Economics of Gaming – Downloadable Content

I recently teased on my company’s Facebook page that DEM’s next book, NeuroSpasta will have DRM which will result in either the digital book deleting itself or the physical book bursting into flames after it’s been read seven times. The economics of video games has been under considerable fire recently, with most of warheads focused on the business practices of Electronic Arts. EA, once a respected game developer, has now been found guilty of so many ethical violations, that it’s now nearly universally despised on a level equal to the Pontiac Aztec. These violations include micro-transactions, on-disc DLC (as well as DLC released so soon after the main release as to make it appear simply deleted from the main release), and always-online usage requirements. But are these damning judgements justified? Are these practices tried-and-true across the entertainment landscape with only video games being attacked so vehemently by the fans? Is it only because of the extreme nature of these infractions do we take notice, or are these latest miserly practices finally the straws that broke the public’s adamantine-reinforced spine?

To explore that, we need address each issue, Copyright Security, Charge-based Downloadable Content, and Micro-transactions.


Mixing up the order, I’ll start with DLC, as even I’ve used the term ironically recently with one of my products. DEM is releasing a “DLC” for Ultramodern4 called Apex—a small supplement introducing rules for making superheroes. Although being offered for a low price, it’s also free to those that purchased the PDF or POD of Ultramodern4. I refer to it as DLC because it’s not being offered in print and because I’m making a statement regarding DLC. The encompassing criticism generally thrown at DLC is that it’s simply wrong; any content should be included with the full purchase, and it’s an argument which doesn’t hold much water with me. In many ways DLC can be considered mini-sequels or side-quests detached from the main campaign. Years of gradual indoctrination has tolerated the use of DLC to the extent that most people don’t have issue with it. What causes the uproar is when DLC appears obviously excised from the full game in order to be sold later. A good example are the various fighting games where, originally all characters were included, now as many as half can only be unlocked through additional purchases. Putting it into perspective, it would be like buying D&D’s Player’s Handbook which offers only six classes and then needing to purchase a second or even third Player’s Handbook to get the other….

…WAIT a second. Oh, I see what you did there; you don’t think I did, but I did.

Hell, I’ll even direct that lens back to my own company. Ultramodern4 and NeuroSpasta used to be one book, but when it appeared obvious that the total product was going to be too large, and considering the NeuroSpasta setting was taking longer than the rest of the book, I decided to split them. But why can’t the argument be made that I should’ve included NeuroSpasta in the full purchase rather than sell it separately. Is there a distinction? I assume it’s the difference between a video game having twenty characters and then discovering only half are available for the sequel and a game book which splits its content, a practice honed for as long as there’s been a role playing game industry.

This doesn’t factor in the controversy of on-disc DLC—a somewhat archaic term in this digital age—where the DLC is actually included in the retail purchase and you can only unlock said content with an additional charge. It would be like getting all the D&D classes in one book but with half the book encoded, and the publisher selling you a decoder ring for an additional twenty bucks. Most consumers would grab their pitchforks while others would simply share copies of the decoder, encouraging piracy. But of course, Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t do that, but what about movies? Think about it, when a DVD/bluray is released, you can be offered as many as four different price points. There is DVD, Bluray, DVD/BD Combo, Special Edition with Digital Copy, Four Disc Special Edition Director’s Cut, and the condemnable extreme edition double dip, each more expensive than the last. When you purchase the DVD/BD Combo which doesn’t include the Special Features Disc, do you feel robbed, believing that if you buy the movie, you should get everything? I don’t think that, and coming from someone who’s worked retail since the Super Nintendo, I’ve never had a customer say that. They select a price point and accept the purchase. So when Mass Effect 3 was released, it had two price points, the more expensive being the collector’s edition which included a soundtrack, book, and the From Ashes DLC. I never had an issue with this because I had already been “programmed” to see the different price points as options similar to movie releases. The counter argument would claim From Ashes as being integral campaign content and it would be equated with releasing a movie with missing scenes and then releasing those scenes only if someone pays—okay, I’m doing it again.

I admit, there’s still an argument because the From Ashes content can be found on the ME3 full product and for that, I have no counter, but most of the attacks against DLC practices have been on all DLC released after the main game. Companies are torn because they know a quick-release DLC will be accused of being deleted content from the retail purchase, but if they wait too long, the potential for profit decreases, and decreases fast. There appears to be a goldilocks zone, like habitable planets around stars, but applying to DLC release timing. Too late, and customers will have moved onto a new product. Too soon and everyone will be up in arms that it was content removed from the main game. I’ll also argue that the amount of rage is also dependant on the specific content being offered. I’ll concede that From Ashes does feel integral content to Mass Effect 3 but none of the Borderlands’ DLC felt that way, neither did any of the content released for Mass Effect 2. With ME2, DLC was clever in that with the main game, all the missions were either recruitment, loyalty, or campaign-based. All the DLC released later were for the most part detached, focusing on side stories not directly involved with the primary focus of the game. The same went for Borderlands. With my own Apex game, the superhero rules would overwhelm the main game and imply to anyone reading it that they had purchased a superhero book rather than a universal set of rules for all non-fantasy RPGs.

Recently, the focus of core gamers have moved towards Dead Space 3, one for its micro-transactions (which I’ve spoken about already) but also because of its announcement of its Awakening DLC, released a month after the purchase of the main game. I personally think a month is an acceptable window but already people have attacked it for not, which begs the question, where the hell is this goldilocks zone, if it exists at all? The Awakening DLC is set after the main game, so what logic would there be including it the main game? It would be disjointing to have a huge boss fight, find closure with character and story, and then have the game continue for another three hours to an anticlimax, just like the final two minutes of Army of Darkness.

But movies range from $20 to $35, you say. Games start around $49 with big releases bending the needle at $59. Haven’t we paid enough, you ask? That’s also a valid point and I’m a firm believer that patience is a virtue and the biggest problem with games today is that the industry has completely convinced the masses that they must pre-order everything, install it day one, and ignore the pesky journalists recommending that you wait for a review before forking down your quickly depreciating non-Chinese currency. I was flabbergasted when I discovered Destiny available for pre-order, a game a year from completion with virtually no information being sold exclusively on the name of its publisher and developer, a developer I might add, whose success can be mostly attributed to luck more than producing a quality product. But this is the definition of supply and demand—the ways of economics this entire industry is based on. We need it now, not later, and this is the price we must pay. As demand drops, so will it’s price, but it used to be a lot worse. Back when I was selling PS1 games, the average price of a console title was $79, not $59, and money was worth more back then. I remember selling Omega Boost for the PS1 for $89 (and you have no idea how hard it was to remember the name of that game). I even recall one 4-disc JRPG retailing for $99.

Maybe it’s just me, gifted or cursed with perspective. I know certain games deserve their full retail price while others need to be aged until we catch that indicative aroma of either rotten meat or fine wine. My strength is my self-control, but that leads into another topic about game journalism, demos, and pre-orders.

All I’m saying is that yes, there is a business strategy around DLC, and publishers are feeling around the edges of tolerance, and when they find it, push beyond in hopes people will accept it, and most often we do. But just because companies are trying to find ways to make more money off a title doesn’t mean they don’t deserve that money. It’s like when I order À la carte, if I ask for nothing else, I’m still going to get a great steak, but the meal is made better with desert. What consumers need to be wary about is what we only receive half a steak. Not all DLC is evil, and if consumers continue to attack every instance, the impact of their arguments will diminish.


Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.