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Maniacal Microtransactions

I was once a strong proponent of downloadable content (or DLC). I loved the very concept. The lifespan of my favorite games could be extended, giving me more reason to play a beloved title. New ideas could be injected into a finished product. Fresh concepts could be brought to a game already solidified and stamped on a disc.

Increasingly I find myself disillusioned and disappointed with what the reality of this idea has become. I find myself struggling to find things to spark my excitement in a digital marketplace strewn with blatant examples of publishers using DLC in all the wrong ways. Even when it’s used in the right ways, which is rare enough these days, it still brings some troubling trends to light.

Perhaps it would help to begin by demonstrating what lies at the root of the problem: cost. DLC could have been a fantastic way to extend a gaming experience in a meaningful way beyond what was possible on the disc, and indeed you do occasionally see it used for this purpose. More often than not however, it seems to be little more than a way to increase the cost of the game without actually having to mark up the price tag in stores.

As one example, consider the fighting game BlazBlue: Continuum Shift. It is but one example of a game simply riddled with DLC that overcharges and under-delivers, complete with a side dish of greed and deceit. Even if you don’t include the vile unlock codes, those insidious replacements for what used to be cheat codes, those insipid shortcuts designed to squeeze money out of those unfortunate gamers, which is to say the vast majority of the adults who comprise the “gamer” demographic, who have more money than time and must suck it up and shell out money for something that should have been included with the price of the game, BlazeBlue’s DLC still comes out to an outrageous $48, more than the original retail price of the game. Those that want to unlock everything without dedicating the rest of their lives to do so (as the unlockables in Continuum Shift are, rather conveniently, shoved behind one hell of a high in-game difficulty wall) must raise that price to $55. 

Owners of fellow fighting game Super Street Fighter IV can shell out nearly $50 on costumes alone, and that’s not including the additional $18 or so you could have spent on outfits in the original Street Fighter IV (which they were at least nice enough to carry over). Oh, and now there’s the Arcade Edition DLC coming out that will add another unspecified amount to that total. Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit will sell you packs of cars and events and such that will add an extra $28.00 to your purchase price. Halo 3 squeezed $40 extra out of gamers in the form of maps. Modern Warfare 2 didn’t quite match that with its two map packs totaling $30, but Black Ops will equal its predecessor next month when its second map pack releases. Continuing the $30 trend is Red Dead Redemption, although technically it’s now about $33 since the formerly pre-order exclusive DLC (another maddening can of worms entirely) has been released for general consumption. The console version of The Sims 3 has nearly reached the remarkable milestone of doubling its price via useless furniture downloads (and one pack of hair styles, if that makes a difference), with a grand total of $55 worth of digital junk. Don’t those expansions the PC version gets seem a lot more appealing now?

Even the games that do it right and provide generally worthwhile content can be somewhat eye-opening when you look at what this extra content brings the final price of the game up to. Fallout 3 added almost another full game’s price to its total, with DLC coming out to $50. Mass Effect 2’s extra content adds up to an additional $41. The extra adventures in Borderlands would have set you back an extra $40 before the inevitable Game of the Year edition came out. 

I’m not trying to spout doom and gloom like some crazy on a street corner, but I find this trend worrying. A lot of this content can be avoided by anyone with a little willpower and some of it is legitimately good. Without DLC I might not have gotten the opportunity to explore the fantastic local offered in Fallout 3’s Point Lookout, I might not have gotten the satisfying closure provided by the stellar Lair of the Shadow Broker, and I’ve heard from multiple sources that the DLC side story released for Bioshock 2, Minerva’s Den, might well be better than the full game itself. I can’t wait to try it.

I love the concept of DLC. I also understand that we are in strange times, full of tumultuous change. The very idea of DLC is still new; developers and publishers are still trying to figure out what works. Customers, I imagine, are the same way, not quite sure yet what’s worth their money and what isn’t. We’re slowly sorting it all out, but it can be a painful and expensive process.

It’s not the concepts here that are the problem, it’s the general anti-consumer attitude displayed by the majority of DLC. Worthwhile add-ons are the exception rather than the norm. Most content consists of needless fluff or, far worse, those damned unlock codes. At best one could say these items are trying to gain a little extra money from the hardcore fans while giving them a few more digital goodies to play around with, but I fear there’s a bigger issue lurking underneath the surface here.

It’s a well-known fact that modern games are damn expensive to develop. There’s no doubt that one of the reasons for our current extended console cycle and technological stagnation is that pushing the limits of today’s technology is already a questionable financial proposition. Raising the bar even higher might be asking too much of an already strained publishing market. 

One can clearly see the effect of the modern marketplace in the news, with stories of studio closures and mergers everywhere. These obvious indicators are not the only signs of trouble, however. Look more closely and you’ll see things like the rise of special editions that coax dedicated gamers into paying a few more precious dollars for a game in return for a few cheap bonus goodies, which surely makes the wallets of the publishers happier. There can be no doubt that the influx of worrying DLC is part of this same trend of publishers scrambling to increase profits however they can in an attempt to justify skyrocketing development costs. 

There’s bound to be an element of pure greed involved, as there almost always is in big business, but I don’t think it’s entirely fair to rest the blame squarely on the shoulders of cackling execs and their thirst for bigger bottom lines. Wanting to keep your company in business is not a terrible desire for a CEO to have, and in today’s shaky economic climate that’s an increasingly uncertain thing. It must be tempting indeed to take advantage of these numerous methods to pad the pocketbook with little exchanges here and there. 

What’s truly concerning is how commonplace it is to sweep concerns for the consumer under the rug. What used to be free is now charged for. What were once extra unlockable goodies are now being sold individually in digital stores via microtransactions. Where add-ons used to be ways to provide fans of a successful franchise with more content, they are now factored into the bottom line from the beginning, their existence expected and their exploitation required. There is no thought as to whether it is necessary, best for the franchise, or wanted by consumers. It’s simply the way things are. 

As news slowly begins to leak out of the next generation of consoles and thoughts begin to turn to what’s next, I must admit to finding myself strangely concerned instead of excited. I understand that games are expensive to produce, but they are also expensive to purchase and DLC and special editions have exacerbated the already high price of this medium to frankly ridiculous proportions. This certainly isn’t going to get any better when new hardware enters the equation. The marketplace still seems to be straining to support the hardware we have. I’m as anxious to see what the future will bring as the next guy, but are we really ready for it?

More than anything else, I think it’s the underhandedness that bothers me. I don’t mind a calculated release of downloadable content after the fact if that content at least adds value to my gaming experience. More often than not, I’m finding that potential squandered in favor of predictable and increasingly annoying strategies that take the easy way out and do nothing but leave me wondering how much more fun my game would have been if they had planned to include this content on the disc. 

Surely there has to be a better balance. We need to find ways to support games that sell for lower prices so not every title has to stretch to fit into a full retail role. We need to encourage publishers to add meaningful content instead of churning out stuff that should have been in the game to begin with. We need to encourage new ideas and experimentation. Maybe we even need to be willing to just pay $10 or $20 more for the game in the first place. At least it would be more honest. 

One thing is truly clear. The marketplace is treacherous right now. Minefields of deception and pockets of greed surround bubbles of genuine innovation and creativity. The consumer is an afterthought in an economy trying to stabilize itself in troubling times. We must be vigilant to support that which deserves it and decry that which does not. We must do our part to guide our confused industry to calmer waters. Hopefully the day will soon come when DLC can take its rightful place in a medium filled with renewed honesty and fresh ideas.

In the meantime, just keep an eye on those microtransactions and try not to get screwed. It’s harder than you might think.

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