Going Gold

Going Gold: To Your Heart’s (Downloadable) Content


DLC is the Toyota Prius of the gaming world – for all the talk about it, most of its problems seem to be primarily those of perception.

2K Games are the latest to discover this, with the hubbub over the knowledge that Bioshock 2 “DLC” actually appears to be contained on the disc, with the downloaded content just an unlock code. This has opened up once again the debate over what kinds of extra content gamers are entitled to, and what they have to pay for.

Let’s try to clear the air on some of the issues that gamers may have with DLC.

Why does DLC exist?

Simply put, because publishers need alternative revenue streams. Most forms of media have multiple ways to get your hard earned cash – TV shows, for example, are broadcast once, maybe with a repeat, then put onto DVD, sold into syndication, and sold to other markets around the world. Each step earns money – and that’s sorely needed, because making TV shows is an expensive business.

Making games is also an expensive business, ever more so, but the vast majority of profit made from tentpole games comes in the first 4 weeks. Games are getting more expensive to make, but actual playtime is, if anything, getting shorter. Because of this, savvy gamersare drawn to rental and used games in order to get their money’s worth.

DLC, then, is a way to grow revenue without starting from scratch, while simultaneously combating the used market. It’s also attractive because it allows publishers to make profit from staff who would otherwise be in downtime waiting for other projects to spin up.

How come DLC for [Game A] is free but DLC for [Game B] is not?

Some companies choose to give DLC free away to promote a brand. Others will sell it for a certain period of time before giving it away for free. Others will charge for it forever. And others (mostly notably the market leader, Nintendo) do not dabble in DLC very much at all.

In other words, it depends on what a company wants the DLC to do. If you want it to help promote a game at retail, it makes more sense to give it away for free. If you want it as an additional revenue stream, you’re going to want to charge for it.

In the case of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 versusCall of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, EA’s game is decidedly the underdog. DLC is an effective tool to build goodwill and expand EA’s smaller fanbase, so releasing BC 2 DLC for free is a clever decision – and not any sign that EA is more generous or awesome than Activision is.

But by the same token, charging $15 for an MW2 map-pack might also be a clever decision. For all we talk about it, the percentage of gamers who actually download DLC is surprisingly low. I imagine that Activision based their price point with the knowledge that only the most hardcore players will want it, but that most of those players will likely buy it regardless of whether it’s $10 or $15.

It does not make a lot of gamers like Activision but hey – the sorry fact is that publisher brand name is almost completely meaningless to the average consumer.

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Day One DLC was developed at the same time, so it should be free!

Simple answer: this is not true. A very long stretch of time can pass between the time a game is feature-locked (no new ideas or modes), content-locked (no new assets), gone gold (final master approved) and the game is on the shelves.

Some publishers and developers that have multiple projects going at once can shuffle their resources around to other projects. Others either don’t have simultaneous projects, or the projects are not in the right timeframe. For those, DLC is a good way to put those developers, programmers and artists to good use. Once a game is content-locked, the only thing you need you need most of your artists and many of your designers for is responding to bug-fix requests. But if you put them work on DLC while they also respond to those requests, you can utilize their time and experience before the game hits shelves. Time things right and that DLC can be ready for launch.

Well then, content cut from the game should be free!

This is a little trickier. Even though no one complains about not having the “extra” content on Director’s Cuts the first time the saw the movie, gamers seem to hate the idea of paying for anything that was “cut” from the released game. We saw this in the reaction to the suggestion that an epilogue cut from God of War III might find its way to market one day (which had Santa Monica Studio reps scrambling to affix a “free” tag days later); or with Assassin’s Creed 2‘s “missing” memories that “should” have been in the original game.

To suggest that everything that was planned to go on the disc at day one has to be free forever is simply dishonest. Not knowing at what stage God of War III‘s epilogue was cut, it’s hard to put a figure on it, but to put something on a GoW scale out as DLC might well require hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars due to massive QA testing and certification on consoles.

To suggest that releasing this content is a matter of copy-and-pasting a few hundred lines of code is simply wrong – if for no other reason than the fact that anything that is released as DLC costs money separate to the main game’s development. Period. People often compare console DLC to the “good old days” of free PC content, but PC gaming is, in theory, a totally open market. In the console DLC realm, there are two powerful gatekeepers, Microsoft and Sony, and you need to get your product past them before you start earning any money on it.

That means money for certification, which means money putting your DLC through rigorous QA testing in order for it to pass certification. Ever wonder why DLC like Dragon Age’s Return to Ostagar is announced, delayed, announced, delayed, over and over again? It’s because getting DLC to work flawlessly can be tricky, and first parties like Microsoft don’t appreciate it when you’re bugging up already-released software.


In conclusion…

Despite some publishers seeing record profits, many companies out there – who make some of your favorite games – are in a bind. I’m not saying this to elicit your sympathy – it’s a just a fact. Budgets have risen in several terms of magnitude over the past ten years. Prices have not.

I said earlier that publishers “need” and not “want” extra revenue streams. Even many big-name publishers are burning through money. Take 2 have lost $33 million and $50 million in the last two years. EA – despite Rock Band, Madden, FIFA and 28 other million-plus sellers – lost a staggering $1 billion in fiscal 2009.

In the face of this, some publishers can be forgiven for thinking that their product is underpriced. I am sure Activision is not ignorant of the fact that millions paid $60 to play Modern Warfare for up to two years, while the same amount of time spent playing World of Warcraft would cost the average customer $311 – an amount over 10 million WoW players seem to have no problem with.

Slowly but steadily, the concept of paying $60 for a disc is dying. It will be a slow death, but it’s one that seems inevitable. The future is liable to be based on some combination of subscriptions, microtransactions, and other revenue streams.

You know when everyone used to say that the music industry needed to adapt and find alternative revenue streams instead of blaming pirates when Napster got started? That’s what the games industry is doing right now. Just accept that there will be lots of stupid steps along the way.

Christian Ward works for a major publisher. Although ambivalent about the concept of DLC, he absolutely hates the dull, lifeless term “downloadable content” itself.

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