Call Me 'Mapathetic,' See if I Care

State of Play: Are DLC offerings like Modern Warfare 2's Stimulus Package just scams?

April 1, 2010 - I will not buy any downloadable maps for Modern Warfare 2.

Honestly, I don't have anything against Infinity Ward or lack a certain faith in the quality of their work. Quite the contrary. Their map pack likely delivers some prime frag-fest real estate. In fact, I know it does, because 2/5ths of it is recycled from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. I can pop that game in and roam Crash or Overgrown without paying another dime. It's not like there's a ton of difference between one title and the other. Unless you count the avalanche of exploits and hacks in Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer threatening to bury the fun entirely.

None of that rests at Infinity Ward's door. No, my "mapathy" is directed at solely at Activision. They set the price (and nixed a public multiplayer beta that could've solved the bugs pre-launch) for the euphemistically dubbed Stimulus Package at $15 for three new maps and two cut/paste jobs, or five bucks more than comparable content for any other AAA-game. That's the kind of gall I'd admire, if it didn't come off as a big middle-finger salute to their own fans. Times are tight, their product is buggy, and yet they up prices by 50% and tag it with a pseudo-clever name that misses "irony" and goes straight to "smarmy."

Feel free to play along if you want, friend, but not me. I'm drawing a line and returning Activision's salute with one of my own. And that's a shame, because downloadable content is one of the most interesting and exciting components of gaming today. And more often than not, it feels like an insult at best, a rip-off at worst.

Let's start with the way it's presented. The line you'll find it in nearly every interview and press release is "will continue to support." I begin to suspect PR agents simply have the phrase hotkeyed. You want more game, they'll make more game. Awesome! But despite the whole "for the fans!" vibe they put on, it's no secret DLC is strictly a pre-planned event from the earliest design stages forward, up to and including release schedules. Truth is, it's as vital to a top-tier game's economy as subscriptions are to MMOs. We're talking about relatively low-cost content with a high profit ratio to offset (in Modern Warfare 2's case) budgets that hit the $40-50 million mark. Publishers aren't supporting the games so much as the DLC supports the publishers.

So the first question is, since most DLC is developed parallel to the actual game, are publishers releasing incomplete games and gouging you for the missing pieces? Maybe.

In some cases, the add-on content is staggered with the game's schedule, so no, it's not actually finished by the time the game goes gold. You can still make the argument this is content that should've been in to begin with, but that might depend on the game in question. It's fair to say Fallout 3, for example, didn't cheat out on content, and its five mini-campaign DLC packs really did add new life and interest to an aging game in a fair way. Not so where a three-hour tour like Beautiful Katamari is concerned. Ostensibly released as a budget title like previous entries in the series, Namco also dropped a bunch of DLC right at release... content that brought the play time up to full-game status and the price up to the standard $60. Then someone noticed each of Beautiful Katamari's DLC levels only ate up 384kb of hard disc space, way too little for what you got. That's because those additional levels were on the disc the entire time.

On-disc DLC is the popular new wrinkle on the same old gouge. Developers lock a certain amount of content on the game disc you already paid for, then charge you an additional fee to download an unlock code under the guise of buying the actual content. They don't mention this, of course, because it might sound suspiciously like they're cheating you. Which they are.

2K Games was recently caught doing exactly this with their Sinclair Solutions Tester Pack for BioShock 2. The official response from 2K claimed it was a technical necessity based on the way their engine and game structure works (specifically, that "people need to have the exact same content for people to play together"), and this prevented splitting the multiplayer base into haves and have nots. Not a convincing argument, given all the examples where this isn't the case, but you know what else would've prevented the problem entirely? Not locking the on-disc content in the first place and then demanding money for it. This is a surcharge for material already in your legal possession.

I will not buy any downloadable content for BioShock 2, either.

That said, on-disc DLC is not an automatic deal-killer. Mass Effect 2 has two discs' worth of the stuff, but I don't mind so far, because so far it's been free. Sort of.

