Why DLC is About to Ruin Gaming

It all started with horse armor. Fanatical RPG fans had been playing Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion to death, and they wanted more. While the developers promised more missions, more realms and more adventure, they had something in mind to hold players over in the meantime: Horse armor. Yes, now you could bling out your pony with all manner of shiny plate mail, because you aren’t rolling in style until your mount glistens in the sun. But this stuff wasn’t being given away; you had to pay for it, and not with gold from the game, with real money (well, as close as Microsoft Points come to being real money).

The fans were furious; they threw their collective hands up and declared just how stupid this move was. They decreed that anyone who would buy something like this would have to be an idiot, and there was no way microtransactions like these would ever cut it in the modern gaming world. Those fans were wrong, and now we are treading on a dangerous path, one which would force you to pay top dollar for content already on the disc, sell you gimped games for the sake of forcing you to pay more for the full experience and make you buy games for a specific console simply for the sake of exclusive DLC. Gamers the world over should be incensed that they’re being taken advantage of, and it’s time to put a stop to this money storm before every developer, publisher and console manufacturer gets swept up in the madness.

I want to make it clear right up front that I am not opposing the concept of DLC. When properly applied, extra content offered to consumers at a reasonable price has the potential to really enhance and extend the entire experience. Games like Halo, Rock Band, and Call of Duty 4 owe immense measures of their success on the fact that normally no sooner do players start getting bored of what has already been offered that something new is landing in their doorstep.

The problem is rather in the way developers and publishers are treating DLC, by either unbalancing gameplay, gimping the game, or making gamers choose up sides. We will examine each of these instances individually, and discuss the inherent problems in each.

First up is the matter of offering content, which will create a sort of mini caste system in gaming by offering exclusive weapons or gadgets for paying players, which can in turn be used against those players who did not buy the same equipment. The best current example of this is EA DICE’s DLC plan for the upcoming Battlefield: Bad Company. Those who were invited to the Beta noticed that only five weapons were available, with the other five carrying notes that they were able to be purchased on Xbox Live. After some pressing EA admitted that the guns would only be available to those who either bought the “gold” edition of Bad Company, or those who went online and bought the weapons later. Thus far, signs indicate that the weapons will be sold only as a bundle, and will cost $10.

When taken to task for forcing players to buy their weapons, EA responded by saying that all the guns are “balanced,” and that no one purchasing these special weapons would receive an unfair advantage. Any logical person can see straight through that argument, because if these guns were essentially the same as the free weapons, but with a different paint job, then there would be no incentive to purchase them. Instead, it’s obvious that these weapons, while not overpowered, will most likely confer subtle yet tangible benefits such as an increased rate of fire or reduced recoil.

Thus, the decision of EA to include this content creates a world of the haves vs. the have nots, as already elite players will be able to further augment their abilities with special firearms. This sort of disparity is absolutely antithetical to the world of gaming, where the axiom should be that any player can have access the same equipment as any other player given enough time and effort. Sure, you had to earn the good weapons in Call of Duty 4 by playing a lot of multiplayer games and dying more than your fair share of times, but you finally got the good stuff after putting in an honest effort and honing your skills, not by typing in a credit card and confirming a purchase on Xbox Live.

While some games provide extra content that is created to augment the game, many others are going down the path of stripping out characters, items, and levels which should already be included and marking them as “sold separately.” Just this week, an analysis was made concerning the forthcoming Wiiware title Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King and its initial bevy of DLC goodness. Word had already leaked that only one of the game’s four races would be available from the outset, with the others having to be downloaded separately. Now it has been discovered that if you download all of the available content (races, missions, outfits, etc.) available on launch day then you will have to pay $13 to cover the bill. That amount is bad enough considering that all of these things should have been included in the original title itself, but it’s made even worse by the fact that the entire game costs $15. That’s right, you have to practically buy the game twice just to get the stuff you should have received the first time around.

As egregious as this is, it’s not the first time gamers have been charged for content that should already be available. Owners of titles like We Love Katamari, DDR Universe, and Need for Speed found that when they paid to download new levels, songs, and cars no new content was actually being added, but rather they were paying for keys to unlock content which was already on the disc. It’s simply ludicrous that content is being placed on the retail disc customers have already paid $60 for but can’t be accessed until you pay even more.

The final area, which bears perhaps the greatest danger, is the fairly new notion of console manufacturers forking over big bucks for the creation of DLC that is exclusive to their platform. Up until this point, almost all DLC for multiplatform games was released at the same time, for the same price, for everyone’s enjoyment. However, Microsoft has thrown a massive wrench into the system with the implementation of special, exclusive content for the 360 version of GTA IV. The obvious gambit is that Microsoft is banking on using the promise of this special, special goodness to lure potential customers away from buying the PS3 version of GTA and instead lining the pockets of everyone in Seattle who doesn’t work for Google. We’ll find out later this month if the gamble will be successful, but if Microsoft realizes big gains, you can expect a bidding war for every major title that comes out from now until the time consoles no longer wander the Earth.

The ultimate losers in this situation are gamers who only own one console and that console happens to be the one without the exclusive content. While some people are fortunate enough to have two (or all three) of the next gen beauties, most of us are forced to choose between one or the other, and end up standing out in the rain when we find out our chosen machine won’t allow us the opportunity to fully experience the next great game. Just don’t expect the corporate execs to shed a tear for poor “Average Joe Gamer,” they can’t hear you over the cash registers.

At this point, there are two potential paths for DLC. One is the path of additional, useful, universally available content that does not unbalance a game or cause an entire console to be left out; and the other is the path of special toys for those with the cash, crippled launch games, which can only be fully enjoyed after paying through the nose and leaving entire segments of the gaming community out of the experience. As consumers, we have the power to vote with our wallets, and we can’t let these “experiments” in content to dictate how we play our games. We must be willing to stand up and say that if current trends continue, all three companies can prepare to download our foot up their ass.

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