Monday, September 6, 2010

Quantity Over Quality: The Plight of DLC

Before five days ago, I had been planning this entry for months and months with a very distinct tone swirling around in my noggin: I was going to attack game developers and publishers for trying to nickel and dime consumers as a ploy to try and recoup some of their losses pertaining to their increased, unpaid hours as a result of the corporate greed above them. Still following? Good. That was five days ago, and like any open-minded person, one fell swoop can completely alter a state of mind. Yeah, I’m referring to Dead Rising 2: Case Zero, the new Downloadable “episode” from Capcom.

Dead Rising 2: Case Zero works as a prequel to the upcoming sequel, released one month between one another, introducing the main character and his once-bitten little daughter as they trek across the Nevada desert in search for a lasting cure to her infection.

The “demo” teaches you the basics regarding the changes in the game’s computer AI when hauling survivors from one location to the next, the emphasis on searching for a temporary solution for zombification in Zombrex--a hot commodity that will keep the protagonist’s daughter from turning into the walking dead--and an introduction to a handful of weapon combinations to showcase one of the retail title’s selling points. (A kayak paddle with two chainsaws strapped on both ends? Uh, hell yes?)

On top of all of this, your stats and bonuses carry over into the full game. What is not advertised, however, is how cleverly this so-called demo sets you up—and more importantly, pumps you up—to play the full-fledged retail game. I’m practically bouncing on my hands in anticipation to get my hands on the full game; if this game truly is a demo instead of a separate experience, it works better than any demo before it.

Let’s argue why Case Zero is not a demo. Well, that’s the easiest argument in this entire entry: it’s not a demo because it is a separate piece of gaming from Dead Rising 2. It’s a full area that you cannot access in that game, full of characters that you will (likely) not see in that game. Where Dead Rising 2 takes place in Las Vegas, Case Zero takes place in the tiny Route 66-esque town of Still Creek. There are twelve unique achievements tied to this so-called demo, complete with its own boss encounter. This, readers, is Downloadable Content, a game add-on like you would normally purchase after the fact.

Now, you can make an argument regarding whether or not this can be considered nickel and diming considering the game that the DLC has reached the open market prior to the retail game’s launch. “If it’s done a full month before the game comes out, why isn’t it on the disc?” some may wonder. This is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.

For instance, I have grown stale of demos. I usually find myself wasting time playing a semi-polished portion of a game that I will have to stroll through again once the game arrives on store shelves, like some strange déjà vu experience. Due to this, demos seem like a waste of my precious time, like I’m watching the first 15 minutes of a movie three weeks before it hits theaters. I would rather experience the complete film at once rather than broken into pieces.

Keiji Inafune feels the same, telling IGN in a recent interview he “didn't want to go down the boring route of cutting out a part of the game and letting players play for free, and then, if they like it and buy the game, they have to play through that bit again as well. I think that business model is really boring.” I feel the same way, so kudos to Inafune-san for understanding the plight of the current market.

In the case of Case Zero, it showcases everything that it needs to, sans gorgeous visuals, without repeating itself on launch day. Furthermore, I don’t feel like I’m wasting time since I’m working towards gaining levels and collectible Combo and Scratch Cards for unique weapon combinations. Case Zero successfully sold me on Dead Rising 2, cranking my excitement from a 7 to a 9, in a matter of hours.

Where Mass Effect 2's DLC mostly felt like leftovers, Case Zero is a tasty appetizer entirely unique to the main course, whetting the appetite for the delicious brains to be unveiled later in the month. You could say that aforementioned one fell swoop was me falling in love with the concept of DLC once more.

Pessimists, however, would say that fall was one from grace, and I’m falling right into the pocket of Capcom in their “latest catastrophe” of “charging for demos.” If they’re adamant about it, they likely will see the game through rage-soaked glasses, purposefully ignoring the good qualities something like this can provide just to remain solidified on their side of the debate.

Case Zero is an interesting experiment in its own right, and a unique case, indeed. I’m a little afraid that developers will make a great discovery for the DLC concept only to have it misconstrued and transformed into something sinister by their publishers; there’s no doubt that this is not the next evolution of gaming, as demos have been around for the longest time now, but it could be that next big thing that gets warped into something demented by those bigwigs gripping at thin air for dollars.

