Sunday, June 14, 2009

It Began With Horse Armour ...

This is my response to Michael Abbott's post regarding DLC. As you're almost certainly aware, Michael is responsible for the superb Brainy Gamer blog and podcast. He's the kindest person I've ever met and is, without a doubt, the coolest thing in Indiana. And yes, that's counting Gen Con.

You may not remember the exact date, Michael, but you do remember the event. On April 3rd, 2006, the DLC genie was let out of the bottle. Owners of Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion could spend the equivalent of 2.50 USD to purchase armour for the game's horses. Many felt the cost, while low, was still unfair given the rather minor impact the purchase would have in the game. There was a significant backlash to the point that "horse armour" is still idiomatically used to describe overpriced downloadable content.

Since then, there's been a lot of discussion, experimentation and contention about DLC and its place in the development and business models of games.

Now, I'm in all favour of downloadable content for games, and of course entire games themselves. My ability to pay my rent depends on this, actually. But I must confess that the I find the trend toward more use of DLC to unlock existing game content a bit disconcerting. Early today, you remarked that Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 features DLC that can unlock all the courses in the game for $2.25 and max your golfer's stats for $3.75 (and quite amusingly, your comment is the second Google hit for "tiger woods 10 unlock dlc"). This breed of DLC isn't new; I believe it's been a feature in Tiger for at least the last couple of iterations. Criterion offers a Time Savers pack for Burnout: Paradise that unlocks all the game's cars for $5, and so forth.

Before I dive too deeply into this, I'll note that I feel looking at this through the lens of Mitch Krpata's New Taxonomy of Gamers is helpful. In the case of unlock DLC, it's all about the difference between skill players and tourists. And as is often the case in the real world, the tourists end up getting a bit fleeced.

Unlock DLC holds little appeal for skill players, as you noted. Tourists, on the hand other, "just want to play." Repeating content time and again until certain milestones are reached seems like a chore for them, not a source of enjoyment. They just want to engage with the content they find most interesting. It feels strange to me then that this style of play comes with an additional price tag. It feels as if the legacy of unlockable content in games is being used to justify taking advantage of the tourist's desire to "just play."

Digital content locks in games are completely trivial to create. Asking for money to remove them instantly is charging because some tourists are willing to pay, rather than charging to recoup the cost of creating those locks. Even the despised horse armour required the time of some artists, designers and programmers to create. With unlock DLC, only abstract locks are being removed. It seems exploitative to ask these players to pay more, simply because their style of play differs from that of "traditional" players.

One of the biggest challenges our industry has is making games accessible to new audiences without dumbing them down or killing the spirit of games that so many of us have grown to love. I don't think it's appropriate asking newer gamers, who are more likely to be tourists, to pay more just so they can enjoy the game in their preferred style of play. It feels like unlock DLC is taking advantage of newer gamers simply because, well, they don't know any better.

Or, more simply, just because EA can doesn't mean they should. I would much rather see the Rock Band model of unlocking content adopted in lieu of unlock DLC. All the game's content is available in a "free play" mode that deactivates achievements (or their equivalent) and restricts online play to others in the same mode. A "career" mode allows content to be unlocked with the usual MO. It seems like this would facilitate the tourist style of play well without asking them to pony up for the privilege.

Your observations on value are keen, but I think making achievements the sole domain of "career mode" still provides enough enticement for the skill player while demonstrating the tourist there's something incomplete in the "free play" mode.

The truth is Michael, I'm not necessarily opposed to unlock DLC as it currently exists. I certainly don't plan on ever purchasing any, but it's entirely possible that 6 USD is a fair price for all courses and a maxed golfer in Tiger 10. What I really worry about is how easy it is to slide down this slippery slope. Knowing many tourists will pay for this unlock DLC, can the temptation be resisted to push those unlockables just a little bit further out? How easy it is to make just a little more content locked, facilitating multiple unlock DLC offerings. It sounds a little cynical, but at the same time, I worry it's not that far fetched at all.

To be clear, I am not advocating the Angry Internet Man response to "boycott" games that feature this kind of DLC or anything similarly absurd. But I can't shake the feeling that unlock DLC is exploiting a certain segment of the audience by erecting artificial barriers and then asking for a fee so those barriers can be removed. If we want to see more people playing games, and playing games more interesting that match-three Flash games, it seems antithetical to charge many of them extra just because they haven't been to the theatre before.

