Downloadable content (DLC) was once about genuinely expanding a game after its initial release. Take Dragon Age: Origin‘s beloved DLC add-ons, for instance; these bundles truly fleshed out more of the in-game universe with a range of additional content.
In today’s market with microtransactions and timed exclusives, DLC is just another way for publishers to charge users for more content. DLC has been modeled in the current AAA formula, and in some ways publishers are cooking up wallet-crushing schemes for optimum profits.
Instead of being added post-development, DLC monetization schemes are clearly actualized while the game is still being developed, to the point where whole portions of said game are locked behind a very real paywall.
We’ve seen this time and time again in modern gaming: take Destiny‘s $20 on-disc expansions, or Mortal Kombat X‘s more recent $30 Kombat Pack and in-game microtransaction combo. Big publishers like EA (NASDAQ: EA), Activision (NASDAQ: ATVI) and Warner Bros. Interactive (NYSE: TXW) are devising new methods to milk every franchise–and our digital piggy banks–as much as possible.
Season Passes and experimental marketing schemes
In many ways buying a game now is kind of like buying a console. To get the most out of your console you’ll need extra peripherals like controllers, cords, and of course the games themselves. Then there’s a whole galaxy of branded goodies like skins, external hard drives, stands, controller charging stations–you name it.
When you buy a new AAA game, you’re rarely actually buying the whole experience. You’re only buying what I like to call the “starter kit”, a $64 disc or digital download that acts as the unfinished core to a game. To get the full scope you’ll have to snag the extra bits of overpriced add-on content locked behind paywalls.
That’s where season passes come in.
Season passes, to me, are actually $25-30 pre-orders for future content to compliment a game. Suddenly a single game’s full price has jumped from $64 to about $89-94, and it’s becoming unsettling. What’s more is that most games come with season passes now, as if it’s a pre-requisite to have extra paid junk tacked on.
Like any pre-order, buying a season pass is a gamble as you don’t always know exactly what you’re going to get. Sure you have a general idea of what’s included, and you always get a nifty sounding description with a few screens, and keywords are thrown around to offer incentives, but you just don’t know.
But the publishers know. They know just what sells and how to sell it–that’s the name of the game, after all.
The sure-fire season passes are those for juggernaut best-sellers like Call of Duty. Extra maps and perks for premiere FPS games are pretty much guaranteed sells, and ultimately account for a huge percentage in season pass profits. Activision has built part of their empire utilizing DLC strategies, which represent some of the most solid revenue streams in the industry.
Although some conditions are just well-documented, publishers have started to experiment with other tactics, some of which are outrageously transparent money-milking schemes.
Evolve’s DLC hub
Take the multiplayer-only Evolve, for example. 2K Games’ monster-hunting shooter has some of the most exploitative DLC pricing scales that I’ve ever seen, and in many ways it makes the game seem like a giant microtransaction-ridden experiment.
Evolve offers a $25 Hunting Season Pass that only unlocks a single wave of characters. Since the pass covers only four of the six new hunters, you’ll have to pay $7.49 each for those extras when they’re released.
Usually season passes unlock everything that a game will offer. But not Evolve. Instead it pulls a Borderlands 2 by literally only covering a portion of the DLC, forcing you to pay premium prices if you want the full game.
Things really start to get ridiculous once you see the other half of Evolve‘s DLC spectrum: the monsters. The extra monsters, which are opposite the hunters and act as in-game characters, are priced at $14.99 a piece–and there’s no season pass for these guys.
That’s $15 just for a character. Fifteen bucks will almost always buy you a whole DLC chapter full of new levels and goodies, but in Evolve it only nets you a single monster.
So let’s tally the cost up, shall we?
Let’s say you buy Evolve at the retail $59.99, so that’s about $64 right off the bat. Then you purchase the $24.99 season pass digitally, and pick up both new monsters ($14.99 a pop) and the two hunters not covered by the season pass ($7.49 apiece). That’s a rough total of $133.95 worth of content you’ve just bought, not including any snazzy skins you want to buy to customize your monsters and characters.
