Download Overload

With the rise of digital distribution, downloadable content has become one of the most significant and contentious issues within the gaming industry, writes Steven Balbirnie

Up until quite recently, the entirety of a game’s content was always contained on one disc, but this is no longer the case. It is now possible to download substantial add-ons for most games such as additional costumes, characters or maps. However, the fact that the majority of downloadable content (DLC) must be paid for leads one to question; has DLC been created to give games extra longevity, or is it simply a money-spinning gimmick?

There is evidence to support both points of view, but there is no denying that DLC has become a highly profitable market. Ample proof of how lucrative it is can be is found by looking at sales figures for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s stimulus package. Priced at roughly €15, the stimulus package sold 2.5 million copies on Xbox Live within the first week of its release – that’s approximately €37.5 million made in one week purely from the sales of a downloadable add-on. Such an unprecedented figure proved that the DLC market could no longer be ignored.

Attitudes to DLC have varied greatly from company to company, as some choose to maximise their profits while others choose to give away DLC for free, providing extra longevity for the player, while also garnering positive publicity for the developers. Valve’s decision to offer Left 4 Dead DLC free-of-charge on PC and Mac gained the developer considerable good press. Capcom on the other hand, took a very different approach to DLC for Super Street Fighter IV. When the individual prices for all of Super Street Fighter IV’s costume packs are added together they come to a cost in excess of €50, which is more expensive than the actual game was upon its initial release. Such exorbitant prices will inevitably have a negative impact on a company’s image; though strangely, not necessarily on their sales.

There is an argument to be made for publishers, who state that it is their right to charge whatever they want for their work as long as there are people willing to pay the price they are asking for. However, such an attitude ignores the question of just how optional we can really consider DLC to be in an age of widespread online gaming. DLC has introduced serious compatibility issues for competitive gamers as some players may not be able to compete against each other if one owns a particular add-on that the other does not. This problem has led to frustration among some gamers who feel that they are being punished for not choosing to buy an optional add-on. Some developers have introduced free compatibility packs to solve this problem, though in the absence of compatibility packs for a title, players end up separated into two incompatible tiers – those who are willing (or can afford) to pay for supposedly superfluous add-ons and those who aren’t.

A greater source of frustration is the insidious rise of ‘on-disc DLC’. Rather than consisting of entirely fresh content, ‘on-disc DLC’ involves the consumer paying for download codes that unlock content already contained on the game disc. This highly controversial form of DLC forces the consumer to pay to use something that they already own. A notable example is that of the ‘downloadable’ characters on Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Despite being contained on the disc, they had a retail price of approximately €5 each. This type of DLC is a cause for concern as it points to what could develop into an alarming trend – companies releasing essentially incomplete games with a view to profiting from DLC that should have been included as standard. This can already be seen through DLC announcements for games before they are even released.

The controversy surrounding ‘on-disc DLC’ pales in comparison to the recent initiative of companies such as EA and Sony, who have introduced ‘player passes’. These ‘player passes’ are single-use codes that are essential to accessing a game’s online content, with additional passes available for download at a price of roughly €10. These passes have serious implications for the industry as they are a clear attempt by publishers to undermine the popular second-hand games market. Publishers – who, of course, do not profit from a game’s resale – can now use these passes to essentially fine consumers for buying used games.

With blatantly exploitative practices seeming to have no detrimental effect on DLC sales it must be asked; are companies just being greedy or are they simply taking advantage of the stupidity of some consumers? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be the latter. Proof of this can be seen by the continued sales of Oblivion’s notorious horse armour; the success of which has baffled even the game’s own developers.

DLC has the potential to be a positive component of the gaming industry if it is used to breathe new life into old games for reasonable prices. However, unless we become more discerning as consumers, unscrupulous companies will continue to exploit gamers, using DLC as an excuse to charge higher prices for lower standard products.