But within this mini-review, I’m here to explain why my stance on Downloadable Content has shifted slightly, providing a neutral stance while tight-roping the fine line between corporate greed and consumerist exceptionalism.

My time with Downloadable Content has been a bit of a rollercoaster. The beginnings of the movement had the potential to bring full new worlds to life; a developer could launch a long-anticipated game and work on additional content for, seemingly, years to come. This could provide a long-lasting relationship between the consumer and the developer, especially for cases such as Halo, Call of Duty and Gears of War—in other words, games that deserve the continued support of their creators, as the fans will keep playing those games continually enough to make them mainstays in Xbox Live’s Top 10 for online activity.

Much like politics, when the potential seems genuine and promising, the reality soon settles in underneath the good intentions and well-meanings, those sweet fruits of labor seem to all turn into bitter lemons.

One of the first pieces of DLC to hit the Marketplace was Horse Armor to protect your steed in Oblivion, a not-so-carefully disguised ploy to make gamers a little bit better at the game, folks who wanted instant gratification without all of the grinding. It was the first of a series of appalling acts within the industry to change the potential of DLC from the promise of prolonging a favorite game to a valve that pumps blood into the heart of corporate swindle.

Soon after, we saw thousands of Microsoft Points worth the costumes in the wrestling game Rumble Roses XX. No longer could you merely unlock an alternate costume by playing a game inside-out, you had to outright purchase it. In order to purchase all of these costumes, you would have to spend 6960 Microsoft Points—nearly $90 in digital currency.

Namco intentionally “locked out” a handful of stages in their Xbox 360 iteration of the Katamari series, Beautiful Katamari. After purchasing around $20 in stages, an instant-click download would occur, meaning the stages were already on the disc and intentionally withheld from the consumer. These are two of the best examples of the “nickel and diming” that many on the anti-DLC side can point to.

On the side of unlockables, I believe there can be a fair balance with two tiers of unlockables: one half that requires the utmost skill, and the other half, which can be unlocked via determination or the optional digital currency payoff. Frankly, if I see a player decked out in tough unlockable garb, I know that guy has earned it; at the same time, the lower-tier unlockables can be picked by folks like me with lesser talent at games or outright bought by the saps who are even worse than I--if they even exist in the first place.

This would be a good balance and keep everyone (mostly) satisfied. The same concept could be blended into the mix for stage unlocks and the like. Thankfully, the experiences with publisher have been few and far between ever since early 2008 with this sort of stuff, but new issues have risen.

In Madden 2010, you cannot create a stellar player without paying real money to unlock the ability to concoct a Pro Bowl-type football star. On the opposite end, Sony’s MLB the Show ’10 has read my mind and offered players the ability to plow through way through the minor leagues or outright purchase attribute points, giving two paths to a single destination. EA, take note: this is the proper way to nickel and dime. I can eventually have an All-Star third baseman in MLB the Show ’10 without ever dropping a cent into the game, so my back is not against the wall with aggressive--and frankly, revolting--money-grubbing schemes.

But is this a new concept? For years, players have bought and sold high-level accounts in online games such as Diablo II and World of Warcraft, complete with the best armor and weaponry that the game has crafted, on online auction sites such as eBay. Is this not the same concept that games such as MLB the Show ’10 are now providing, a shortcut to being a great player for a price? The only difference is the people who have their hands in the creation of the game are the ones receiving the money instead of the twentysomething kid with no other means of income.

No, this is not the DLC that has plagued my level of interest in the industry’s buckling trend, as it seems like no game can be socially accepted these days without the promise of support after release; it’s almost becoming a taboo in the industry to not support add-on expansions for every game your development team dips their hands into.

This is not a new concept in the gaming industry, as popular IPs such as The Sims, Elder Scrolls, and Diablo are a short list of large titles to support expansion packs in the past. But this begs the question, is every game worthy of downloadable episodes or add-ons? The sad fact is that I spent just as much money on DLC in the past nine months as I have retail games, with the entire Fallout DLC package running at the suggested retail price of a brand new game altogether upon its release.

All of this said, there are definitely positive applicable uses of DLC in the spectrum; a game like Little Big Planet benefits from having additional building packages themed from other IPs, such as their Metal Gear Solid package containing stickers and themed-building blocks. Why is this such a good use of DLC? Because only a small percentage of Little Big Planet players actually build enough stages to warrant the optional purchase of more tools to use when crafting their imagination’s playhouse.

