The Road Less Traveled
With the advent and rise of the digital distribution medium during the last few years, certain key aspects of the face of gaming have changed significantly. Publishers have a direct pipeline to consumers, in some cases cutting out the retail middleman completely. For some gamers, physical copies of games have become the exception rather than the rule. Download codes and online transactions dominate as services such as Valve’s Steam, EA’s Origin, and even Xbox Live and PlayStation Network make purchasing a game as simple as a few button presses (and a handy credit card, obviously).
But the issue I’d like to address has less to do with the buying and selling of digital copies of games online, but rather the shift of developers and publishers into a brand new paradigm when it comes to updating their established games with new content. Full-fledged expansion packs, whether digital or physical, become fewer and further between, with the focus swinging to periodic downloadable content (DLC) to increase a game’s scope or play value. Whereas traditional expansion packs would offer a wealth of extra options – essentially a 1.5 version of the core game -, DLC tends to be much more limited: new playable characters, extra missions, bonus weapons, additional missions are just some of the individual items up for sale via DLC. With vanity items like Avatar clothing on XBL extending the online catalog, the industry has adopted an approach towards smaller, more specified purchases versus bigger, definitive expansion “collections”.
In an interesting arc, the influence of this digital sales phenomenon has come full circle back to physical media, and has left its mark on consumers here too. More and more frequently we hear reports of games releasing with additional content available for purchase starting from day one. As we’ve reported in the past, games like Street Fighter X Tekken included extra characters on its disc that were meant for a separate purchasable unlock later down the line, and Mass Effect 3‘s developer, BioWare, had a complete DLC pack ready for sale date and day of its release. We see related stories pop up all over the place, like the Catwoman levels locked out of Batman: Arkham City for anyone who didn’t buy the game new (or paid for them separately). Traditionally, we would have seen this type of content be created for the game and released at a later date as part of an official game expansion. The question that has come up more and more recently, even among the staff here at BNBGAMING, is whether it’s ethical for developers to require a separate purchase of gamers for content that was already on the disc in the first place or was already made when the game released, and thus should have been part of the game originally. While opinions differ wildly, and a sensible argument can be made in support of this opinion, my mission today is to convince you that developers are not only well within their rights to withhold this content initially, but that we as consumers do not have any claim to it and aren’t being slighted in the least by having to purchase this premium DLC.
The Name of the Game
Ultimately, what the whole issue boils down to is the definition of the word “game”, and what that entails. Not the consumer’s definition, but what the developer and publisher think constitute a full game experience. Though each individual consumer may have a different idea of what the “complete game experience” comprises, by purchasing said game, you are implicitly agreeing to what content has been deemed acceptable to produce that particular game – no more, no less. In most cases, this will (should) net you that particular game, and the assets, items, and levels required to move the story from beginning to end. In most cases, every part of a game is tied to its main focus, or plot, in some way, adding its own contribution to drive the game forward to its natural conclusion.
The human imagination is capable of spinning stories ad infinitum, and an argument could be made that any game can potentially be expanded boundlessly beyond its original scope with new and additional stories, branching paths, extra locations, bonus characters, etc. Think of all the content that has been thought up for the expanded Star Wars universe, whether in film, cartoon, novel, video game, board game, comic book – you name it, it’s been done. There are innumerable nooks and crevices that can be filled in and fleshed out, using the original game’s story and characters as a basis. Oftentimes, DLC attempts to do just that; it isn’t part of the original story though, so it shouldn’t be included in the original price of admission. It would be pretty insane to expect that my original 1977 Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope film stub (if I had one) should provide me access today to any and all Star Wars-related content that hits the market. Each new piece, each new morsel, comes with its own price tag. Hell, even re-releases and remastered versions of the original movies – that you’ve already paid for in theatres – will cost you again. And before anyone feels the need to point this out: yes, I know a $10 movie ticket is in a different league than a $60 game, but the amount of content is far from equal as well; compare a 2-hour movie to your average 20- to 30-hour game campaign, maybe 40+ for an RPG, and you could make a case in favor of the developers even here.