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Before I get started: Last week I equated Impulse with the other digital delivery system tray squatters. But it’s worth noting that Impulse doesn’t do this. Once you’ve downloaded the game, you can close Impulse and it will not shoehorn itself into the proceedings. It’s worth checking out if you’re one of the people looking for a less restrictive alternative to Steam.

Just to keep this article from getting out of hand, I’m going to completely ignore piracy as an issue. We’ve only got so much space to spend here, and dragging piracy into this will make this whole discussion that much more complicated. Besides, it’s not like I haven’t already beaten that horse into a fine paste.

Developers and publishers have been working on various techniques for getting people to pony up for their single-player game instead of borrowing or buying used. Ideally, they want everyone who plays the game to pay full price for it. There are two different approaches for doing this. One technique has been widely praised as a pro-consumer policy, and the other has been denigrated as a cynical and short-sighted idea. Let’s look at the good one first:

Free Updates:

For years Stardock has been putting out solid games and then refining and expanding the game after release. They take the initial feedback from the community and use those suggestions to guide their efforts. Stardock will then release regular patches that tighten up the gameplay and give the audience more of what they love. But these patches are only made available to people who have registered the game and linked the serial number to their account. If you get the game on loan from a friend or buy a second-hand copy, then the updates won’t be available to you. (Again, we’re ignoring piracy today.)

The upshot is that the game in the box is yours forever, and the post-release extras are there to reward people for buying the game new. Unlike DRM with online activation, you’ll never lose the original product. If Stardock president Brad Wardell cleaned out the company bank account and took off for the beach and the Stardock servers went down, my boxed copy of Galactic Civilizations II would keep working. I might lose the updates if I didn’t make backups, but I’ll always have access to the game I paid for as it existed on release day. It’s mine and it will stay mine as long as I take care of the disc. The post-release patches are gravy.

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Day One DLC:

On the other end of the spectrum we have stuff like the free DLC that came with Dragon Age: Origins. The character Shale was cut from the game proper and put into a “free” add-on pack that would be available once you created an account and registered the game. However, it would then be bound to your account, so if you borrowed or bought used then Shale and her quest wouldn’t exist in the game. There was a pitchman in the game would would let you know about the quest, and they made it possible to buy Shale for $5 if you didn’t have her. Similar to that is the technique used in The Saboteur, where the full nudity mode was unlocked with a code that came with the game. If you rent, borrow, or buy second-hand, the boobies DLC will cost you $3. This is clearly an attempt to make something from second-hand sales. They touted Shale as a “free” download – like a prize that comes free in a box of cereal, but most players viewed it as an integral component of the game.

Publishers have been talking about this technique for a while, and players regard this idea with either apathy or animosity. Some people are unhappy with how much was cut from the game and moved to separate DLC. This is basically a compromise between online activation and games which stand on their own without needing to be activated. Essentially, part of the game requires activation. But where do you draw the line? How deep does the developer cut into the base game? And how much do they charge for it if you’ve acquired the game second-hand or simply lost the account info? What parts of the game should be DLC? Perhaps some small unlockables? A side-quest or two? The final boss fight? The entire second half of the game?

Take this approach far enough, and it’s effectively online activation. Remove enough stuff from the base game, and it turns into a glorified demo. You buy the demo at full price and get the rest of the game for free. But you can’t pass it on unless you’re willing to hand over your account info to someone else.

(Yes console players: Online activation can happen to you. Whenever I bring up online activation, some people will respond, “This is why I’m glad to be a console player.” But it’s clear here that this septic trend is not tied to the PC. In fact, this is even more perilous for console players. You could create a one-time account for your Dragon Age game and give that out when you lend the game to someone else. Xbox LIVE accounts are not so easily shared. Lots of console players still use trade-ins to help pay for games. At best this will cause a lot of headaches for those people. At worst, it will do for used console games what has already been done for the used PC game market.)

Comparing the Two

I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that technologically, these are both the exact same idea. You get the game and then the publisher offers you free, non-transferable goodies as an incentive to register the game online. In the Stardock case, these goodies are post-launch refinements and add-ons that make the game even better. In the case of games like The Saboteur and Dragon Age, the goodies are cut from the core game. So the Stardock system rewards you for buying new. The day one DLC system punishes you for not buying new. Gamers love the first and are uneasy with the latter.

We can tell the difference now because they made it obvious. However, it’s possible for them to make the line between “cut content” and “new content” very, very blurry. The difference between “this was part of the core game that we took out” and “this is something we just made for you because we love you so much” is basically a matter of presentation. BioWare could have waited a while and then released Shale as the latter. Would gamers have praised them for their generosity if they had? I honestly don’t know.

I do know that if this trend continues, the whole DLC market is about to become very, very muddy.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Reset Button, Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, and Stolen Pixels.

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