Why DLC and DD are killing gaming
Welcome to the first entry of “The Future is Doomed”, a new series where I explain why all that glitters in our fair hobby most certainly isn’t gold. First up is a pair of the most celebrated new innovations of the seventh console generation: Digital Distribution and Downloadable Content.
Digital Distribution (DD) and Downloadable Content (DLC) are the way of the future. Or so everyone keeps telling me. As has been explained to me ad nauseum, they are every gamer’s dream; now, without ever leaving your house, you have an entire fully-stocked game store right at your fingertips. With a click of a button and the swipe of a digital credit card, you can have a new game within minutes. Better still, since there’s no physical copy, there’s no shipping costs or merchant’s fee, so the whole game costs less and all the money goes to the developers, the people who actually made the game. Plus, with DLC, those developers can continue to expand and improve the game in question.
Digital Distribution is a phenomenon that is far from exclusive to gaming; in fact, as an industry, gaming’s actually been fairly slow to capitalise on this new technology. Music jumped onboard years ago with iTunes and other similar services, Netflix has dealt a heavy blow to retail movie sales (and an even heavier one to rental stores), and even books have gotten onboard thanks to eBook services like Kindle’s bookstore. It’s a distribution model that’s on the rise, and it’s most definitely here to stay. The battle between DD and traditional retail is still being fought, so it’s difficult to say just how much of the market will move online in the coming years, but that hasn’t stopped several online commentators from dubbing “Digital Distribution” the way of the future. I have read numerous articles prophesying the demise of GameStop and other physical retail outlets as the entire industry moves to DD models; some are even bold enough to suggest that the next generation of consoles will be the last one to use physical media – discs and cartridges – to run their games.
That idea terrifies me.
And if it doesn’t terrify you, it should.
Now before my legions of adoring fans fill the comments section with accusations of bias, I am going to quantify my statements by saying that DD – when handled properly – is a fantastic innovation that has opened up numerous business pathways that wouldn’t have been feasible ten years ago. The most visible of these changes is the rise of the Indie Developer; thanks to DD, small, start-up gaming companies who don’t have the capital to make full sized games can get their name out there with smaller productions that simply wouldn’t be profitable to release via retail. It also gives the opportunity to build up a fanbase for previously-unknown IPs in the hopes that a “full-size” game can be released later. Similarly, I have seen some very creative uses of DLC that provided a fresh, new experience to the parent game.
That said, I still despise them both to the point where I, on principle, refuse to purchase or make use of DD and DLC.
There are a number of reasons for my obstinate ludditism:
1) This one is purely personal preference: I like having a physical copy of a game. I like being able to look at the box art, read the instruction manual, and collect the various little trinkets that sometimes get packaged in with special editions. Those cannot be replicated in a digital format, at least not in a way that’s at all meaningful. Quality is lost, in that sense, when switching to a digital medium.
And I know I’m not the only one that really likes to buy things in person. Hard as it is for a digital generation to believe, there are still people out there who are leery of this weird “internet” thing, and do their best to steer clear of it. I have a cousin (who also happens to be a gamer, albeit a fairly casual one) who still adamantly refuses to purchase ANYTHING online. She doesn’t want her credit card information on the internet out of fear it will get ripped off. Three months ago I would have laughed at her for holding such an irrational viewpoint; now, in the aftermath of the infamous PSN attacks, it suddenly doesn’t seem so funny…
Furthermore, the issue of internet connectivity is being addressed with a typically self-centered view. While it is true that most (although not all) of North America has access to high speed internet, the same cannot be said of markets in other parts of the world. Internet – high speed internet in particular – is the lynchpin on which DD business depends. Remove it and you have nothing.
My point is that there are gamers out there who either can’t or don’t want to take their business online. Either through location or personal preference, there are gamers for whom DD is simply not a valid option for game purchase, and many more who *could* go online but prefer to conduct their business in person. The gaming industry stands to lose those customers if it switches to a pure DD model, and that would be in no one’s best interest.
