Picture a game. A classic game. The first Super Mario Bros., for instance. Maybe the iconic cast of characters comes to mind, or maybe the title screen, or first stage. Or maybe the cartridge; that lump of plastic which somehow contained, in its entirety, the experience of Super Mario Bros. (and Duck Hunt as an added bonus). The concept of such an unassuming device as a Nintendo cartridge holding something so amazing as Super Mario Bros. is nothing less than astounding. The game and the cartridge were, to all extents and purposes, one.
This is something games have lost with the advent of digital content. A game no longer exists solely on its disc, but rather can be installed, downloaded, or streamed. A game is no longer a single product, but exists as a body of content which can be added to or a service which can be provided at a premium. The way in which the industry views games as products has changed. As a result, gamers must also reconsider how they look at games.
Electronics Arts caused an uproar earlier this week when they announced the in-game content which will be made available exclusively to those who pre-order Battlefield 3 through appointed retailers. An official boycott organized by Reddit users holds that the content (a silencer which can be mounted on a sniper rifle, special shotgun ammunition, early access to two special weapons, and free access to downloadable levels which other gamers will have to purchase separately) should not be withheld from those who did not pre-order the game. They claim those who purchase the game through EA-sanctioned channels are rewarded with unfair advantages in multiplayer; and that the levels downloadable on release day should be free. These charges are evident of the rift separating gamers and the industry on the subject of downloadable content.
Video games no longer exist as single, cartridge-bound products. As consoles and PC’s increase their capacity for storage and internet connectivity, it becomes easier for publishers to release downloadable content. Borrowing from the old PC gaming business model of expansion packs, developers are able to create additional after-market content in order to increase their products’ life cycles. Traditionally this meant the content would be released some time after the game proper, giving gamers time to finish the game and giving developers time to make more robust additional content. Publishers have bucked this trend, with games such as Dragon Age 2, Portal 2, and more offering additional content on day one. The concept of release day downloadable content seems absurd; if content is available on day one, why couldn’t it have been included with the game disc? As more publishers use such content to encourage pre-orders, many gamers feel cheated out of content they feel should have been included with the retail version of the game. Therefore, the question today is:
What types of release day downloadable content are acceptable?
In 2010, Ars Technica conducted an interview with Mass Effect 2 Project Director Casey Hudson on the topic of release day downloadable content. The main question at hand: why can’t such content be included in the retail release of the game? To paraphrase Hudson’s answer: “because it isn’t ready in time.” According to Hudson, the process of creating and shipping game disks takes about twelve weeks. Developers have a period of three months to create digital content which can be released the same day as retail copies.
The development of added content aside, whether or not publishers charge for extra content can be a huge factor in how gamers perceive that content. Valve and EA have both released large amounts of downloadable content for free. Titles such as Left 4 Dead and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 all have downloadable content including new weapons and new maps. However, such content is not free across all platforms; PC gamers receive much of the downloadable content as “free updates”, while console gamers have to purchase the content. The aforementioned titles are all tremendously popular and influential, and it stands to reason that the manner in which they treat downloadable content sets precedents other titles would be expected to follow.
This is one source of the tension between gamers and the game industry: for a few years, major PC titles have provided free content as a way to extend sales of the core game and to reward players who have stayed loyal to a particular title. Since everyone on the PC platform has access to this content, it is considered part of the title proper and not viewed as additional content. To publishers, the extra content has always been about getting more money out of their products. The delivery method in games such as Team Fortress 2 was one that simply favored the gamers: they got content for free if they stuck around long enough to see it released, and the publishers made money in the long term from extended sales of their game. Paid and pre-order downloadable content is a totally different delivery model – one that provides a quicker payoff to the publishers and does not mandate that players wait years to get more content.
How does all this relate to the issue at hand: publishers offering release day downloadable content as an incentive to those who pre-order their titles? Think of it in terms of delivery models, and how they favor the publisher; the short term benefits of increased pre-orders, increased day one sales, and decreased piracy outweigh the long term benefits of prolonged sales (adding that future sales will be at a decreased retail price point). Publishers will always lean towards a more profitable delivery method, and in this case the choice is clear. Publishers will always lean towards using extra content as a way to boost initial and short term sales of their titles.
This begs the (heavily loaded) question: what is considered “extra” content? Release day downloadable content falls into a grey area since gamers see it as part of the commercial release, while publishers see it as an added bonus developed during the downtime between completion of the game and its retail release. Whether or not the content was actually developed in that twelve week period described by Hudson, it is slated for release apart from the retail product and is therefore considered by the publishers to be “extra.” It may be an insurmountable difference of opinion, but it’s important to understand where both sides are coming from on this issue.
The situation calls for compromise. Mass Effect 2 struck an excellent balance between free and paid downloadable content. There was a sizable amount free downloadable content at release and shortly thereafter, and several paid bodies of content over the year to follow. There was no outrage over paid release day downloadable content, the publisher saw good returns from their paid content, and all the content was delivered over a reasonable time frame.
EA should take the same approach with Battlefield 3: sizable day one downloadable content (namely the multiplayer map pack) should be free, while future expansions should be paid. Gamers, in turn, should recognize that EA has the right to encourage pre-orders by offering exclusive content, early access to certain features, or other benefits. As long as the content is not game-breaking (in the case of online games) there shouldn’t be any issues. Granting these items, as well as early access to certain weapons, to those who pre-ordered the game is a perfectly fair deal.
So there you have it, we’ve taken a look at the delivery of downloadable content, and the different attitudes fans and publishers hold regarding it. In my opinion, both sides need to compromise. EA is probably overstepping its bounds by offering an entire map pack as a pre-order bonus, but the other benefits are all within reason. A sniper rifle silencer and special shot gun ammo are not game-breaking or unfair by any means. Anyone who claims otherwise is reaching on the issue. If EA doesn’t change its policy before the release of Battlefield 3, I’m sure it will certainly reconsider its position in the future given the unprecedented backlash from fans. And of course, if the fans don’t like it, they don’t have to buy it. And that doesn’t mean they should pirate it.
So what do you think? Should release day downloadable content always be free? To what extent should game publishers be able to reward those who have pre-ordered their titles? Do you think there are any other good examples of downloadable content delivery models? Will EA compromise with its fans regarding Battlefield 3 downloadable content? Let us know in the comments, and keep an eye out for next week’s Question Block!