As always, I appreciate your thoughts on this issue and it's always fascinating to hear what you and others have to say on this matter.

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Blogger Graham said...

Not exactly related, but almost perfectly parallel is this recent news.

Both your post and that quote from Miyamoto point out problem to me: It's hard to remove the challenge from a challenge-based activity without ruining it, for obvious reasons. I think 'tourist' is a great way to describe the kind of players who want that; they are getting an experience, it's just not the experience, much like a tourist who travels to some exotic location and then spends the whole time at the resort. It's safe and clean and easy.

Of course in games that aren't primarily challenge-based (The Sims?) this need not apply. In that case, in fact, skill gamers are the tourists, power-leveling their character through a career and missing the point of the game.

So none of that has anything to do with DLC. I'm tired. I'll try and bring that full circle later on. :)

June 14, 2009 at 10:22 PM  
Blogger WorldMaker said...

I've helped debate the merits of unlock charges in the realm of MMOs. MMOs make the topic even more complex because there are several valid economic arguments for charging the customers willing to pay to have their characters more quickly leveled, max leveled, provided with spoils, or what have you. The battle against the concept leads to the "criminalization" of (potentially many) legitimate players and the dark, shadow economies where the unscrupulous ("Chinese gold farmers") benefit for as long as their EULA-breaking isn't discovered and the developers see the in-game economic effects without benefit of out-of-game economic advantages.

I can see good reasons for developer provided unlock charges, and although rarely am I a libertarian I think that this is one of those areas where presumably the market can very well help determine what such things are worth. (I think that we can eventually answer: How much is an average player's "grind time" worth?)

On the other hand, I wish we could collectively get over the "purity" of achievements and bring back some of the old school powerful cheat codes, without "compromising" achievements. Why shouldn't I get narrative achievements when I play an FPS in "god mode"? That's how I used to play an FPS for its narrative "back in the day". I'm still physically working my way through the narrative, even in god mode... I might as well get the game-external plot coupon for it all the while.

June 14, 2009 at 10:22 PM  
Blogger Psychochild said...

"How easy it is to make just a little more content locked, facilitating multiple unlock DLC offerings."

We already live in that world. The most successful game of all time, The Sims is successful primarily because people could acquire new content for the game at a price. We just call those "expansion packs" and people don't seem to be all that bothered.

The difference is that downloadable content is, well, downloadable instead of the player being required to go buy a box at the store. Because the developer doesn't have to bundle changes into one large package for reasons of retail efficiency, DLC can be provided a la carte. Honestly, if Oblivion's horse armor had been one of 10 major features in a $25 expansion pack, there would be a lot less complaining than what happened when they dared to offer it directly to the players through download. In an expansion pack, people could have selectively decided that "feature X" was worth the money, even if they hated the horse armor.

Eventually DLC will be seen the same way we see expansions. I expect some game developers will get smart and start offering bundles of features for people who want to feel like they're saving a bit of money, or those who have to have every feature for their favorite game. New things are scary, so we're seeing a lot of people getting frightened, but in reality this is just a variation of what we've seen before.

June 15, 2009 at 1:45 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Graham It's an interest experiment to consider, though. Of course, if that model proves to be successful, will some of the big publishers start including "demo play" as $5 DLC? Could they resist that temptation? I worry they could not.

@WorldMaker I deliberately tried to restrict this conversation to (primarily) single player or co-op games because this issue becomes vastly more complicated in the space of MMOs.

The perception of fairness figures a lot into how many players engage with MMOs. Purchasing advantages can alter that pretty dramatically, and I honestly don't think it could work in a game like WoW. Now, an MMO that's more instanced like DDO (which will become free-to-play quite soon, actually) might host something like this better. Alternatively, experimenting with "RMT" and "non-RMT" shards could be interesting as well.

@Psychochild Except the difference is The Sims 2 expansions offered new content, they didn't simply unlock content already in the game. An accurate analogy would be if The Sims 3 had DLC that gave the player 50,000 simoleans for $5.

I have no fundamental problem with DLC that is actually something new, it's selling people access to something they've already purchased that's problematic for me. That's a subtle distinction, but an important one, I think.

June 15, 2009 at 8:55 AM  
Blogger Lucas said...

