, Adam Badowski said:
“[O]ur approach [to DLC] is different and relatively simple. All DLC for the PC version is and will remain FREE. That’s not likely to be the story for the Xbox version, because of certain Microsoft policies that need to be followed. But on PC, once you buy our game, you don’t need to worry about any additional costs – we will provide all updates, including those featuring new content, for free. I think it’s reasonable than when you buy our product, you can expect us to service it for you quite a long time after release, though less intensively as time goes by. Any payable DLC that appears is likely to be a more classic expansion pack along the lines of, say, Baldur’s Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast.”
I am not arguing this as a good or bad thing because it is too complicated to dismissively label in such a way. On the one hand DLC used to be exclusive to PC gamers, which obviously means console gamers were missing content that would otherwise be available to them on another platform. On the other hand free DLC has become more and more rare. Obviously game developers are there to make money, and when distributing DLC over Xbox LIVE or the Playstation Network, you obviously need to conform to any rules set forth within each distribution method. Still, you cannot deny that from a gamer’s perspective, paying for DLC feels a bit . . . too far off the beaten path to be easily accepted.
Controversies in DLC
Many games have sold worthwhile DLC on consoles. For example, Bethesda, makers of the popular Elder Scrolls games, released an expansion pack called the Shivering Isles for their game Oblivion at a cost of 2,400 Microsoft Points ($30). It had an estimated 30 hours of gameplay (though actual mileage clearly varied). Of course, Bethesda also released a very controversial piece of DLC called the Horse Armor Pack. Yes, this is exactly what it sounds like. For 200 Microsoft Points ($2.50) you could purchase a purely aesthetic armor pack for your horse in-game. A lot of people called foul on Bethesda for this because it feels inherently exploitative. Why, exactly, are you charging us for a horse armor pack, of all things? I did not see anything wrong with this though, mainly because of its transparency. The consumer was not tricked into thinking the horse armor was something that it was not. If you played the game you knew that the best horse (Shadowmere) did not take damage and if you “lost it,” it would find its way back to you eventually. The horse armor was purely for looks, and if people thought that was worth $2.50 I am ok with that. I did not purchase it, but plenty of people did.
There was, however, a danger in the Horse Armor Pack. It begged the question “what will people actually be willing to buy for their games?” We should not be naïve when it comes to things like this. Money drives most of the decisions in the world. If a game developer could increase profits by releasing what some gamers call “stupid” additions like the Horse Armor Pack, there exists a strong incentive to do so. And in this capitalistic society, they have every right to release something if people are willing to buy it. The real problem becomes ignorance on the consumer side, because if people would only stop purchasing “stupid” DLC, developers would stop releasing it. It is a basic supply and demand principle.
I am, admittedly, very cynical in nature. When I began thinking about DLC, it became somewhat logical to assume that game developers would begin holding content back specifically to be released for DLC. Why not? There is, after all, no standard to measure a game’s completion. I could purchase a game worth 40 hours of gameplay for $60, or a game worth 25 hours of gameplay for $60. While game reviewers will typically list gameplay time as a criterion for their score, there is no way I, as a gamer, could call out a game developer for intentionally leaving content out of the game.
So again I ask why not? An Xbox 360 or Playstaion 3 game will almost always cost you $60. Gamers have accepted this as the base price (and are beginning to accept $150 as the new “collector’s edition” price, but that is a story for another day). All a game developer would need to do is hold back on some content, release it after the game goes live, and profit. A negligible amount of additional work is needed and you make more money. It seems like enough of an incentive to me.
As I said though, there’s no way of knowing which DLC is just cut from the original game and which was legitimately developed after a “full” release, but there are clues. Going back to Oblivion, the game came out March 20, 2006. The Shivering Isles expansion was released on March 26, 2007, a full year later. Without knowing for sure, this feels like a more legitimate piece of DLC content just because of how long it took to come out. Clearly it could be the case that Bethesda merely held back the content longer to evade suspicion, but that seems unlikely because the longer it takes DLC to come out, the less interest there will be (as a general matter). I am not a game developer, and this is a purely subjective test, but I feel it has merit to it. In any case, I feel that it would be very easy for an unscrupulous game developer to pull the wool over our eyes and make us pay for something we would have otherwise gotten in the original release if not for the willingness of consumers to pay for it as DLC. Maybe that is why it feels extra insulting when game developers do not even try to hide it?
When the DLC is Already on the Disc
You may be wondering what I mean when I say DLC is on the disc. It is really simple. On the game disc you purchased is content that you cannot access yet. The only way to access the content is to pay for an unlock key which the game developer is calling DLC. In other words, the $60 you spent for the game only includes some of the content on the disc. The rest is apparently not part of the retail game and, even though it is sitting on the disc you purchased, an additional fee is needed to use it.
I will be candid with you. When a game developer releases DLC that is already on the disc, I immediately feel like the game developer is saying “I think you are an idiot.” DLC is supposed to be content that was not part of the original game. You cannot ship something on the disc and say it is not part of the original game. It makes no sense. If the game went gold, it is done. If it has not, and you as the game developer are still developing the game, it is clearly not finished. Many people think it is absurd for me to feel that I have purchased the entirety of the contents of the disc when I buy a game. I think any other view is absurd.
