Friday, December 10, 2010

DLC - Force for Good or Force for Evil?

A few e-mails I have received in response to my interview on Epic Battle Axe 098 focus on DLC as a negative, or a money grab by publishers. Frankly, I have a really hard time feeling the pain.

Rick wrote:

Since DLC came into our lives, gamer life has been in some sort off turmoil. Nowadays you never know if a game has that full value of an entertaining compelling story that it follows through till the end. Game developers too gladly release DLC with the attachment of “full gaming experience” and tie- in the story that’s not embedded in the game itself on release.

We pay a lot off money on release to see what happens to our favourite characters, only to find out that the story just doesn’t end there.

Compare today's games to the games developers worked on just six years ago when I was at Naughty Dog and the original XBox and PS2 were on the shelf. The scope and scale is almost incomparable! Budgets have doubled at minimum, tripling or more in many cases. Teams have doubled, and outsourcing is a must to keep up with production needs. Projects are taking far longer to complete. Yet the price on the shelf is roughly the same. Taking inflation into account, games may actually be cheaper!

I also fail to see any evidence that developers are removing content from the games they release in order to sell it later. DLC currently sells to a small subset of the gamers playing the full game. To risk bad reviews, a feeling unfulfilled expectations, or other negative response to the full game because important parts of the game were removed would be a bad strategy. It simply isn't being done.

To my knowledge, most DLC content is created after finishing the full game. In other words, if the developers were including the DLC, the games might have to be delayed. If there weren't a possibility of increased revenue from DLC it wouldn't be rolled into the game... it simply wouldn't be done.

Admittedly, there is certainly some strategy being deployed in creating plot "holes" and other opportunities to work the DLC into the game's universe. But again, I don't see this as a strategy to decrease the value proposition of the full game so much as create an opportunity for the DLC to make sense in the universe the game plays in. "I didn't get the full story" is about as fair a complaint for DLC as it is for sequels. The Death Star was destroyed, how dare George Lucas build it again... over 2 movies no less... and make me pay for two more tickets to get the complete story!

And there are cases of truly inspired DLC that obviously are wholly new experiences. I submit the Red Dead Redemption's Zombie expansion as an example of this.

As I responded to Rick:

DLC itself is not causing the problem. Certainly we can imagine a world in which every game fully completes the story and DLC is just added on top. Think the Zombie addition to Red Dead Redemption. That was clearly an optional add-on and not a plot addition. So if DLC is being abused then that is a decision of the game creators. In this case you are correct that gamer revolt (not buying DLC) is a fair response. I am pro-market. If you feel you are being ripped off, then don't buy. At the price offered, I thought the Zombie addition to Red Dead was a GREAT deal, and a wonderful way to get more of a game I loved.

I don't think on average Games are being shortened by DLC. If anything, games are getting bigger, longer, and fuller. You now often get a full 1 player game, multiplayer, and co-op for a single price. That almost NEVER happened in the old days. Having said that, development times are getting longer. So Naughty Dog used to be able to put out a game a year during Crash. Then Jak became a 2 year production. Though after I left Naughty Dog remained one of the most efficient devs out there, maintaining 2 year cycles, most other teams (especially Take 2 and RockStar) moved to 3 year or more cycles. As a fan of a game it sucks to wait 3 years for a sequel. DLC keeps the game fresh during that time. Without DLC, single team development (not like COD with multiple teams working on every other project) becomes a waiting game.

If you don't like DLC, don't buy it. But I fail to understand the agony.


Question about Connectivity and Collection

Since I did the Epic Battle Axe 098 interview I have gotten a lot of responses and questions about my suggestions regarding digital distribution. I thought I would share some of the correspondance...


I've followed some of your work over the years and
recently your opinions presented in an interview on the Epic
Battle Cry podcast really caught my attention. For
quite a while now I have been somewhat disheartened by the
different tactics for distribution in the video game
industry. Simply put, I am almost a video collector
more than a player at times, and I more often than not enjoy
experiencing titles that are more than a decade old.
While I still enjoy current generation games, I fear that my
chance to catch a missed gem years down the road will not be
possible anymore with the large move towards digital
distribution. Even recently my chance for digital
content was held up by a recent move and short term
unemployment limiting internet connectivity. Lumped
with the increasing cost of products I am worried that my
favorite pass time will only be past time from now on.
I want to know if there is a way that your ideas regarding
varying pricing and
distribution options that you expressed could be
viable with a way to still retain a physical medium in the
future? The only idea that comes to my mind is
somewhat of a mix of the free/small fee to play with
purchasing further content and somehow allowing that to
count towards an eventual discount on a physical medium full
game purchase. Am I thinking even remotely
realistically here or will this always be a dream from your
perspective? Thank you for your time with this and I
truly appreciate your incite, industry work, and
contributions to the gaming media as well....


You bring up multiple issues, all of them valid.

I salute your collectors desire. I often fret that games that I made years just 10 ago are meaningless to the broad market while movies and music made in the 60's are still wildly consumed. Games do keep getting better (unlike music, which is probably equally as good at any time before), so to a certain extent I understand this. But part of it is lack of access. People don't want to have 15 consoles and PC's in their house, so they jettison the older ones along with the games.

Digital Distribution has actually HELPED review this trend. A variety of price points and distribution types has given a second life to titles that wouldn't have made sense any other way. I submit Sonic on the iPhone, or XBox Live Arcade games. In the future, I hope games are more like movies and music and more items down the "long tail" are available. With easy distribution, content creators are incentivised to bring old games out again. It's cheap to "port" to the new distribution medium, and the distribution platform puts it EVERYWHERE, so the game doesn't have to make much to overcome this cost. With a box, you have to print a minimum amount just to put it in every store in the hope someone walks by and wants it.

That does leave the collector somewhat out of sorts with no physical good to put on a shelf. I am not sure what to say about this. I think there will be other things to collect, as the "Top Tier" games recently have shown with collectable extras that they package in to a limited edition release. Perhaps the first X people to buy online will get one in the future. I guess I have to admit that long term the collector probably comes out of a switch to digital distribution less happy. That is unless the game business figures out something to distribute physically besides the game, or the collector starts collecting something other than the box.

The other topic you brought up, being able to play games offline when times get tough is also an interesting one. Certainly, you can't play any of the facebook games that are currently out without online, or WOW for that matter. And of course, you can't play COD multiplayer without a connection. Because of their boxed history, this is often not the case with single player boxed titles. Yet even today, if you don't have a connection, you probably aren't playing the most recent, bug free version of a boxed title. Almost all games update the minute you first start them up. The way software is being created and maintained is changing rapidly. Games used to be "final" when they were shipped. That isn't the case anymore. Almost all games are in constant flux and updating. So even without digital distribution, you are cut off from the games improvements, all multiplayer, xbox live style achievement sharing, etc. etc. I would bet that this continues in only one direction... less and less capability unless the game is plugged in. So I think this is a losing battle box or not. Unfortunately, I would imagine being online is going to be necessary for game players in the future no matter how the game is distributed.

That indeed sucks for those that aren't financially in a position to keep themselves connected. Having said that, in the future being unconnected at home might mean that a lot more than games won't work! TV's (google tv, hulu) , Music Streaming (pandora), Movie Watching (netflix), Book reading (kindle), and other forms of entertainment are starting to rely more and more on constant connection. And that isn't even anticipating a future when your refrigerator wants to be online.

I don't know how to solve that problem. It seems to me that it is far bigger issue than games though!

Thanks for adding to the conversation. As I hope you can see, everything you said is valid and stimulating... I am assimilating!

Good Luck with your collecting...