Should anyone ever have to spend $133 on a single game?
Activision’s New Tricks
Destiny is another example of a new marketing experiment in terms of DLC structures.
Activision doesn’t need to try these schemes; it already has Call of Duty, which is a guaranteed cash crop. But as we all know the nature of business is profit, and gaming is nothing if not a profitable business.
Destiny‘s Dark Below and House of Wolves expansions are priced at $19.99 a piece, or you can pick up the season pass for $34.99 (you save $5, what a deal!). Plus all of the content is already included on the game’s disc and you’re literally just buying a magical key to unlock them.
The real hook in this bait isn’t really the overpriced DLC, but how Activision has devised a clever way to make you want to buy it.
Destiny is actually quite starved of content, and outside of small tweaks and additions that come from Bungie’s seldom-delivered updates, the game gets no extra meat on its plate.
The lush, evolving and open-world environments Bungie promised you have turned out to be soulless, drab sandboxes filled with cookie cutter enemies.
So everyone wants more content, and the little content there is gets recycled over and over in limited permutations in Nightfall and Heroic Strikes.
Bungie tweaks little things like guns and strikes here and there to create the facade of progress, just so things are just different enough to alnost feel new again. But in reality nothing has been added or injected, things have just been shifted around to create that false feeling of change
Meanwhile players are left to grind towards the same gear and play the same missions over and over and over. Everything is so stale, and even the RNG nature of the game is stifled by an incredibly limited gear selection.
Destiny often feels like a grind-fest with no real reward, with little to no extra content added in besides the stuff locked behind paywalls. But even that stuff has proven to be quite minimal and overpriced.
Players gobbled up the first Dark Below expansion in a matter of days. The only real things that kept their worth was the batch of new items–which were tampered down in size and scope, just so we keep wanting more–and the raid. Now Bungie reveals that House of Wolves won’t have a raid, so endgame players be damned.
But you’ve already purchased the season pass, right? I mean you knew you’d want the extra content–sure you did, you’ve been coerced and lured along by the scheme, so why wouldn’t you? This is a huge example of not knowing just what you’ve purchased, and why season passes can be a gamble.
With Destiny, Activision has found a way to keep you in a perpetual state of hunger.
They only give you enough to awaken your hunger, to remind you why you want more, but all the while there’s that paygate that keeps you from what you want. The promise of a feast of content is renewed, meanwhile only morsels are delivered, but you’ll be able to get in on the next big thing if you just pay up.
And with the news of Destiny‘s Comet structure, things are only going to get worse. The Comet is the ultimate promise of that feast, the assurance that you’ll get so much stuff if you just re-buy the game again at $64. But you’re not done shelling out money for Destiny just yet. After you buy the Comet (which is priced at a full retail price), there will be two more $20-a-piece expansions waiting for you.
Destiny‘s add-on scheme is the total culmination of years’ worth of planning and data-combing, and truly is the carrot on the end of the stick.
It’s a sinister trend, it’s a coercive trend, but sadly, it’s an effective trend.
MKX’s kostly kombat
More recently we have Mortal Kombat X, one of the most anticipated fighters in recent memory, that’s introduced a startling new trend for the franchise: paying cash for extra fighters.
This trend manifests itself in the $30 Kombat Pack for four playable characters including Jason Vorhees and Predator, along with 15 skins. That’s roughly half of the game’s cost for a one-off purchase that doesn’t even guarantee access to future DLC.
Of course the Kombat Pack is entirely optional. But the precedent is clear and the potential for incredibly pricey fighting games could very well become a reality, and dismantle the fighting genre altogether.
MKX also features in-game microtransactions on console versions of the game. You can pay $4.99 for a set of coins that allow players to easily trigger fatalities, and there are actually reports that NetherRealm added in a new update that reduces gold earning rates in the game.
Gold is used to buy items from the Krypt, which is a sort of in-game store that features everything from new skins to brutality and fatality finishers. The devs, in a move probably orchestrated by the publisher Warner Bros. Interactive, have included an option to just simply buy out all the Krypt’s content for $20 if you don’t feel like grinding.