The reason this has become a hot topic again is because of various Gears of War 3 DLC which is already on the disc but is locked until you purchased the unlock key. Do you recall how I said the year it took Bethesda to release the Shivering Isles made it feel more legitimate? Well Gears of War 3 had release day DLC. Yes, the DLC was available the same day the game was being sold in stores. How legitimate does that feel? What was even more insulting was that the DLC was already contained in the disc. How stupid does Epic think their player base is? Are you ready for even more insults?
The first DLC pack Epic released for Gears of War 3 was the Weapon Skin Collection – Launch Collection. It costs a whopping 3,600 Microsoft Points ($45). The best part? Not only is the DLC just a collection of weapon skins (really? weapon skins?), but the skins were available during the Gears of War3 beta which took place 5 months before the game was released! Again I ask, how stupid does Epic think we are? Not only do I find it horrid that Epic is trying to pass this off as DLC, but $45 for weapon skins? That is absurd. Yes, much like the horse armor, if people are willing to buy it I do not have a problem with it per se, but that still feels insane when an expansion that added 30 hours of gameplay to Oblivion only cost $30.
Epic did not stop there though. Next up for DLC is the Horde Command Pack for 800 Microsoft Points ($10). It was released November 1, 2011, a little over a month after the game’s release and contains “…new fortification levels and command posts in Horde, two new weapon skin packs, and three multiplayer characters: Bernie, Onyx Guard, and Big Rig Dizzy. Also included are 250 Achievement Points; two new maps for Horde players, Azura and Rustlung; and a remake of the most popular Horde map of all time, Blood Drive.” This DLC feels a little more legitimate, except of course it was already on the disc. Imagine that! Epic has squeezed $55 worth of “additional” content on the disc by holding content back. I enjoy playing the game (even Adam does despite his Criticism), but if you ask me whether the content on the disc is worth $115 I would tell you that you are nuts. That is just shy of the cost of two games. Does Epic think they did so well with Gears of War 3 that it is just shy of two games’ worth of content? According to an interview at Kotaku, Gears of War 3 executive producer Rod Fergusson agrees with some reviewers who say there are three games in one. I respectfully dissent.
The only plausible argument Fergusson makes for having the DLC on the disc is that Epic did not want to splinter the user base. In other words, if the DLC had been true DLC and needed to be downloaded, there are almost two versions of the game out there. Those with the DLC and those without. If I chose not to downloaded the game, I would not be able to play the DLC content with those that did download it. But where is the issue with that exactly? As far as we know, all the content on the disc has now been made available as DLC, meaning that future DLC will need to be downloaded by anyone who wishes to play it. So Epic has postponed the issue of a splintered playerbase for a few months at best?
Many game publishers wrestle with the problem of incompatibility with DLC. When Bungie releases new multiplayer maps for Halo, it typically creates a playlist dedicated for players that only want to play on the new maps. It also integrates the new maps into the other playlist so that the map becomes an option in play so long as all the players in that game have them. When Lionhead Studios released DLC for Fable 2, it also offered a compatibility download for free so that one person that purchased the DLC could invite a friend who had not to play the new content.
Is there anything wrong with those options? Sure, they are not perfect solutions. But Epic is going to have to do something with the next DLC pack, and it will probably be one of those two solutions above. Of course Epic is not the first game developer to do this, and it will unfortunately not be the last. Other big name games to have DLC on the disc are Bioshock 2’s Sinclair Solutions Tester Pack and Resident Evil 5’s Versus Mode. I was looking online for a list of games that had DLC on the disc, but I was unable to find a comprehensive list. Consider this list posted over at the Neogaf forums. It is almost three years old and still has a considerable number of games. Clearly this has been happening for quite some time.
Unfortunately this will not end until we as gamers stop buying this stuff. As long as this practice is profitable, game developers will continue to do it. Many people have argued that Epic could have easily delayed the weapon skins a little, not included it on the disc, and people would not be complaining. That is absolutely true. Epic could have done a much better job hiding the fact that the content they are charging extra for was already finished when the game went gold. And you know what? There is really nothing gamers can do about that behavior. But if Epic is going to be dishonest, at least try to be more deceptive about it. Stop insulting my intelligence by blatantly shaking me for all the money that will fall out. Ideally though, stop treating DLC as a cash cow and respect your consumers more. You will not get away with it forever.
Update: As I mentioned in the article, Gears of War 3 was not the first or the last game to offer DLC content already on the disc. Here is a list of developments on the subject made after this article was published:
- Bioware’s Mass Effect 3 had release-day DLC. To make things worse, it would cost a gamer $870 to collect all of Mass Effect 3‘s DLC.
- Capcom’s Street Fighter X Tekken had unplayable extra characters on PS3 and Xbox 360 discs even though those characters were announced as PS Vita exclusive. The best part? The PS Vita version was scheduled to be released months after the console versions came out. Capcom defended its decision to include the DLC on the disc by saying it was for compatibility reasons, but if that excuse does not work for Epic Games, it does not work for Capcom either.
- Epic Games’ Clifford Bleszinski weighs in some more on the issue.