Game Theory Discussion: Downloadable Content
First, a disclaimer. This appears to be a bit of a sore spot for many consumers and I do not wish to start a flame war. I swear I am not trolling - This is a huge point of discussion and one that is extremely important in my line of work. I was recently reminded about the hatred of DLC by the outcry regarding EA's Battlefield 3 and I would like to open a discussion within a section of the gaming community that I trust to give me informed and intelligent responses about important issues that face the gaming community as a whole. I recognize that this is not entirely relevant to this community, but I believe that as game creators, it is something worth thinking about.
A little background: 2 Years ago, I re-entered the world of professional game creation as an assistant producer in a publishing studio
(The evil overlords of commercial gaming). I have recently also been promoted to a proper producer's position and am therefore very deeply involved with the DLC planning/implementation process. I have had the very educational experience of releasing a number of very distinct projects that have run the gamut of varying levels of successful and unsuccessful since I began. My company is also one of the first studios in Japan to really have embraced Downloadable Content (DLC), and we had the honor of being recognized by Sony Computer Entertainment at the end of 2010 for our contribution to downloadable gaming.
We released one game in late 2009 called ウィザードリィ 囚われし魂の迷宮 (Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls) - a PS3 title that is a reboot of the classic 1980s Sir-Tech "Wizardry" property, whose license we obtained the rights for a ways back. It was released as a Download-only title on PlayStation Network and for all intents and purposes, even with a relatively small install base (compared to huge game companies), it was still something that I consider successful. One of the reasons for the project's success was with its large amount of available DLC. We managed to achieve a DLC attach rate (The rate of users that purchase the original product and also pay for DLC) of close to 50%, and though this is a rare case, I will be using this project as a reference in this discussion, as it contains examples of all forms of DLC.
As we are a game development community, I assume that most if not all of you are familiar with the concept of DLC, but for posterity's sake, I would like to take a moment to define DLC and its subsets.What is DLC?
DLC stands for D
ontent. It refers to any content related to a single product that can be obtained separately via a monetized (Paid DLC) or non-monetized (Free DLC) transaction. Paid DLC is a hot topic in gamer circles for popularizing the concepts of microtransactions
, in which the end-user purchases a product, and pays separately for small, frequently insignificant items (avatar items, equipment), though it can refer to the purchase of Expansion Packs
as well.How does DLC work?
Traditionally, computer and console games were not designed to handle additional content; but as of more recently, developers have created a method by which certain parts of code or script can be altered through "patching". Patching has existed for many, many years in the PC gaming space, but is still a fairly young concept for console gaming. These patches can be downloaded and applied individually to a product, adding content that can be accessed in-game through a method as specified by the developer. This content can be accessed in two distinct ways: Via Content Licenses
and Downloadable Packages
. I will touch on these subjects below.What is the difference between Standard DLC and an Expansion Pack?
The simple answer to this is that there is none - both are content added to further the experience of the game, provided separate to the main "Vanilla" experience but dependent upon it to function. On a more deep level, when we get into nuance, they become very largely different entities of their own. The general consensus seems to be that "Standard DLC" ranges from cosmetic upgrades (Costume packs/Avatar items) through to "Map Packs" (Additional levels of gameplay not previously available in the main product). In contrast to this, you have Expansions, which are similar to map-packs, but also serve to extend the game's narrative, and often contain a variety of other additional content (Items, cosmetic upgrades, etc.). To put more succinctly, Expansions are Bigger and more all-inclusive versions of DLC (Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls offers a large variety of small, monetized items, as well as a full Expansion Pack and smaller Content License Expansion. I am contractually unable to give specific numbers, but at its peak, the most downloaded DLC was the full, downloadable Expansion Pack, though there are content licenses that do very well financially).
A fairly large amount of research and monitoring of varied gaming-discussion forums/sites leads me to believe that the general consensus is that Expansion Packs are more widely accepted by the common user-base as "Good" DLC, which leads me to Theory 1*:Theory 1: Larger and more inclusive DLC is better than small individual DLC, even though larger DLC is traditionally more expensive.
To elaborate: As opposed to paying for an enhanced existing experience, players would rather spend a large amount of money for a completely new additional game experience, within the confines of the original game's engine and narrative (In some cases, the cohesion of narrative is tenuous, with expansions like Red Dead Redemption
's Undead Nightmare
expansion**).What is the difference between Content Licenses and Downloadable Packages?
A Content License
refers to a DLC item that unlocks existing content by downloading an identifying key. The game recognizes this key and allows the player to access this content. This is often referred to as "On-Disk*** DLC" or "Unlocks". As the content in question exists as data that is installed as part of the game, but can not be accessed without the aid of the unlock (Generally monetized), it is one of the largest targets for end-user ire. This is also closely tied with the concept of "Planned DLC". See Below for more information.
