DLC and Me


Shamus had a post a couple of days ago discussing the outrage of certain gamers over the day-one DLC in Portal 2. I’ve been meaning to write a response for awhile, but I wanted to let my thoughts on the matter simmer for a little while before actually writing anything. That and I’ve been unfortunately pretty busy and not in the mood to write much when I have had time.

My copy of Portal 2 has not yet arrived, so this is still a little off the cuff, and I reserve the right to change my opinion later on after playing it. The fact of the matter is, though, I don’t like the idea of games selling me extras within the game. I don’t like the idea that a game was built with the expectation of selling items within the game from day one. Other people may not have a problem with that, I do.

Why? Well, the answer is complex but it comes down to this: Emotionally, I don’t like it. I don’t like blatant product placement in movies or television. I don’t like advertisement in general. I don’t want to see advertisement and product placement permeate games the way they have other forms of media. I think it’s perfectly fine if game developers create and sell DLC — But I don’t trust game developers to be responsible with the power that in-game advertisement / microtransaction models provide.

Why do I care?
I’ve learned to experience games in a certain way, and I enjoy experiencing games in that way. What I mean by that specifically is the purchase-product model (there might be another name for this, however I am not interested enough in marketing/sales or its terminology to care). This is the model most games have used from Kings Quest & Mario to most current-day games, whether they be released as a box on store shelves or as a digital download. There are a couple of other models for games to follow, whether it is an “Arcade” model where players must pay cash immediately to continue, the “Subscription” model followed by games like World of Warcraft, the “Free-to-Play-Pay-for-Advantage” model used by many Facebook games or games such as League of Legends, and so on.

Portal 2’s in-game store may be kind of innocuous and tucked away, but game developers (or more specifically: game publishers) are always on the lookout for profitable ways to get you on the hook. Whether we as gamers like to admit it or not, games are essentially brain-hacks designed to provide feedback to the reward centers of our brains. For some people those rewards might be visceral, cool graphics and moves displayed by your avatar. For some people they might be more abstract markers of progress – A full progress bar. For some people those rewards might be a cutscene to drive the story forward, or for others it might be an achievement on your gamer profile to show off to your friends. The techniques used by games to entertain us can also be used for evil, and as cliche as it is to talk about game addicts, there are games that are literally designed to be addicting. In fact, addicting games predate videogames — You’ll find plenty of games designed to be addicting in casinos.

The uniqueness of addicting videogames over casino-style games is simply in variety. Videogames as a whole can provide a much more engrossing experience than a casino game, one which triggers addictive patterns of behavior in players with a wide variety of tastes and preferences. The hat-craze that took over Team Fortress 2 began as a status-only feature, but later on grew to add real functionality to the game. This hooks both the players who play for fun and want uniqueness or status, and also the players who play to win and want a competitive edge.

I do think it’s in the best interests of players and the industry, in the long term to promote ethical behavior from game developers and publishers. What exactly constitutes ethical behavior? I’m not going to say, because my opinion isn’t the only one that matters. The point is there needs to be a conversation about what actually is ethical for game developers to do within their games and what isn’t. Is it ethical, for example, to give players a goal that takes thousands of real-life hours to accomplish, even if the actual gameplay involved is merely a grind of slaying identical monsters over and over? Is it ethical to sell in-game advantages, and if so what kind and what power?
Games are extraordinarily complex to talk about in these terms since they are so varied, but at least for me, selling me items within the game is a bright-line red flag behavior that I think is too prone to abuse to tolerate, no matter how good the game is otherwise.

3 Responses

  1. Alex Ponebshek

    The idea of games selling extras has always been irritating to me too. I’m not gonna touch any of valve’s offerings (partly because I don’t actually like their game design that much, and partly because it’s a fundamental tenant of software worth buying, for me, that it can be installed and run without an internet connection).

    But I do play Minecraft, and when the beta rolled around, notch announced that the thing he had said about alpha users never having to pay for add-on content, doesn’t apply for new registrants. This doesn’t even apply directly to me… but I actually like to play this game with friends, so it would actually STILL dick me over if they were missing access to content I wanted to use. Luckily this hasn’t happened yet, although he got pretty specific about how he intends to do it when working on an actual modding API for his game (way too late to see a humongous modding community simply decompiling and changing the game’s java code): “We want to buy and/or license good mods and/or total conversions and sell them ourselves.”, http://notch.tumblr.com/post/4955141617/the-plan-for-mods It’d be pretty much *necessary* to jump ship to one of the up-and-coming open source minecraft clones at that point, just to avoid complete community fragmentation. (This point isn’t a real issue for single-player games, of course, but being expected to pay again, for anything less than another full-sized game, is rather bullshit)

    It’s hard to say that these things are unethical, though, because people can do whatever the hell they want. They never beat money out of you, they just encourage you to give it to them. I do think it’s unethical when you advertise something and then later pull it out from under your customers. Probably the biggest example in the world is Sony removing OtherOS from the ps3, and I think that when Valve started adding unlockables to Team Fortress 2, that could be considered a dick move to any players who thought they were playing a legitimate arena shooter and not some half-assed MMO bullshit. But likewise, I also don’t think it’s unethical to simply share information when you want to. Copyright law is not a fundamental human right like whiny game devs would have you believe. Essentially, it’s law that was originally written simply to protect people against others *selling* their work for a *profit*, which lobbyists for information-related industries have managed to get it ret-conned into a way to prop up various fake business models.

    It’s not my responsibility to support their fake business of selling software, although I *will* buy a reasonably priced and worthwhile game, the same way I’d donate to an open source project that I wanted to see succeed. So if you realize that Valve is being a dick to their customers, you should vote with your wallet by exercising your right as a consumer to either not play the game, or torrent it (you can find no-steam copies of Portal 2 that run out of a directory and don’t require internet access! it’s win-win!)

  2. Yeah, the ethics of videogames and what they do (both in and out of game) is quite complex and that’s why I think it’s kind of important that there’s an ongoing conversation about it.

    I tend to object to in-game advertisement of add-ons because, well… When you’re in a game you’re far more likely to make an impulse purchase than you are if you are sitting at your computer, browsing Amazon.com for the latest DLC/Expansion pack. Context does matter, but you’ve got a captive audience in a product that’s already been sold — Trying to sell more within that is just off-putting to me. Dragon Age had this, and I thought it was pretty tacky. Portal 2’s store is also very tacky to me, even if it’s not front and center. Naturally I tend to avoid games that are worse with this behavior, but they definitely exist. League of Legends isn’t necessarily in-your-face about its advertising, but it’s definitely a constant presence in the client and their business model is definitely on the seedy side of the scale, for my tastes.

    You mention that they don’t beat the money out of you, so in theory game companies can do whatever they want. I don’t disagree. That’s the status quo we live in. I just think that it’d be better if there were a stronger consumer advocacy voice (or voices) for gamers. That doesn’t really exist now, outside of individual voices like mine, yours, Shamus’… But no one takes these thousands of individual voices seriously.

  3. Don’t forget Mass Effect 2, another game with a DLC store. One would pay extra for things like extra equipment or new characters to join your team that they really could have easily placed in the main game. Thankfully much of these extras where not really necessary and so I doubt many people actually bought them. Plus there were a few free downloads that they put out, so that was nice. The game did however place mini ads for the latest DLC right on the menu screen with the “Cerberus Network.” It was slightly annoying, but the game has enough replay value that you don’t feel terribly compelled to buy anything.

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