Easy As D-L-C

Easy As D-L-C

Hello people of the internet. It’s not usual to have a leap year (since they only have the courtesy of coming every 4 years), so hope you are making the most of February 29th. Aren’t we lucky people? I think it might be a sign of the times…

Following on from the last post where we discussed about microtransactions, the theme of downloadable content was mentioned. It’s a relatable topic, so this post will be a sort of sequel post as we delve into a business practice within the gaming industry going back the years.

Bit-by-Bit

Whenever you pay for something, you expect to get what you paid for. It’s a standard consumer right, right? So when you pay for a loaf, you expect the whole loaf and not one slice. If you pay for a three-course meal, you expect the three-courses. In that respect, when you pay for a videogame, you expect the full game to play. Isn’t that common sense?

But where games differ with loaves is the scope. The nature of games, especially long-running or popular series, allows the opportunity for more content to be added in. For example, Skyrim exists as a regular game, but its fantasy setting and ‘lore’ allows more content to be built around the regular game, essentially expanding its in-game universe. Because all this extra material was created after the regular game came out, it therefore becomes what is known in the videogame industry as ‘downloadable content’.

Downloadable content (DLC) are basically extra add-ons that expands the original game in a multitude of ways (i.e. continuation of the game’s story). Some carry significant content while others are innocuous, such as additional cosmetic items that are more like gimmicks. There generally is no limit to how many DLCs a game can have, but as you can imagine, games falling under the role-playing genre have the biggest scope of how much content can be added as they can be as ridiculous or creative as possible.

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Skyrim’s downloadable content. Each one adds something specifically new to the game.

DLCs are becoming increasingly common in the gaming industry as they take less time to make then a full game, and are therefore less expensive to design and to buy. Even DLCs that contain the smallest of additions can be considered a continuation of the main game. They are a good way of keeping the overall game fresh and continuous, allowing players to carry on playing with variety and interest. The industry rule is that once the main game is out, the developers wait roughly a few months before shipping the first downloadable content. Depending on the game, several months is generally the average of when players start to have exhausted all that the game offers and move onto newer things. Games companies obviously want to keep their players for as long as possible.

Expansionist

Let’s look back in time to where it appeared to have started. Before we had things like Steam making things easy over the web, games had to be brought at the shops. They still are nowadays, but with the capabilities of the internet allowing many of us to do our shopping online, it’s not as it once was. Back then, games – almost exclusively PC ones – were utilising the precusor to DLCs: expansion packs. As the name suggested, expansion packs were extra add-ons to the base game. The way in which PC games were created and designed (all the programming, etc) allowed expansion packs to be readily accessed and built upon. It was easier since the base game was already there and all they needed was to build upon the existing code. Since they were additional content, the price of expansion packs was much less than the regular game. If the full game was £20, generally the expansion pack was around £10, give or take. No-one could not get away with selling the add-on at full price.

In many cases, because the expansion pack was an add-on, you would have had to have the original game to begin with in order to use it. It makes sense because the add-on wouldn’t work without an existing platform to use. A very good example is The Sims series. Where you had the original game, the developers subsequently added more expansion packs that added to what The Sims first brought in. For instance, there was The Sims: Livin’ Large, The Sims: Hot Date, The Sims: Vacation, and many others, all of which added more and more content for the player but still needed the original game as a reference. The more one person had, the more content they could access and play with.

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The Sims and all its featured expansion packs. Each one adds something new to the base game.

When enough time has passed, often developers would package the games together, labelling them anything from ‘deluxe, gold or game-of-the-year’ editions. These are common industry bywords to denote that players can buy the entire collection: original game and applicable expansion packs, all in one. It usually is a few months later that these editions come out, which is a nice way to ‘rounding up’ the series. It can be expected, given how much time has passed, that buying these editions is a saving to the player.