Electronic Arts is turning DLC into their own version of disc protection. Mass Effect 2's free downloads are only free to those who bought the game new and activated a one-time-only Cerberus Network code; they cost money for anyone buying the game used. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 follows suit with their VIP memberships. It's their way of chipping into the used game market and, whether you like or not, it's a rather clever move. Locked on-disc DLC might be a class-action lawsuit waiting to happen, but free unlockable content unless it's second hand? That just protects an investment, and I'm hard pressed to find much fault in it.

Which may be why GameStop CEO Dan DeMatteo recently claimed on an investor call that used game buyers don't care about DLC. If that wasn't suspect enough, he also added "Publishers can participate in our used business by offering add-on content for the most popular used titles, creating a win-win situation." Except for the whole "publishers don't get money when you sell a used game" thing.

DeMatteo also cheerfully overlooks his company's over-participation in the cheapest, most worthless form of DLC, the pre-order bonus. Groovy items, extra maps, special weapons and blinged-out skins for those special weapons, all about as cool as going to a NASCAR race wearing a pair of Spock ears. Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands will pony up a whole new mode, essentially an endless arena fight. That's meager reward for your $60 gamble on the game being any good.

Worth every virtual penny.

Then again, so far at least, you get meager reward for buying locked DLC, too. I feel like an ingrate for slamming free content, but with the exception of Zaeed, the scarred mercenary from planet Australia, most missions you get out of Mass Effect 2's Cerberus Network aren't worth the price of free. For a game that accents story and character, the Firewalker DLC pack is a short, empty headed vehicle shooter with the challenge level set to "snooze." Visiting the Normandy crash site (your ship from the first game, shot down in the opening moments of the sequel) has far more emotional resonance, while likewise remaining completely challenge-free. I seriously hope EA isn't counting on those two downloads to attract second-hand users.

But if EA's entire take on DLC doesn't sit well, try the crass ideas Epic Games President Mike Capps is throwing around. He's talking about making the final boss of every game into standard on-disc DLC, free for first-time buyers, a premium unlock for all others. So he basically wants to sell an incomplete game at retail. No thanks, Capps. I will not buy that game, either, on general principal.

On the other hand, it has to be said Capps' approach would finally put a DLC plan out in the open, a rare claim for anyone to make. Case in point, a few game journalists happened to access Mass Effect 2's debug menu from the floor display at Gamescom '09, and found a full list of in-game characters. Zaeed was on it. So was Kasumi, the namesake of ME2's incoming premium DLC, Kasumi's Stolen Memory. It's reported to be priced at $7, for "over an hour" of gameplay. You can probably guess what my approach to that sneaky little inclusion is.

I will not buy any downloadable content for Mass Effect 2... or maybe I will.

Here's the thing: I like DLC. Too many games are amazing from start to finish, and once they're over, they're over. Done right, downloadable content extends a game past its end point and makes a good experience even better. I was all done with Fallout 3, but when new DLC added new mini-campaigns, there was suddenly a point to heading back to the wasteland, and I loved it. And when a developer puts that much effort and skill into their product, I'm more than willing to pay them for it. The question that remains is when I pay them, where I pay them, why I pay them.

Those are question we all need to answer for ourselves, because downloadable is the direction the gaming industry is moving in. I still firmly believe the Xbox will one day end up as an icon on your Windows start menu, and I worry about Nintendo's slim DLC avenues compared to other developer/publishers. But whether or not that is indeed where we're all heading, it's time to establish a few ground rules.

Are Kasumi's memories already on my disk?

If you want to charge premium prices for standard content, you'd better have a better excuse than "We're Popular." Popularity is fleeting. If it's on the disc and I buy the disc, don't even think about charging me extra for it. You already got my money. If you're going to expand on my favorite game in ways that make sense... well then, you've got my attention. But maybe you should wait until my game actually needs expanding. Space out the new chapters, and make the additions count.

For me, Kasumi's Stolen Memory is really on the fence. I'm ready for more Mass Effect, and I honestly don't believe her story was ready for the commercial release, but her file is still there, hiding in the disc on my shelf. I'm curious myself as to whether I'll ultimately buy in when that bit of content drops - or perhaps unlocks - next month.

Otherwise, I'm going to insist on DLC not feeling like an insult in future. Publishers want us to buy more game. We want more game to buy. But do not try to fool us. Do not try to cheat us. We will not buy it, or you. Fair warning.


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