There’s a lot more DLC, and it looks like if you were to buy out every add-on, you’d rack up more than $100 in extras. That’s on top of the initial $64 purchase.
Pre-Order and Delay: The New Fundraising Tactic
Who needs Kickstarter when you can just open pre-orders for a game six months early, rake in the funds, and then just delay the game twice to ensure an adequate development window?
Pre-orders have become a circus with big name retailers jumping in to offer you bland incentives that turn out to be in-game junk. Sometimes pre-orders go up for games that have placeholder release dates, and often you can even pre-order season passes, which is just absurd.
What was once a matter of convenience and securing your game with a certain peace of mind has turned into yet another scheme to turn over profits. Highly anticipated games are now wrangled into a complex and maddening marketing formula that’s focused more on maximizing earnings rather than delivering actual entertaining content.
With delays being an everyday occurrence, gamers can’t really trust release dates any more.
Especially since developers and publishers will purposely break their words just to push the game back, trading credibility for the chance for more money.
Pre-orders have become a testament of blind faith, and gamers are starting to learn their lesson not to put the cart before the proverbial horse and purchase content that’s not even finished yet.
GTA V for PC, for example, started raking in pre-orders mid-January. During this time Rockstar affirmed the game would be out the 27th of that month. Then the devs delayed it to March. And as March 27 rolled around, Rockstar delayed it again for April 14, which was 19 months after the game’s initial release on consoles.
WB Interactive also recently delayed Batman: Arkham Knight for a second time, although this one wasn’t so substantial. Even still it’s a push back, and it’s a sign of bad faith.
Here’s a quick list of games with no release dates that you can pre-order right now:
- Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
- Xenoblade Chronicles X (Target)
- Tom Clancy’s The Division
- Until Dawn
- Uncharted 4: Thief’s End
- Rainbow Six: Siege
- The Legend of Zelda: Wii U (Amazon)
At a time when consumers are actively encouraged to pre-purchased unfinished content, the games industry is not providing compelling enough incentives to do so. Instead consumers are met with apologies from executives and developers when delays hit, who thank us for our understanding and continued support, but who are all too happy to take our cash in the mean time.
In a sense pre-orders have become a buyer beware situation, but at the same time, the industry isn’t learning from its mistakes–it’s directly pursuing them, all for the sake of near-guaranteed revenue.
Gamers won’t fall for this
People are noticing what’s happening and they’re fighting back by boycotting major releases and contributing to wide-spanning gaming communities. Evolve’s DLC hub was widely contested and hotly debated in gamer circles, with game journalism outlets all taking turns identifying and grilling the publisher for their choices.
Time will only tell if these trends continue onward or die out, but there just has to be a better way. Not all DLC is bad–look at the beauty in Capcom’s Monster Hunter 4: Ultimate’s free DLC, or how much content Nintendo will give you for Mario Kart 8 or even the $5 Mewtwo character additions in Super Smash Bros. 4.
Even CD Projekt RED’s blatant hypocrisy can be ignored because the Witcher 3‘s paid DLC is so damned massive.
Yes, the developer did basically soaked up a lot of praise and good press by saying “no to season passes” with their 16 free DLC packs. And yes, they looked totally ridiculous once they revealed that the Witcher 3 actually does have a $25 season pass.
DLC and microtransactions can be done right. Pay-to-win schemes are abominable, and often create a skewed atmosphere that is counterintuitive to an actual game. These types of “games” just devolve into pay-scheme vehicles if nothing else. However if only cosmetic content and mounts are purchasable, then the games can preserve their dignity.
No one wants these trends but the publishers and developers. But how much longer can they keep loading this kind of stuff onto their constituency before something bad happens? How much longer can this kind of exploitative atmosphere continue on?
These things are eroding gaming and are pretty much destroying the very spirit of video games as an entertainment medium. Delays are going to happen, and they’re entirely necessary, but a lot of the schemes I’ve outlined aren’t; they’re gratuitous mechanisms designed to rack up more cash.
And as the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto once said, “a delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever.”