2) Most DD games can’t be sold second-hand. To the developers, that’s a huge plus, as they’ve been waging war against used games for decades now. I’ll get into why the industry is only shooting itself in the foot with that viewpoint in another article in this series, but for now let’s just leave it off the table. However much the industry would love to get rid of used game sales, it should be a no-brainer that such an action is detrimental to the players, doubly so if you happen to be the type of person who is a fan of retro games (like me). I love my SNES to death and still find myself buying games for it. Of course, I can only do this because I can get them used – the only place I can download SNES games legally is from the Wii Virtual Console, and even then the library is incomplete and I can’t use the original controllers. I frequent a little mom-and-pop store for all my retro needs. It’s a great shop, but it only survives because of the used game sales; there is no competing with GameStop and the other big-name brands when it comes to new games. If DD ever takes hold, that’s the end of that store and the hundreds of other independent retailers across the world that depend on the retro games market.
But it goes even deeper than that. Right now if there’s an interesting game you want to try but the budget is a little tight, no big deal. You can just buy it used a year or two down the road. But if a game is only released digitally, once it’s taken off the host servers, either because the developers decide it’s not worth hosting anymore or the parent company flat-out goes bankrupt, that game is effectively lost to the mists of time forever. Switching to DD wipes out retro gaming, and if you happen to be one of those gamers who likes playing games that were released more than three years ago, that’s a very bad thing.
Even if you’re not a retro gamer, the inability to transfer games can (and likely will) hurt your gaming experience. Have you ever sold a game you no longer want to a friend? Have you ever borrowed a game from someone so you can try it out? Have you ever bought a used game cheap simply because you couldn’t afford the new copy? None of these experiences are possible with most digitally distributed games.
3) It’s putting all of a gamer’s eggs in one proverbial basket. With a DD system, everything is built off of two very important building blocks: the console and the client program. If anything happens to either of those building blocks, the entire system collapses. And the unfortunate thing is that hypothetical failure may not even be your fault; one need look no farther than the Xbox 360′s infamous Red Ring of Death to understand that.
To put it in an example, what if you were playing on your Xbox 360 one day and suddenly wound up with a hard drive failure? You’ve now lost any downloadable games you had stored on the hard drive. Of course, this isn’t a problem today, because you can just get a new 360, sign onto your online account and redownload all the games. Your save files are lost, but at least you still have the games themselves. But how long are those games going to be kept on Microsoft’s servers? 5 years? 10? 20? What if this hypothetical hardware failure doesn’t happen today, but instead occurs years in the future, when the software may not be available for re-downloading? Assuming Microsoft even cares enough about 10 year old games to compensate you, the best you can expect is maybe a few credits towards buying a new game. If you really liked those old games you had on there… well, you’re kind of out of luck.
This is, of course, assuming you’re still one of Microsoft’s customers. If this hypothetical failure happens after the 360 servers have been shut down and you decided not to buy Microsoft’s next-gen consoles, then you’re pretty much screwed no matter what you do.
Not to mention, as I alluded to above, gaming companies are not eternal entities. With the crash of the economy, we’ve seen dozens of established gaming companies go belly-up, including such hallowed names as Factor 5, Pandemic, and Working Designs. If you’re using a DD service that requires you to login to a server before you can play the games you bought and the company that owns that server folds… well, you’ve just lost a bunch of games with absolutely no way to recover them.
4) DD and especially DLC not only tolerate corporate greed and bad business practices, they actually ENCOURAGE them. Pretend, for a moment, that you are comparing two competing games and trying to decide which one to buy. They both have been reviewed similarly, offer similar play experiences, have roughly the same amount of expected play time, and feature very similar graphics and level design. Both cost $30. Game A is a retail game with no online content, while Game B is available via DD, comes with some free DLC, and has additional DLC available online. Which do you purchase?
The obvious answer is Game B. After all, it has more stuff, right?
If that was your answer, I just succeeded in tricking you. What if I were to pull up the proverbial curtain and reveal that Game A and Game B are, in fact, the same game? Game B just took some of the content that comes standard in Game A and repackaged it as DLC. Congratulations, you just wound up paying more money for the same product (or the same amount of money for an inferior product, depending on how into DLC you happen to be).
