Are we being exploited by DLC?

Spurred on by the debate around the Mass Effect 3 DLC, I started writing some thoughts down.. but it quickly turned into a definite TL;DR with DLC, online passes, pre-order bonuses, retailer exclusives and the fight against used games.. as well as the all-too-common cry that customers are being exploited.

So.. I’ve split it all up, with this part mainly being about DLC, in-game purchases and other bonuses, and another part to come about the fight against used games.  I’ve mentioned a few games or companies in my examples here.. either because they were the first or best example to come to mind, or because I know that product better.  I’m sure I’ve missed some great examples, and although I’ve checked my facts, I may have something wrong or out of date in here.. so feel free to let me know in the comments 🙂

The first Mass Effect 3 DLC pack appeared briefly on the Xbox Live Marketplace last week, and stirred up quite a debate about exploitation.

One complaint against DLC is that it provides an incentive for developers to withhold part of the game to charge more for it later.. or even on the same day, in the case of Day 1 or unlocks of content from the game disk itself.  You can’t return DLC if you don’t enjoy it, nor can you sell it on as it’s usually tied to your game account.  Other complaints are about price (Modern Warfare 2’s ‘Stimulus Package’: £10 for 5 maps, two of which were re-releases), or the worth of the DLC (Oblivion’s Horse Armour), and then there’s the idea that it’s only being produced to milk consumers for every last penny.

The counter argument is that DLC is content which couldn’t be finished within budget or in time for deadlines; or has been developed after release to add something else to the game, sometimes in response to feedback from fans.  DLC might be completed after the ‘full’ game has been sent for certification, by staff who would otherwise move to another project, or another job altogether.

In the case of the Mass Effect 3 DLC, BioWare claim that the Day 1 DLC was developed by another team, after the rest of the game had been sent off for certification.  That would be fine.. but this tweet from Casey Hudson, the Executive Producer for the series, makes me wonder how much of Mass Effect 3’s development time was spent planning this DLC.  Community members have apparently found reference to the extra character in a leaked script from November, which suggests content has been removed to make From Ashes.

This isn’t the only game to be hit with complaints about Day 1 DLC of course.. BioWare was previously criticised for Dragon Age: Origins’ Day 1 DLC, Warden’s Keep, which added a storage chest that players could not get otherwise.. at least the ME3 DLC is still being made available for those who didn’t buy the Collector’s Edition.

Yes, the Mass Effect 3 DLC is free to those who bought the Collector’s Edition.  In the face of fans’ complaints, BioWare note that the extra character and storyline were advertised as a bonus with the CE all along.. and then claim that it is not particularly important to the story.

Technically, I guess they’re right.. they said there’d be an extra character, and there is.. but “an extra character” doesn’t sound important.  Interesting, maybe, important, no.  The existence of this particular character throws a lot of the series’ mythology into question, and has been likened to a spoiler by many.  The Protheans are supposed to be extinct.  Are fans supposed to read “extra character” in future and assume “lore-changing character of massive interest”?  I’m sure they’d be laughed at if they made an assumption like that.

As for importance.. it was obviously important enough to hire an extra team to develop.. and the fans’ comments show that it is pretty damned important to them.  Whether this DLC is an exploitation of customers or not.. when the series’ own fans think they are being ripped off, and when you have somebody like TotalBiscuit talking about a boycott, there’s a problem.

I’ve seen this picture around the web a few times over the past few days.. sure, it’s a bit of a joke, but this is certainly how some people see DLC.
Note the retailer exclusive reference.. I’ll come back to that particular subject later.

If we were playing word association, the word I would reply to “DLC” with is “money”.. as in: “They want my money.”
That is how business works, I suppose, but I don’t wander round a shop or look at a menu in a restaurant and instantly think about how they want my money.  My first thoughts there are about what’s on offer.  I’m not sure why DLC is so quickly associated with people wanting my money.. maybe just long exposure to forum and article comments about publishers and developers only caring about my money.

It doesn’t mean I don’t buy DLC.. if it’s done well, and it’s not priced too high, then sure.. or if it’s multiplayer and friends have bought it, then I probably will get it too.  I’d much rather the game was “ready when it’s ready” though, maybe with a large, high-quality, feature-rich expansion or sequel later.

I don’t like the nagging feeling that I get with some games, that something has been left out so they can add DLC later.
If there was no option for adding DLC later, would we really be seeing the likes of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine launch with only five multiplayer maps?

DLC is almost inevitable with every purchase now, but I hardly ever know how much there’ll be, or how much it will cost.  The solution to this would seem to be the DLC Season Pass which is available for some games, allowing customers to pay up-front for all the DLC for a game and get a slight discount compared to the price of buying each DLC separately.

However, this doesn’t always come with a nice, clear explanation of what you’ll get.  Saints Row: The Third’s season pass includes the four DLC packs, but the game was advertised as having “40 weeks of DLC” which led to some confusion with people expecting DLC every week.  For that one, I’m going to blame the marketing team.

The idea of “Pay to win” items in a multiplayer game does make me wonder whether I’ll get a good experience without paying for that extra DLC.  I’m excluding “freemium” games and their bought items and weapons in this consideration (APB, League of Legends), because the base games are free, and rely on people paying for items to support them.