I'm willing to pay for downloadable content, but not for access to content that is included in the game as it is sold. This seems like a straight forward and reasonable opinion, neh?

Discussions of "casual" "tourists" or what players get from overcoming challenges are interesting, but beside the point. EA may be draining players' sense of achievement or opening their games to less dedicated consumers, yes, but they're also charging for something for which players have already paid.

June 15, 2009 at 8:25 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Lucas That's the most common objection and it makes sense. But I think it's still important to make the skill player vs. tourist distinction because skill players usually aren't going to pay for unlock DLC.

The objection you raise isn't shared by most tourist players, which makes me wonder a little about how offensive unlock DLC is. It still feels exploitative, but less so than if the objection was universal.

June 15, 2009 at 9:56 PM  
Blogger Jorge Albor said...

I'm still a firm believer that unlockables shouldn't exist. Understandably, as Michael put it, unlockables make something valuable for a select few, but it is a false value. Like hoarding all the worlds supply of chocolate to artificially raise the value, it does not actually change content. Content which, in my opinion, should be satisfying and compelling enough for tourists and completionists alike. There are still achievements to satisfy those who want a sense of accomplishment. Locked content, to me, seems like the cowardice of developers who do not stand behind their gameplay.

June 16, 2009 at 11:34 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Jorge I think having some content locked is actually a valid design decision. Making the entirety of a game's content available from the first second of play can easily overwhelm some players.

Unlockable content also serves as a feedback system, letting players know they're doing well on a metagame level. Many people are hardwired to find achieving goals very satisfying (I know I do) and I'm not sure achievements alone are sufficient goals for many kinds of games.

Is that artificial? Maybe. But at the end of the day, so is everything else in a video game.

June 16, 2009 at 2:40 PM  
Blogger Graham said...

I think one observation that I have regarding this kind of "progression bypass", is that it breaks the fourth wall of gaming. As Nels said in the last comment, everything in a videogame is artificial. One of the main requirements to enjoying a videogame is that suspension of disbelief; to believe that in this world the character can only run left and right, that pressing A three times does a power hit, that reaching the end of this level awards the new ability.

Progression mechanics form the mechanical tapestry of a game world just as much as movement, attack, or story mechanics. So by letting players optionally unlock everything, you are kind of pointing at that lock system and saying, "Hey, look! It's just an arbitrary mechanic in this video game! You're not actually achieving anything!" This breaks the player's suspension of disbelief. And I think this is why skill players get so riled up about it -- they don't want anyone pointing out that they are beating their head against artificial limitations.

I compare it to the special features on DVDs. I hate watching the 'making of' stuff -- it makes otherwise fantastic effects boring and obvious. The first time I watched The Lord of the Rings, it didn't even occur to me that Gandalf was 2x taller than Frodo; it was just part of that fantasy. Now I can't watch those movies without looking for all the camera tricks and CG.

I can only imagine that when someone comes up against a barrier in a game that provides this kind of barrier bypassing, instead of thinking, "OK, I have to beat this bad guy!" instead they will now be thinking, "I just want to progress in this game!"


All that said, many people have no objections to watching the bonus features and having their experiences ruined. Most people just don't care that much. So why should we object to providing those people with a way to unlock everything? And @Jorge, why should we object to designers including unlocks as part of their mechanical palette?

June 16, 2009 at 6:35 PM  
Blogger Jason T said...

After reading Michael's post and before reading this one, my initial thought was, "Why not make it work like Rock Band?" No surprise, then, that I agree with Nels's position on the issue and the suggested alternative. I do think it's worth it to acknowledge that this is a sort of discrimination against certain play styles. I'd also like to suggest, though, that even if the players who see it as the more galling issue are those who'd prefer to work for that content anyway, that doesn't mean it's not our problem too.

When I play Rock Band with my girlfriend, we play the tour mode. We're unlocking our songs the old-fashioned way. We don't have a lot of time to play games together, though, so it's slow going. When we have friends over for gaming, we unlock all the tracks on the disc (with the well-publicized cheat code) to give our friends more options, to make the game more enjoyable and accessible for them. I would feel cheated if that option was behind a pay wall.

Paying for new content (like new tracks) is fine by me. Paying for access to content I already paid for seems kind of crass.

June 19, 2009 at 5:47 AM  

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