Shooting holes in your wallet

Joseph Wang investigates the growing trend in gaming of purchasable post-release content.

With game production budgets beginning to approach that of Hollywood blockbusters (Grand Theft Auto IV’s production budget was an estimated $100 million), publishers and developers are looking for new revenue streams to bankroll their projects and ensure the longevity of their titles. One idea that many publishers have adopted is paid downloadable content (DLC) – generally small map packs, quests, characters or items that players may purchase to “enhance” their gaming experience.

The origins of charging for DLC can be traced back to the Xbox game MechAssault in 2003, which offered 2 new multiplayer game modes and 3 new maps for US$4.99. Microsoft’s online service (Xbox Live) had provided a way for developers to release new content for console games (previously impossible, due to the read-only nature of disc-based games), and was now the first to allow for these microtransactions of virtual content with real money.

Since then, this business model has propagated to the majority of game releases on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, generating massive amounts of revenue from consumers. In a recent talk at the 2012 Game Developers Conference, Benjamin Schlichter from market research firm FADE LLC, estimated that DLC revenue is about $7 to $11 for each copy of a major game. He also estimated that the 20+ million sales of map packs for Activision’s 2011 shooter Call of Duty: Black Ops generated $250 million in revenue – more than what many titles make in sales of the game itself.

It comes as no surprise then that paid DLC, like most things to do with money, has generated a lot of controversy within the gaming community, due to the cash-grab nature that many of these pieces of content seem to have. DLC that has been purchased generally cannot be returned or traded. Features that used to be available as cheat codes (e.g. the ability to unlock all the characters), now require payment in some games. Other content is seemingly trivial – one notably contentious and widely mocked item was the 2006 “Horse Armor” DLC for Bethseda’s 2006 role-playing game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. As a purely cosmetic item for a seldom-used non-character, it added no gameplay value, yet cost 200 Microsoft Points (US$2.50).

More recently, major publisher Electronic Arts and developer BioWare have come under much criticism for their decision to release a paid DLC pack on the release day of the game it was made for. Priced at 800 BioWare points ($13), the 600+MB “From Ashes” DLC for Mass Effect 3 added an additional mission and character (of great significance canon-wise, but minor in terms of the game’s plot) to your in-game squad. Further furore erupted when it was discovered that a portion of the character’s content was on the disc, leading some to believe that they were paying for content that was already included with the game.

Despite the criticism, the amount of money that is able to be made for providing this content is far too large for publishers and developers to simply ignore. And with the consumer-driven desire for fresh content, the wide availability of high-speed internet connections and easy methods of online payment, it is a trend that can only continue to grow.

Joseph Wang is Twitter: @jowoseph