Plus, if you noticed, you also paid a marked up price for Game B. Game A has to pay for raw materials, fabrication, shipping, and a shelving fee to its distributor. Game B has none of those associated costs, yet still has the same price tag. Instead of passing the savings onto you, the developer chose to pocket the extra cash for themselves.
This is why I say that DLC encourages poor business practices; adding DLC to a game – any DLC – makes it look like it has more features which serves the dual purpose of making the final product look more appealing compared to its competitors and providing the developers with some extra income from the DLC charges. Similarly, with DD, the developers get to keep all the money from every purchase and their games typically aren’t being sold on the same site as their competitors (unless they happen to be selling through a mass retailer like Steam), so it’s in their interests to nudge up the costs so they get more money. The end result is that the customer – that’s you – pays more for less material.
5) Foot traffic is important. This is something that we – the internet generation – seem to forget on a fairly reguar basis. It’s free advertising, and it’s downright neccessary for some products to survive. Sure, you can point to games like wildly-successful-indie-production Minecraft and say, “See? You can make it big on word of mouth.” And that’s true… Minecraft is one game that happened to strike gold. One game amongst thousands of other freeware games, some of which I’m sure are just as entertaining but, either through not hitting the right media streams or just poor luck, have never enjoyed Minecraft’s levels of success and notoriety.
The internet still does not have an effective equivalent for going into a shop and browsing. If you head to a digital store, be it Amazon or a private retailer’s website, it’s almost a given that you have an idea of what you want to buy already. If you just want to see what’s available… well, that’s a lot harder. Aside from a handful of distributers like Steam, there is no “mass retail” online, stores that stock everyone’s goods. When I go into a video game store, I can see games for every console that’s out there. I see Nintendo games, Capcom games, Sony games, Sega games, Square games, Konami games… everything is right there and I can easily browse it in seconds. Online, if I want to view the products of nine different companies, I’m probably going to have to visit nine different websites. Even Steam is not immune to this; they have a wide selection, but there are plenty of online games that they don’t have and never will.
The question therefore remains, how do you let people know your game is out there? Before, you could make the game, send it to a shop, and it would instantly get put on the shelves for people to see and potentially buy. You can’t really do that online; not as easily, anyways, and the more companies take an interest in Steam’s business model, the more disunity you will see and the less easy it will be to get a complete idea of just what’s available. Moving online, you not only need to convince people to buy your game, but you also need to figure out a way to let them know your game even exists.
DD and DLC look like a tremendous boon for the industry, but the reality is that the issue is far murkier. The inherent problem with the system is that it puts an enormous amount of power in the hands of large corporations, with very little in the way of assurances that they won’t misuse that power. Don’t believe me? Well, when Bioware forum user v_ware accused the company of “selling their soul to the EA devil”, he received an unpleasant surprise in the form of a 72 hour ban, during which he was unable to play his newly purchased game, Dragon Age II. To reiterate, he lost access to a service he had paid money for over a comment made on an internet forum. Bioware did eventually acknowledge that the way the situation was handled was a mistake, but the fact that a gaming company even has the potential to deny you access to the games that you’ve already purchased is more than a bit alarming.
In the worst case scenario, it is not unfeasible that a gaming company could actually force you to pay a fee every month you want to play your games or risk losing them. Some services, such as GameTap, already work off this model. Perhaps it’s just me being paranoid, but I don’t like the idea that my video games have enough autonomy to leave me if they decide they don’t love me anymore.
DD and DLC look pretty good at first glance, but they’re a Pandora’s Box, and one that developers are not going to let us shut once it’s been opened. Everybody seems to like the “Support the Developers” angle which, while honest, is also naive. Developers are businesses, same as everyone else, and they have the same predeliction to make as much money as possible, by whatever legal means neccessary. DD puts ALL the power in their hands, with no safeguards in place to prevent them from abusing it. It’s a developer/publisher’s wet dream, and that’s only a good thing if it’s a good developer/publisher you’re talking about. EA, Activision, Ubisoft – the same companies that gamers seem to love to hate – they’re developer/publishers too and they’re just as aroused by DD as you are.