As time went on, developers started releasing stand-alone expansion packs. These are still expansion packs, only this time they did not need the original game to play. As such, they were still priced less than a full game. However, should one start on these stand-alone packs, they may miss out on a lot of the main content afforded by the original game. Often, this means they don’t have access to certain capabilities or options, but it does allow the game to be more accessible for players who have a slight interest. By not having to have the main game, players can try out stand-alone packs and then branch into the main content if they like what they see. Think of them as a sample.

Keeping It Interesting

Because of the way we use the internet and how significant it is in our lives, it’s no surprise that the gaming industry are also using the internet to its advantage. The internet means the ability to download vast quantities of information and data, making it the preferred way of purchasing games. It’s less likely that someone would go to the shops when they could just do it at the click of a button at home. That’s understandable and I’ve done it myself. You do things to make it easier on yourself, right?

As was said earlier in the post, downloadable content are essentially expansion packs, only they are downloaded instead of being stacked on shop shelves. They still serve the same purpose of adding to existing content which they do by the bucket loads. Because everything is done online, people can buy several DLCs in one sitting and have them all to play later.

Increasingly, with online services like Xbox Live, console gamers are also utilising DLCs that they never could before, including stand-alone packs. Command & Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath required the original Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars to play on the PC, but Xbox 360 versions of both games are available and not mutually exclusive. With these online services, there is a dedicated online store where players can buy things using online payment – think similar to microtransactions before. It’s like having a shop on your games console that you can browse form the comfort of your own home

One of the biggest problems for developers, especially those MMORPG-type games, is keeping a large enough player base to offset the costs of making and running the game. In other words, keeping the interest of the player is critical to ensuring profitability and longetivity not just to the game, but to the companies themselves. Developers are keen to take advantage of that fact by the retention of users. In other words, by periodically releasing DLCs to provide extra content, developers hope to continue to keep the players playing.

This long paragraph gives an insight into the retention of players. ‘A recent study by Juho Hamari –Helsinki Institute for Information Technology– and Aki Järvinen – Digital Chocolate, Inc – shows the importance of DLC for the acquisition, monetization, but more importantly, for the retention of users in social games. Games as a service has established in the industry as a viable model. It’s now possible to acquire users more easily and engage them with good gameplay and then offer virtual goods through in-app purchases that enhance the game’s original experience. This one-two punch is something to have in mind if you want games to last longer: a larger influx of casual players thanks to free-to-play, plus better retention of hard-core gamers who are more likely to spend on DLCs. Greater game longevity can be achieved with a constant stream of DLC releases that help players get a sense of continuing support for the game. It keeps player interest alive thus reducing the drop out. Plus, it can make players who stopped playing to come back and check the new content for the game’ (David Xicota, 2014).

This situation is a concern for many developers, especially small-scale ones, where players are money. As Xicota (2014) stated, DLCs are an excellent way of retaining people to use your products.Many free-to-play games see this as the vaiable way to stay in business. By releasing more content (usually through updates or patches) can they keep things varied. The free-to-play game World of Warships recently added new features to the game, such as dynamic weather effects, as a way of doing something different.

One way in which developers do this is to promote what is known in the games industry as a ‘season pass’. Season passes allows the player to have a yearly privilege of having first access to the upcoming DLCs before anyone else. In better words, it is ‘a system that allows players to pay upfront and receive all of the DLC for a game, including DLC that has not yet been released. This lets players receive a discount compared to buying DLC individually’ (GiantBomb, 2015). These are popular for a dedicated community, such as Borderlands or Skyrim, where DLCs are numerous and extensive. Developers usually announce a series of upcoming DLCs and players can then pay for the season pass, providing access to those DLCs at a discounted price. The idea is to create an incentive to buy not just one, but many DLCs for longer retention of players.

