March 20th, 2009

Earlier this week, Valve announced that their digital distribution platform Steam would now be offering the ability to push “DLC” (Downloadable Content – a marketing term made to refer to microtransactions on consoles) to those who publish their games on Steam. This news has so far been met with reactions ranging from “good for you, PC” to customer outrage on the Steam forums. I am finding myself to be somewhere in between, but I’m leaning towards the belief that “DLC” on the PC is a bad thing for everyone involved. I’ll share with you my reactions as a consumer, as a business student, and also as a person who writes about games.

The Problem With The Maw

With The Maw’s “DLC” (two “bonus” levels), I went from thinking “that’s neat” to realizing the implications. I knew the maps were available and ready by the time the PC version released because they were available for purchase on my Xbox 360 before the game even came out. That means they were held back with the intent to sell them later as “bonus content”. This immediately diminished the value of the product that I had already purchased. I felt like I was not getting the full experience out of The Maw if I didn’t pay $2.50 for these extra levels. But I hadn’t even launched the game yet despite having pre-purchased it, knowing that if it’s good I’d be writing about it here at DoSu as a Cheap Game. But I hadn’t played it yet, so I was not attached to it. I found myself with no desire to play it. So I requested a refund. After jumping through some hoops, I received my refund. I no longer own The Maw — I probably never will again. Since that means I’ll never get to play it, The Maw will not be recommended by me here as a Cheap Game.

The Problem With Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2 is a bit of a different beast. It’s a “feature-length” game from a major publisher and developer. Since the Fortunes Pack (3 weapons, 2 vehicles & 5 multiplayer maps) didn’t come to any platform until November 21st, it’s reasonable to believe that it was not ready to go when the game first launched on October 21st. Maybe some of the content was cut out from the final game, but I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt that a team could crank out some weapons and maps within a month. Maybe it was just some assets that could not be finished in time for their deadline.

I’ve owned Far Cry 2 on PC since it released. I’ve been playing it off-and-on for the last couple of months. It’s a very time-consuming open-world game. I absolutely love it. I was disappointed that the Fortunes Pack was not available for PC when it came out in November. I would have very much liked to use that Silent Shotgun; it sounded ridiculous. So I was considerably less offended when it was made available on PC today, but I also felt somewhat obligated to purchase it before I could continue playing. It’s a similar problem as with The Maw, but different because I had already invested so much of myself in the game. I couldn’t quit now, but continuing was a difficult thing to do.

On Perceived Value

I realized that I don’t just have a problem with “DLC” when it’s content that was held back from the game — I have a problem with it when it’s not free. Selfish of me, yes? More than a bit, yes, but I have good intentions. I want games to have value, and I believe that “DLC” that isn’t free diminishes the consumer’s perceived value of the base product. My reaction to the “DLC” for The Maw and Far Cry 2 are my testament to this belief; I no longer own The Maw and I’m having trouble wanting to launch Far Cry 2 today.

Valve has been a pioneer in building value in games via free content. They continually release free maps, game modes and unlocks for games like Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat, Team Fortress, and soon for Left 4 Dead. Because of this, and of course due to the quality of the content they produce, theirs are the best selling games on the PC today. Valve understands that a consumer’s perceived value of a product can earn you more money than simply having more items with price tags available on a virtual shelf.

DLC: A Step Forward For Consoles; Backward For PC

It’s puzzling to me, then, that Valve would support a thing such as “DLC” on the PC. There’s precedent for it on consoles, but that does not mean that it’s a good idea or that all platforms must follow suit. PC users are used to getting things for free. I wouldn’t say we’re selfish or unappreciative, we’re simply conditioned. Console users are okay with “DLC” because this is the first generation of consoles where it has been possible on a large scale. It’s all that they know. For instance, on my Xbox 360, I own Fable 2. I have not yet played it because I want the full experience, and there’s word that more “DLC” is being released for Fable beyond the Knothole Island content. This has caused me to wait. I’m okay with it because it’s a console… I expect that kind of ridiculousness from it.

But the introduction of “DLC” into the PC ecosystem has managed to impact my perception of Steam itself. I am now “afraid” to purchase new games on Steam because I don’t know if I’m going to be getting the complete package. This was not the case last week. Almost every game that I have recommended in the Cheap Gaming features have been available on Steam. I absolutely love the service; I think it’s the best thing that happened to PC gaming since the SDK. Normally, the first thing I do when I get on my computer every day is check the Steam news, new releases, and coming soon lists. In the days following The Maw’s “DLC”, I was considerably less enthused, and the Far Cry 2 Fortunes Pack today knocked me down a peg further.

It’s Not All Bad

I am willing to concede that this is not entirely a bad thing. “DLC” on PC will probably mean that we will get content packs that we’re normally denied, such as the Fortunes Pack for Far Cry 2 and the extra levels (real ending?) for Prince of Persia and Tomb Raider: Underworld. That’s not to say that “DLC” is the only way we could get it; we’ve had the technology on PC for over 15 years. I would have much preferred that publishers choose an alternate business model for their PC releases — that is, focus on value — but it would appear that the only way we’re going to get some content is if they can slap the “DLC” label on it and charge us. I just hope that others acknowledge that this “capability” can be easily exploited for the evil, as we’ve already seen with The Maw.

But It Mostly Is

Console players should be able to sympathize with this. There has been considerable amounts of outrage about Capcom’s releasing of Resident Evil 5′s “Versus Mode” as $5 “DLC” as well as their Street Fighter IV Costumes. You used to be able to get an alternate costume simply by pressing a different button at character select. Remember Beautiful Katamari? That content was already on the disc, but with revolutionary “DLC” capability, Namco Bandai was able to charge for the end of their game twice. And let us never forget Oblivion’s Horse Armor, the father of value-diminishing “DLC.”


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