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Veteran gamers will remember a time in the distant past when there was no such thing as downloadable content. There were a few exceptions to the rule of course, with games like Total Annihilation supporting the ability to add extra playable units which were freely available for download from the developer’s website. Bearing in mind this was the year 1997, and internet-enabled consoles were probably a fanciful idea in some developer’s mind.

As PC gaming, and gaming in general became more mainstream, the concept of value-add slowly started to take root in the minds of games developers. Games like Unreal Tournament, released in 1998, were supported post-release by the developers, Epic Games, with downloadable content in the form of new maps and mutators. This free post-sales support business model proved quite successful for Epic, as they went on to create many more successful titles in the Unreal series, each receiving the same after-sales support treatment, resulting in sales enjoying increased longevity.

With the advent of internet-enabled consoles, downloadable content was now available to an entirely new market. Of course, PC gamers had been enjoying this kind of support for years — freely. Enter Microsoft and the Xbox, and the first commercialization of downloadable content. Initially, DLC (as it will be henceforth referred to) was available freely on the Xbox, with the notable exception of DLC for Microsoft software titles.

Of course, this was not the way things were going to stay. With the release of the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii consoles with much fanfare from the now massive gaming industry, all three consoles were primed and ready to take full advantage of the latest technology, including internet connectivity. As we’re all now familiar, each console has its own online store function which allows you to pay real money for points which you can then trade for DLC. This commercialization of DLC is where I’m whole-heartedly annoyed by the three big players in the industry at present.

You see, Epic Games continues their free post-sales support of games. With the latest addition to the Unreal series, Unreal Tournament 3, you can freely download the “Titan Pack”, which contains new maps, environments, weapons and vehicles. It’s a pity that Gears of War, another quality title by Epic, has not received the same treatment. Sure, you can get DLC for it. If you pay. An article on hardcore gamer website Destructoid details the problems faced by Epic, but the lowdown is: Epic creates free extra content for Gears of War. Epic submits this content to Microsoft for approval to be added to their download system. Microsoft is confused about the price, being zero dollars. Microsoft refuses to allow this content through unless the price is non-zero… and you see where this is heading.

The current DLC systems implemented by the big three consoles has come under much criticism in the past for many reasons, including but not limited to:

  • DLC being an incentive for developers to leave important features out of a game’s initial release, instead making the player purchase them at a later date;
  • as demonstrated by many DLC “downloads” being merely keys that unlock content which is already present on the physical media itself.

And that’s not even getting started on the pricing and purchasing systems. Most DLC is considered overpriced or too expensive because:

  • Inflexible purchasing system where only specific amounts of currency can be purchased, whereby for example to purchase an item worth $15, the player must purchase $20 worth of currency
  • Inability to convert e-currency to any other usable currency

These factors combine to mark the system as poor value, with some going as far as to say that its purpose is to prevent customers from realizing the actual cost of items. It’s similar to the sale of gift cards: a company may sell $1000 worth of gift cards, but if only $500 of those cards are redeemed for actual goods, then the remaining $500 “worth” of purchases is essentially 100% profit.

Additionally, there is no way to transfer DLC between systems. You may have both the Wii and Xbox360 versions of Rock Band, but any songs you download on one system are unable to be transferred to the other. This even applies to intra-system transfers: DLC cannot be traded or transferred between players even within the same marketplace, for the same game, on the same console.

All of this combines to make current-gen DLC systems an evil convenience. It’s easy not to think too much about that few dollars every month which disappears from your credit card for these kind of subscriptions or occasional purchase, but the fact of the matter is that the companies behind them aren’t being entirely fair when it comes to value for money for customers. These DLC systems are quite successful, and consumers portray a carefree, almost blaz? attitude towards them. Unfortuately, I don’t think we’ll be seeing them go away any time soon.

As an aside: I realise that games even as far back as Wolfenstein 3D, had “downloadable content” in the form of user-created map packs and the like (who can forget the Simpsons mod for Doom?!), but as this was created by users, and not by the original developers themselves, I believe it falls outside the contemporary “DLC” concept.

  1. Hopefully in the future we’ll have a standardized system for DLC.

    Even now, Microsoft is “acting” like retail (a middle man), and fixing prices for other people’s work.

  2. There is such a small amount of DLC that is actually worth downloading. There is so much potential for this stuff, too.

  3. avatar Simon

    Does anyone remember DLC for the Dreamcast? Download straight to VM

  4. Great thoughts, Owen. To be honest, I myself have tended to look askance at the ever-expanding beachhead that the internet has established within the ambit of console gaming, and while I think that it’s a fantastic option to have on tap, I fear for the day that it graduates to a genuine prerequisite.

    A year or two back, I read an article in which it was suggested that the most noteworthy accomplishment of Warhawk’s PS3 iteration was to underscore the diminishing importance of the single player experience, and while I suspect (read: pray) that the sentiment remains very much that of the minority, that such has been voiced by an industry professional frankly alarms me. I realize that I’ve ostensible parted company with the specific subject of your article, Owen, and by no means is it my intention to draw attention away from the very relevant points on which you’ve touched – rather, I merely conceive of each as related facets of a single, larger issue on the table: very simply, I would never want to see the internet emerge as the chief fulcrum upon which my gameplay experience balances. It’s an amazing tool – and in broader terms represents one of our civilization’s more remarkable achievements, I would argue – but whether I’m forced to pay a cost above and beyond that of the title itself for key content, or to juggle the schedules of five other players just to strike up a match, I don’t want to see us left so completely at its mercy.

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