Let me first say that I was barely old enough to experience the arcade boom of the 1990’s. My school would have roller skating parties every now and then, and instead of hitting the hardwood, my friends and I would spend all night playing The Simpsons Arcade Game. I do mean, “all night;” several hours of Marge smashing baddies with her vacuum, and Bart rolling around on his skateboard. Those were the good ol’ days, except for all the quarters it took to play. Back then, it didn’t ever feel like we were being robbed of our dollars, did it?
Today, the age of the arcade is over, with console and PC home gaming taking its place. I would argue the 90s arcade boom ended with the 5th generation of consoles (PlayStation 1 and N64), a time when gamers accepted paying $40-$80 up front for the titles they wanted to play at home. While this price variance wasn’t unique to the 5th generation of consoles, there was now no arcade alternative for the gamer on a budget. The cost of games varied with how many ROM chips were needed, which was based on how long the game was. For example, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was $80, but it made sense to us back then. After all, the more game we were getting, the more it should cost, right?
When the 6th generation of consoles came out (GameCube, Xbox, PlayStation 2, and Dreamcast), the competition started to normalize their software prices. Games started to cost $50 consistently, regardless of length or cost of production. Final Fantasy X and XII were 50 hour-long games, yet cost the same amount as Oddworld: Munch’s Odyssee, a much more streamlined experience. I suspect part of this price settling was due to all competitors switching from cartridges to disc-based storage. This was a nice, calm period for consoles and software. The quarter-eating habits of the arcades were in the past, and $50 dollar games were the norm. However, it was in this generation that the consoles started dabbling with the Internet. Microsoft started their popular Xbox Live network, and the Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, and GameCube had network adaptors to support online gaming for titles like Final Fantasy XI (PS2) and Phantasy Star Online (DC, Xbox, GC).
With consoles able to access the Internet, developers were suddenly able to keep one finger on completed projects and a hand in the wallets of consumers. Now, finished games didn’t have to exist in a sterile, developer-free environment. Map packs and content patches became the first downloadable content (DLC) for Halo 2 and Ninja Gaiden, among others. In 2003, Microsoft became the first company to charge money for extra game content over the Internet, with 2002’s title Mech Assault. People bought this DLC in droves.
With the 7th and current console generation, DLC has become a staple of video gaming. Microsoft and Nintendo created their own currencies for purchasing post-launch content, and Sony created a “wallet” system as a way to take your local currency and digitize it for purchases. The console developers had realized the opportunity DLC presented, carving their own digital coin slots into modern hardware. Now, all they had to do was get the players to start pumping in the quarters.
The first DLC to really cause a stir was the “horse armor” DLC for Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Here was DLC that, for $2.50, gave your in-game horse a shiny set of battle gear; that was it. There were no extra bosses, levels, extended multiplayer sessions, classes or anything else. It doubled your horse’s health, and looked moderately pretty. You could choose either steel or elvish horse armor. The weird thing was that people actually bought it, and not just a few of them Eight more “expansion” DLC packs would be released for Oblivion, plus another not-really-anything-worthwhile DLC that introduced spell tomes to loot lists.
Oblivion set the stage for successful DLC, including The Shivering Isles and Knights of the Nine, Oblivion’s two major expansion packs, the total cost to the player for the whole Elder Scrolls IV experience was $114.15 ($60 retail version + $30 Shivering Isles + $10 Knights of the Nine + $14.15 for all 8 DLC content packs).
Recently, the DLC controversy has reared its shiny armored head once again, this time over the idea of Day 1 DLC (extra content available for purchase on the day the retail version of the game goes on sale). The game in question is BioWare’s Mass Effect 3.
In the DLC, the player meets and, eventually teams up with, an exclusive party member, one whose race was thought to be extinct. Players felt that this wasn’t just superfluous non-essential DLC, and at the price tag of $10, it wasn’t exactly cheap either. Players who bought the collector’s edition of the game got this for free, while everyone else had to either pony up the $10 dollars or avoid buying it. If this DLC was available the day the game was released, why wasn’t it available to everyone and included in the $60 cost of the retail version of the game?
BioWare argued that all of the material in From Ashes was produced once the game proper was finished, however some players were able to find data files unique to From Ashes on the Mass Effect 3 disc, evidence that at least some of the DLC was packaged on the retail version of the game. It was proven shortly after these allegations that the From Ashes files on the game disc were DLC hooks, not full content files. The complete DLC was over 600MB and not on the Mass Effect 3 game disc. Still, this kerfuffle gave BioWare some negative press during the launch of one of the most anticipated games of the year and shined a spotlight on the topic of day 1 DLC.
So the question is, day 1 DLC fair? What about all DLC? When I think of these questions, I go back to the arcade days. The whole game was in that arcade cabinet, and, if you were REALLY good, you could, in theory, beat the game with 1 quarter. In practice, the games were made to be fun enough to keep people playing AND to keep them paying. Is there a difference here? BioWare’s aim is to make the conclusion to their epic trilogy enjoyable enough to keep players in their seats with their wallets open to buy more content. Sure, there are differences in how we buy them, and the prices are much different as well, but in the end, the publishers are just adapting to how media is consumed. Unfortunately, that means $60 up front software costs and additional paid DLC are here to stay.