So far I’ve not come across anything which really bothers me.. or rather, affects my enjoyment of the game.  XP boosts only mimic having played the game for longer; cosmetic items might look cool, but aren’t worth the money to me; and I’m not good enough at certain games to care that I was being killed by a gun that was fractionally better than another just because it was bought.

I prefer proper content, rather than cosmetic items like the Gotham City Impostors DLC.. 100 pieces of clothing that you’ll unlock through the gameplay anyway, or the $70 (£60) monocles available in EVE Online.  There are obviously enough people willing to buy this kind of content though, or it wouldn’t be being made.

If you’re a WoW player, and want to spend £17 on a Celestial Steed to ride around Azeroth.. then fine.. I guess you can do.  I wouldn’t say no if I was given one.. or if they made them available through gameplay.. but I’d rather keep my money.

I will admit to irritation at TF2’s Valentine’s Day addition: the “Something Special for Someone Special” engagement ring, priced at £69.99.  If this wasn’t tied to Valentine’s Day and a bunch of stupid obligations to spend money on grand gestures, I wonder if Valve would have dared add it?  The item’s page in the Steam Workshop show a mixture of negative comments: annoyance at the inclusion of the item; resentment of the price, and the fact that the creator gets a large cut; suggestions that the item is a joke or a rip-off.

Again.. nobody is forcing people to buy this content.. but this one irritates me in the same way that the knowledge people spend thousands on Farmville annoys me.

I just won’t buy DLC if I consider too expensive.. I’ll wait for a sale.  Others will pay whatever they are asked though, even if at the very same time they rant and complain about the price.  If enough people pay for an item, no matter how grudgingly, then the publisher or developer will take that feedback and say the item was worth that money.

Rant on the forum all you like.. but actions speak louder than words, and buying the item supports their decision to carry on exactly as they are.

When it comes to single-player DLC for RPGs, I have thought about waiting for a Game of the Year edition.  That way I’ll have all the content there to play, without having to repeat huge chunks just to get at a few side missions.  Of course the disadvantage to waiting for a GOTY is the waiting.. who wants to wait months for a game they know they’ll love?

Publishers and developers also dislike you waiting: they want you to buy as soon as possible.. and they also want you to buy new, not used.

Actually, publishers and developers would quite like us to pay for the game in advance, which is why there are all these pre-order bonuses; often tied with the one thing I really hate: retailer exclusives.  Pre-order bonuses in themselves are supposed to be optional.. a bonus to reward fans for their support.. but when they have an effect on multiplayer: eg the Collector’s Rifle for Mass Effect 3, which, becomes stronger as more codes are applied, then people are going to feel they need it.

Retailer exclusives, though, try to force you to buy in a specific place.  I hate retailer exclusives.. we should be able to choose where we buy something.  And what if the bonus you want is tied up by a retailer you don’t have in the area, or even in the country?  We don’t have Walmart in the UK.  Pretty soon, I think we’re not going to have GAME either.. today’s news shows that they’re not getting EA’s titles, with pre-orders for Mass Effect 3 being refunded with GAME’s store credit.  Confirmation from MCV here.

I also hate retailer exclusives for the fact they force fans to choose between items they want, or buy multiple copies of the game from different places.  It’s the real die-hard fans who suffer here.. the very people that developers and publishers should be looking out for, but instead, are coming very close to exploiting.

Taking Space Marine as an example, as I saw plenty of arguments about this a while back.. if a fan wanted a Golden Relic Bolter and the Blood Ravens chapter armour, they’d have to pre-order from two places: Walmart for the Bolter, and Steam for the Blood Ravens!  The Golden Relic Bolter wasn’t even available to preorder in the UK, because we don’t have Walmart and they didn’t bother to make it available otherwise.

Dawn of War II had the same problem with different chapter colours being locked to different retailers, and Warhammer 40k fans were annoyed that they couldn’t get something they considered important to them.  Dawn of War II: Retribution at least had a Collector’s Edition so those who wanted the content could get it.. though fans were then annoyed to see the bonus items available on Steam just after the game was launched.

Sure, these “bonus” items usually unlock later, for a price.  How long to wait, though?  Space Marine’s Power Sword arrived on Steam as a £1.99 DLC a whole five months after the release of the game.. laughable.  In fact, from what I saw, the majority of the bonus items for Space Marine were only made available several months after the release of the game.  So you either play the game without all the content you want, or you wait months for the content and play the game later.  Hell, if you’re going to wait to play, you might as well only buy later.. and probably at a significant discount too.

How far do we want to go to get these in-game items?  How much are you willing to pay?

Destructoid’s Chris Carter worked out that the total cost for all possible Mass Effect 3 in-game content is £550, if you buy all the hardware, figurine and other games which have some kind of tie-in.  Some of these are available via unlocks, in-game.. but as he points out in the comments, EA and/or BioWare seem to be actively pursuing multiple purchases of the game.

Will I be boycotting Mass Effect 3?  No.

I won’t be paying full price and then buying the DLC on top either, though.  We’ll probably be getting this one in the sales.

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