Saturday, July 28, 2012

Downloadable Content and Micro-transactions

by J. Adams

Last week I briefly mentioned downloadable content (DLC) in the context of needing permanent internet connections to make sure it’s been “authorized” for use. I also mentioned my (possibly) unreasonable dislike of microtransactions. What’s the difference between downloadable content and microtransactions? 

Way back in the early days of PC gaming, the original downloadable content, beyond patches that contained bug fixes or other changes to gameplay, was almost exclusively player-made modifications (“player mods” or just “mods”) to games that supported them. I’m sure there are earlier examples, but the first one that I was ever really aware of was the venerable Sid Meier’s Civilization II. There were mods made that turned the game into a fantasy-themed strategy game, sci-fi, or modified the basic game by adding new technologies, new units, new art, or any number of new and/or improved features. These were invariably free because people were making them for love of the game (not to mention that even before all the most recent fights concerning copyright/trademark infringement, it was against the law to profit from someone else’s intellectual property). 

As the consoles also started adding internet connectivity, beginning with the Dreamcast, developers started to realize the possibilities – though the Dreamcast in particular was limited by the fact that the network adapter did not support broadband and that it used fairly small memory cards. The PlayStation 2 didn’t actually have internet connectivity out of the box, and didn’t have a network adapter until the release of Final Fantasy XI. The Xbox, however, had internet connectivity on release and the new Xbox Live Marketplace made downloading new content for games extremely easy. At this point, a good portion of it was still free, but new maps (usually sold in bundles) for games like Halo 2 were going to cost you about $10.00 (US). 

Micro-transactions are a more recent invention, developing alongside the multiplayer role-playing game market. In most cases, the game has an internal store that allows you to purchase special vanity items or even items that give your character a bonus using real money (or “points” purchased with real money as opposed to in-game currency).

Downloadable Content Takes Off

Microsoft’s Marketplace service was really the original model for DLC distribution and, since then, DLC has followed a fairly predictable pattern – a game would release, people would play it for a few months, and then new content would be released for a price. Most of the time the content was a few new multiplayer maps or new weapons, but eventually entirely new missions, quests, or game areas would be created with paid DLC. Prices ranged from $0.99 to $14.99. DLC really began to take off as the Xbox Live Marketplace grew and offered more services (for consoles), and as PC developers slowly began to realize that they could make much more money by offering DLC a few at a time for $10-15 instead of a single expansion pack for $25-30. 

As more PC games were developed and more consoles became pretty much permanently attached to the internet (with the increasing availability of broadband giving it a major push), developers began to release even more DLC. Some games would be released with the first DLC expected to come out within a month. This led to a fairly negative community reaction, with most arguments being that developers were now releasing “unfinished” games just so they could make more money selling quickly-released downloadable content. Two of my favorite games, Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 actually took “fast DLC” to an extreme – both of these games had DLC available on the day the game was released. Technically, I didn’t have to pay for the DLC separately because I had pre-ordered the Collector’s Edition and the code for the DLC was included…but who am I kidding? I paid an extra $20 for the Collector’s Edition in both cases, so I most certainly paid for that DLC right on day one. 

Personally, I don’t mind DLC – except the day one kind. That really does feel like a game is unfinished and I’m being gouged for more money. The developers of Mass Effect (BioWare – owned by Electronic Arts (EA)) claim that the game was not unfinished, and that the day one DLC (From Ashes, which included a new character, new weapon, and new mission) was developed after principal development for the game was completed – although they do admit that most of the assets for the DLC were present on the released disc because they couldn’t just drop all the new content in right on release day with no preparation. That defense makes sense, but it still leaves a fairly bad taste in my mouth, if I’m to be honest. 

I really don’t begrudge developers their DLC – in my opinion, most of these releases do improve a game, and they add more life to a game that might otherwise only hold my attention for a few months before being forgotten and uninstalled. Unfortunately the quality of DLC is not always high, and there’s no real way to know until after you’ve purchased it – and by then it’s too late.

Free-to-Play? Not So Much, Actually

Micro-transactions are more commonly found in newer games that are being released as “free-to-play,” which often means there’s no charge for downloading or installing the game (as is the case with Tribes: Ascend), or that there is an initial fee for buying the software, but no required subscription fee (as is the case with Star Trek: Online (STO) and The Lord of the Rings: Online (LOTRO)). Of course, what they don’t mention right up front (it’s buried in the agreements) is that for many features, you’re going to pay money. In Tribes, this is less of an issue in my opinion because, with the exception of cosmetic character skins, all the additional weapons, items, and other accessories are purchasable via experience points earned by playing. Of course, someone who wants to spend real money can also buy all the weapons and items right away without “earning” them through play. In most cases this isn’t an issue because this particular game has more of an emphasis on skill than which weapons you buy. 

With STO and LOTRO, however, there’s a major difference. You have access to the basics of the game in both cases. In STO, signing up for the standard subscription gives you a “stipend” of “C-points” which can be used in the in-game store to purchase vanity items, ship skins, experience point boosts, and additional character slots (a free subscription comes with two). Most of this is optional, but as the game evolves, more and more of the new content is becoming available only through the “C-Store.” With LOTRO, the micro-transactions are even more restricting, as certain quests and entire areas are only available once they have been purchased (or, again, a paid subscription is purchased). 

All three of these games are considered “free-to-play,” but when you look deeper, are they really? Tribes comes the closest to truly free to play, but with the store it has set up, the temptation to spend the money anyway (and they also offer sales to help entice customers) is very strong. STO offers all of the main content of the game (missions, ranks, basic ships) for free, but anything more advanced (additional characters, costumes, ships, items that confer character bonuses) is going to cost you money. LOTRO is, by far, the worst offender. Entire quest lines are locked out for people that don’t purchase them, so it’s probably fair to say that if you don’t pay for content in a game that claims to be “free-to-play,” you’re not getting the same experience that someone else is. Granted, they never claim that the “free” game is the same as the one someone pays for, but it’s still a little underhanded.

After all - the first hit is free.
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