A Downloadable Package
refers to DLC that is not released as part of the original package, but contains data that must be downloaded and added to the game in order for content to be accessed. As the data for a Downloadable Package can be created separately from the original product, this allows for long-term support for a game, expanding the scope of a project beyond the finished product at release.How can a publisher justify charging for DLC?
"If I buy a game at full price, why should I have to pay for a part of the game? Also, how do you justify releasing a game "unfinished"
, then forcing us to pay extra to get the whole game?"
The above quote is a paraphrase of one of the most common arguments against DLC that I hear when discussing the theory and practice thereof. I put specific emphasis on the word "unfinished", as it is one of the major complaints related to DLC - the assumption that once extra content is released for the game, the game ceases to be complete until the additional content is applied to the game. This is directly related, in my opinion, to a common completionist attitude in popular gaming culture and boils down in many players' minds as a matter of perception which is very much at odds to the mindset of a game publisher.
To put it very simply, the publisher does not withhold critical content. The game will be able to be played from beginning to end without any significant hindrance regardless of whether DLC has been purchased or not. This does not mean that a number of publishers do not design their games with incentives to have the player buy extra content, whether it be via expanding the game world through an expansion, or allowing the player to "buy time with money", and lower the difficulty level by buying powerful items and removing the effort traditionally required to acquire them.
If a game requires DLC to be purchased in order to progress to the end, that falls into the realm of Patches
(or Updates), Paid Demos
or Episodic Content
. I will touch upon Episodic content further down in this document. To very briefly touch upon patches/updates, if a game contains a "Game breaking bug" that can not be circumvented and prevents the player from progressing to the end, that must be fixed via a patch. Patches are never (to my knowledge) monetized. If anyone wishes to hear my justification of "Day one patches", I will be glad to write about them, but this is already very long, so I will save it for later.
The purpose of DLC from the perspective of a publisher is that it is content that enhances and enriches an already-finished product
. The player is given the option to add extra content beyond the structure of the game itself that changes the nature of the game or adds to the overall experience, but is not critical to the game. Episodic Content is generally considered to be an entirely separate entity, and though relevant to this discussion, deserves its own section.If Content Licenses are already on the disk, why should we pay to access data we already purchased?
Content Licenses are one of the trickier areas of DLC and harder as a publisher to justify without seeming like money-grubbing suits. Ultimately, it is justified with the same argument above - as it is non-critical content that does not restrict the narrative in any way, it should be considered as such. The benefit of releasing extra content on the game disk*** is that it is more easily accessable to the end-user, as it only requires a key of a few kilobytes worth of data to unlock.
Content Licenses also have other applications, such as what I like to refer to as "Paid cheats" (or "Buying Time with Money", as outlined above) - allowing the user to pay for an item instead of finding it in-game, or pay for an item that will increase the power of their character(s). This is very often applied in "Freemium" or "Free-To-Play" model games, MMOs being one of the most common examplese. In Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls, we released a relatively large library of equipment that could be purchased in this manner, as well as items that raise the randomly generated bonus point value available to a character during character creation. In this instance the player is considered to be "Buying time". By spending money (At their own discretion), the player is spared needing to "grind" to find rare equipment (In the case of Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls, it is a single player game, so does not give paid users an unfair advantage against others, though this is a common occurrance).What is Planned DLC and why do people hate it?
Planned DLC refers to expanded content that is in development prior to the release of the original product, most commonly the target of disdain when announced also prior to the title's release, once again leading to frequent "unfinished" claims, such as "If they are already making it, that just means that it's part of the game they're not putting in so that they can force us to play later!"
In order to explain and/or justify the existance of Planned DLC, it requires a little information about product releases. Without going into too much detail (Unless specifically asked), the mastering phase for a full product is separate from that of the downloadable content for said product. This is particularly relevant in the case of console software, as with the PC, it is often up to the discretion of the publisher who are not at the mercy of a licensor (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo). Console software in particular should be in masterable form (Publisher QA finished) at least 2 months prior to release. Ideally somewhat earlier. However, once you enter into the QA phase of a piece of software, generally a large amount of the design staff are freed up for other projects. In order to keep them employed, as well as release finished DLC long before the game's product lifecycle has ended, this means that almost invariably DLC is being developed as soon as a project is finished, if not months before in the case of larger games.
To use a well-recieved example, Dragon Age: Awakening (DLC Expansion to Dragon Age: Origins) was in development for almost a year before its release.What is Episodic Content and why is it more well accepted?