As GiantBomb (2015) writes, ‘for publishers, this bundling together with a discount may influence players who were going to only buy a small amount of DLC to purchase more of it to take advantage of the discount. Additionally, by offering pre-orders of future DLC they can collect revenue before the DLC is officially released. For players, those who were already planning to buy all of a title’s DLC are able to receive a somewhat significant discount.’ Cameron Koch (2015) also argues that ‘videogames are no longer released, purchased, played and put on the shelf. With rising costs, game developers and publishers have looked for ways to bring in more revenue after a game’s release, while also keeping their game in the headlines for longer. The solution they appeared to have settled on is the season pass. For one price, a player can get access to all the additional content that comes out for a game post-release, oftentimes including new missions, multiplayer maps, skins and more. No matter what kind of game it is, nearly every major AAA game released this year will have one. From Batman: Arkham Knight to Star Wars Battlefront, season passes are here to stay.’

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Example of a season pass for Borderlands 2. Players pay a fee to have access to upcoming add-ons and other features.

The idea of the season pass can provide benefits to developers and players alike. For one thing, season pass (and DLCs in general) give that extra bit of income by providing that extra bit of content that does not necessary ask the developers to break the bank. For players, purchasing DLCs doesn’t mean having to spend big for extra content and there are often discounts involved. For developers, DLCs are often much cheaper to produce, but if done right, can pay itself off with a dedicated following to that game. ‘Videogames are not a cheap hobby, but fans who enjoy what a developer is doing don’t appear to have a problem paying more money for more content. Developers wouldn’t spend time making extra DLCs and season passes if players didn’t buy them, and by all accounts, it looks like players most definitely do buy them. Players want more content for their favourite games’ (Koch, 2015).

But Why Pay For More?

While DLCs can be beneficial, they are not without its criticisms, and it comes under some scathing ones. The biggest issue, no surprises, is about money. Just like with microtransactions, there is a sense that developers are far more interested in making as much money as possible by releasing as much extra content as possible. I don’t think anyone begrudges companies making money because they are still a business.

The demanding nature of the gaming industry, coupled with rising costs to developing games, means that companies have to make that money back quickly. As Koch (2015) says, triple-A games are going down the seasons pass route because the developers know that there is a demand for extra content in their games, no matter how trivial these content are. The very popular games like The Sims means they could bring out many DLCs and still sell well. The combined sales figures of the orignal game and all the DLCs could be substantial.

But with DLCs and seasons passes, it just seems more ways to milk the cash cow and fleece people for money. They are willing to pay  but not if they feel if developers are becoming greedy, espceially for content that those not appear to add much back into the main game. As a result, there is the perception that the quality of games in general is lacklustre because of the saturation of DLCs and the desire for companies to make profit. Why would people pay for sub-standard material?

I can only speak for myself here, but I certainly know what it’s like. I get the sense that DLCs are coming out thick and fast. Sometimes they don’t add much to the game; things like cosmetic items don’t seem worth my money. It will pander to the dedicated players but, for the most part, is it really worth it? I guess that is a chioce for each individual person.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some brilliant DLCs and add-ons out there that actually do enhance the original game and are worth the money. The game Oblivion had an amazing expansion pack called Shivering Isles which added a whole new area to have fun in. But it seems to me that with DLC after DLC (and mirotransactions thrown in), the focus appears to be about making money fast by throwing things in. I’m not against that so much, but at the expense of quality is an issue I have.

This is where we are at. It’s a demanding industry is the games one. There is a great deal of pressure to deliver on time and companies are under scrunity for their titles. Negative feedback  can be a disaster. The demands and the pressure often mean games are rushed, leading to lesser quality. I can understand the need for profit. But are we getting to a sitatuon where they are so concerned about keeping players that they will churn out DLCs just for the sake of retention?

Or have we got there long ago?

Bibliography

Giantbomb’s article, ‘DLC Season Pass’:

http://www.giantbomb.com/dlc-season-pass/3015-7186/

Cameron Kock’s article, ‘If Video Game Season Passes Are Going To Work, We Need To Know What’s In Them’:

http://www.techtimes.com/articles/96272/20151017/if-video-game-season-passes-are-going-to-work-we-need-to-know-whats-in-them.htm#sthash.N6SCOhxJ.dpuf

David Xicota’s article, ‘What Does DLC Mean for Your Games’:

http://www.gamedonia.com/blog/what-does-dlc-mean-your-games