Greed in bite size chunks

October 20, 2009

Do you remember a time before expansion packs? I mean I know there WAS a time where when you bought a game you got a whole game and not 60% of the experience so they could sell you the other 40% later. First expansion pack I remember paying attention too was Starcraft – Brood War. I remember being annoyed with it because of the cynical money grab involved. It’s one thing to add content after the fact, but if you looked within the files of the game the place holders were there from day one for the additional units being added.

total_annihilationAround the same time Total Annihilation came out and had not one but TWO expansions. Somehow that didn’t seem quite so cynical, despite the fact it was really. (Despite playing lots of Starcraft I always preferred TA.) Perhaps it was the fact that TA was an open game and that even now, over a decade later, people are still releasing new content for it.

As a long time gamer, the rise of expansion packs and the yearly roster updates of sports games packaged as full price releases are the key to unbridled cynicism regarding the industry. Games have moved from being works of passion to works of commerce, and profit is to be had by any means necessary, and clearly gamers are a gullible lot. Can you imagine Return of the King ending right as Frodo says “The ring is mine!” and then having to pay extra for the rest of the film?

Consoles of previous generations remained largely immune to the rise of the expansion pack, simply down to the way they worked. There was nowhere to store any extra content, meaning the poor developers were forced to release largely complete games and be content with the dollars they raked in. The rise of the current generation of consoles with their network capabilities and large amounts of storage have changed this, and developers must have been drooling at the prospect of taking the expansion pack philosophy to dizzying new heights.

“Hey guys! You see this? We can release half a game and then charge money for the rest of it on consoles now. We can double dip!”

“Hey, I can beat that, we can remove stuff from the game we’ve already done then charge to unlock THAT as well! TRIPLE DIP BABY!”

I wish I was making that up, but sadly I’m not.

DLC has been a way for developers to keep milking the cash cow far beyond their wildest dreams. Now instead of a single $20 expansion they can divide the content up into 3-5 smaller chunks, charge $10-$15 a pop and make even more money.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not against giving developers and publishers money, though these days I do tend to wait for the inevitable GOLD edition of a game before buying it. I don’t mind buying expansions IF they add a decent amount of content, and aren’t over priced. Over the last couple of years I’ve bought expansions for Dawn of War, Galactic Civilizations, Company of Heroes, Sins of a Solar Empire, Sword of the Stars, Burnout Paradise and GTA IV just to name a few, so I am not completely anti-expansion. What I AM against is developers treating gamers like a 24 hour ATM.

The entire DLC phenomena has essentially become “Getting less for more” in my many cases. There’s value, and then there’s greed. Two examples:

madden10screen21Madden 10: For the first time ever, I bought a Madden game on release day. I usually wait a while. Like 2-3 years. The Xbox demo utterly sold me and I was very excited to get the game. When I put the disk in the drive on release day I checked things and discovered that EA already had paid DLC up. What was worse is that all this content Electronic Arts had up amounted to nothing but cheats. Remember when games came with cheat codes? (Admittedly Codemasters were way ahead of Electronic Arts in the greed stakes when they had a premium rate phone number you could call to get cheats. One reason I will NEVER buy a Codemasters title again. Well that and the fact they wouldn’t know decent racing physics if they came up and punched them in the face. I weep for the F1 license being wasted on them. But that’s another story.)

Since then EA have released more paid DLC but this time it actually offers something of substance, but once again it’s the sort of thing they used to include without charging extra. (Content to celebrate 50 years of the AFL.) You go back to older iterations of the Madden series and the old teams you’re now supposed to pay for used to be included.

Now we arrive at the catalyst for me writing this. The thing which made me say “Okay, enough of this!”

Borderlands: The game isn’t even out yet and they’ve already announced the first paid DLC.

It’s not the first time this has happened. Several titles this year have announced the same thing, but come on you greedy bastards, can you at least PRETEND you are shipping a complete title and not gouging your customers? Give us the illusion that you’re not just selling us the cake and plan to sell us the frosting and the plate to put it on later? The game was on my potential purchases list, but a move like this lost them a sale.

Compare this to the upcoming Forza Motorsport 3. There is a code included in the retail box that nets you a bunch of new cars. There is also an additional track pack being released for free.

While I think the industry bitching about used games just emphasizes how endemic unmitigated greed has become, I think this value added content for new releases that used game buyers won’t get is perfectly acceptable. Madden needed a code for the online franchise mode. It comes with the game. If you used though you will have to pay $10 for it. (Assuming the individual who sold the game had used the code.) I don’t think that’s too bad. I don’t know if the Forza content new purchasers will get will be available to buy for when people pick it up used, but it’s a perfectly good idea that I think gives the best of both worlds. Buy new, you get a little bit extra. Seems perfectly fair to me. It makes the customer buying new feel good, it makes buying new more enticing. I buy a lot of used games and if I miss out on a little something, given I’ve probably only paid $10 for the game, that’s fine in my book.

I also know that Turn 10 plan to release DLC every month, but again I see that as legitimate content. Turn 10 have come out and said they make very little money on DLC and I can believe that what with licensing costs, as well as the work that goes into the new content. As a huge racing fan and car nut I am looking forward to the DLC. I consider it better value than renewing my World of Warcraft subscription, that’s for damn sure.

As with all things in life, DLC can be used for good, and it can be used for evil. Since I’ve gotten my Xbox I’ve bought a few items. Burnout Paradise has been the main one. The Big Surf Island addon is damn good value, adding an entirely new area, new cars, new stunts etc… I’ve also bought the multiplayer mode (fun but needs to be half the price). Also bought the Legends and Police cars. The Legends cars weren’t good value, but my kids wanted the Ecto 1 Ghostbusters car!

I’ve also picked up The Lost and the Damned DLC for GTA IV when it was on special, though largely just to unlock all the cities as I only just bought the game, and pretty much despise the structure of GTA games and just like to drive around causing chaos.

I can honestly say, though, that DLC has LOST sales. To me at least. One reason I won’t buy Rock Band is the constant stream of DLC I know would bankrupt me. Beatles Rock Band is the only one I’d consider due to the limited future content possibilities. Of course as much as I’d love to Beatles Rock Band, the cost of entry is a barrier as I’d need to buy the various controllers and I simply can’t afford them sadly.

At this point in the scam I honestly believe the developers are now trying to see just how much they can get away with before a sizeable portion of the gaming community cries foul. The sad thing is, while a vocal minority will speak out against DLC that is an obvious gouge, the majority of consumers are the living embodiment of the saying “a fool and his money are soon parted”. They’ll buy any old crap that gets added on, even if it is on the disk they originally bought and cost almost nothing to develop. They’ll fork over their Microsoft Happy Fun Points and pay the equivalent of $10 for something that came on the disk they already paid $60 for. It’s gaming on the installment plan.

The games industry as a commercial entity has wanted to be seen as akin to Hollywood for a very long time.

On the fronts of unmitigated greed and creative bankruptcy, they’re certainly achieving their goal.