Episodic content refers to an almost subgenre of game in which the game itself is (generally) a budget title that requires less time to complete than other games in its sector, that provides a singular chunk of a larger narrative including a beginning, middle and end (to the individual episode). It takes popular Television nomenclature, "Episode", and applies it to a game design philosophy. In Episodic Games, you can "Enjoy one episode from the beginning to the end and receive closure, but understand that it is a part of a series with a definitive 'Macro' beginning and end". Episodic games are frequently released as "Seasons", particularly well done by Telltale Games
(Which, as adventure gamers, I'm sure we're all familiar with).
Episodic content is, for all intents and purposes, no different from larger, sequelized game franchises except for the fact that it is understood by both parties involved (Publisher and consumer) that there will be multiple sequels in short succession, generally without or with minimal updates to the game engine. It was resisted at first by many consumers, but seems to have been largely accepted at this point - a phenomenon I am still mulling over. This leads me to Theory 2:Theory 2: If content is provided as separate, autonomous entities, users will for the most part cease to consider them purely as DLC.
Finally, I would like to briefly address another facet of DLC that is being addressed by gamers in relation to the previously mentioned Battlefield 3: Exclusive Pre-order/Store DLC
It is not uncommon for a Publisher to enter into an agreement with a store, or the general user-base by proxy, wherein purchase of the software under certain conditions is incentivized by the inclusion of downloadable content exclusive to those purchasers (i.e. Receiving a specific special bonus level or item when you buy a game from GameStop, as opposed to a separate special item when purchased from Electronics Boutique - which may no longer exist, apologies as I haven't been game shopping in the states in years). This is done with the user base in the form of what is referred to as "Preorder Bonuses" - Special content that is offered exclusively to people who promise to purchase the game prior to its sale (Often putting up a percentage of the cost of the software ahead of time).
The reasoning for preorder bonuses, as you may suspect, is to encourage users to pre-order their software, which in turn gives stores and distributors incentive to buy more copies which they can retail to the general public. I'd like to just put forward the reason behind this practice, and allow you to judge its validity on your own.Why does a Publisher need to sell copies of a game before it even goes on shelves?
There are many reasons, most of which are between the individual companies involved in the creation, distribution and selling of games. Many years ago (Disturbingly, before many of the members of this very forum were old enough to be playing/buying games), games were a booming industry in which development costs were reasonable, and the returns were large because a very large number of users would purchase games frequently. As of the recent market crashes, users are becoming more frugal (Which they rightfully should), and by that same right, stores are doing the same.
I can only speak from experience for the Japanese method in this section, and I know that it is different in North America and Europe, but here, every copy in the store is a copy of the game that the store has paid for prior to selling it to the consumer. This is why they call it re
tail. Even though they are traditionally the only channel by which people can purchase their games, the stores still need to buy a specific number of copies to put on their shelves. Stores have analysts****, or "buyers" who research user interest and make a quantitative decision as to how many copies of an individual game they think that they can sell.
These sale forecasts are heavily influenced by factors like preorders, especially
in the case of new IPs - Stores relay their purchase numbers to the distributor (usually an external company, as only the largest publishers have distribution channels of their own), which in turn offer to purchase a number of copies from the publisher (Who pays for the games to be created on disc usually by the licensor - i.e. Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo). Everybody in this line takes a risk by spending their money, and if they pay for too many copies and they can't sell them, it creates a surplus, drives the cost of the game down after sale date and nobody wins. The opposite happens when a game is under-quoted, which leads to an unmet demand (Exactly what happened with our most recent game, AKIBA'S TRIP).
As most games make 80% or more of their total profits within the first week of sale, if there are too many or aren't enough copies in circulation, there is either a loss of funds by the stores, which in some countries will sell back the extra copies to the publisher, who in turn has to essentially throw them away or convince other buyers to take the extra copies, or there is a loss of potential profit due to waning interest/loss of potential day-one sales.
Now, I move on to the questions I would like to have answered:
- What kind of DLC are you willing to pay for? Why?
- Do you believe that DLC is a good/bad thing? Why?
- Do you agree/disagree with any of the above statements? Why?
- Do you think that the inclusion of exclusive DLC warrants Boycotting? Why?
* Please note that these sweeping, blanket assumptions will almost certainly be wrong when picked apart on a deeper level.
** These products were also released as packaged retail products, which in a manner of speaking takes it out of the realm of pure DLC, as it is not Downloadable, but extended content. However, for the purposes of this topic, it will still be referred to as DLC.
*** On-Disk DLC can be something of a misnomer - it should be clarified that data does not need to be contained within physical media to be "On the game disk". On-Disk DLC can exist within downloadable packaged games.
**** The "Store" referenced here is generally not the individual store that the consumer shops at, but the greater corporate entity that owns and operates every store under its wing.TL:DR
Y U NO LIKE?