With the upcoming and previously talked about Mortal Kombat due in 2011, the developers will have the option of crafting all-new characters to drop into the mold of the game long after they’ve finished the product, catering to the hardcore fans of the series without sacrificing roster space for the casuals who purchase the game. So long as those new fighters can be used against players who have not purchased them, this is a viable exploration of downloadable endeavors. Another interesting twist could be if the ESRB clips some of the more brutal Fatalities from the game, they could eventually pop up in DLC down the line.

Most developers are big supporters of providing DLC to their titles. Noteworthy standouts for games due over the course of the next 16 months include NetherRealm Studios, the team putting together the latest iteration of Mortal Kombat, and Dave Jaffe, the creator of Twisted Metal and God of War, who plans to aggressively support DLC upon the release of the next Twisted Metal entry.

Jaffe, in particular, spears through the heart of the opposition of downloadable goods. He has stated many times on his Twitter account (DavidScottJaffe) that he believes the consumer should not feel nickel and dimed so long as they feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth out of their $59.99 retail purchase. Of course, Jaffe also believes most Pixar movies are ho-hum visual spectacles, so we can take his opinions with a grain of salt (I kid, of course).

The man brings up a good point, albeit one that is incredibly tough to judge; just where is this tiniest of thin lines where it becomes a half-baked attempt by a developer and/or publisher to get a few extra bucks, and where does it tread over into a bunch of complaining, greedy gamers endlessly chanting for more, more, more?

I feel this isn’t the main problem in the first place, though I will more often than not side with the developer in these cases; DLC is optional, and at the heart of my argument, just not as good as the games it is supposed to complement. To delve into my general problem with DLC is to look at games such as Borderlands and Mass Effect 2, two very good, albeit different, games that offer a long-lasting, 20+ hour adventure where you feel as if you’ve, as Jaffe put it, gotten your money’s worth.

Being a big fan of Mass Effect 2, I blindly downloaded the first two DLC add-ons released for each one. To quote one of the developers of the new Mortal Kombat, from his Blogspot account, “[DLC] lets those of us who really enjoyed a game get even MORE of the game without having to wait years for a sequel.” I initially agreed with this statement. Seeing as how I have agreed with both cited developers in the past two paragraphs, how could I disagree at this point?

What I soon learned after downloading and playing the first two Mass Effect 2 add-on packs was that there’s a reason I think of that game as the frontrunner for Game of the Year: it was meticulously worked on day in and day out for several years. The amount of polish in the storytelling, presentation, and the subtle nuances such as random dialogue between your party members of choice makes the game feel above the competition in even the best years of gaming. All of this, however, is lacking in the DLC.

Upon coaxing gamers into buying the title brand new instead of used, EA promised consumers free downloadable content on a continued basis for Mass Effect 2. Since then, we’ve seen around three times the amount of pay content by comparison of the free stuff—a new character completely lacking the communication function and a sad excuse for a Mako replacement.

Even the good Mass Effect 2 download content has its glaring faults; the minimal dialogue issued by Commander Shepard and zero dialogue uttered by your mimes... pardon me, support characters, is about the most obvious omission in a game as character development-heavy as Mass Effect.

Certainly, I adore Mass Effect 2. I’ve played games professionally long enough to understand that when a game like it comes along, it’s solidified top shelf honors at the Game of the Year roundtables in the industry. So why tarnish something so noteworthy by releasing something so insignificant to prolong it? Has DLC really become the re-releases of the Star Wars Trilogy? Adding additional scenes for the sake of adding them, with minimal quality control to grasp the situation?

My biggest problem with DLC is the fact that, more often than not, it fails to live up to what is on the disc, likely due to the rat race of getting additional content out there for the sake of saying you support the DLC platform itself instead of the game you’re supposed to represent. If there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s inconsistency—especially when it’s such a stark contrast from the Mass Effect 2 disc content to the downloadable content.

Of course, it looks like what I have to say in this matter is but a whisper in a crowded convention center full of gaming executives, producers, developers, and above all, consumers who disagree with my assessment. Huh, so that’s what it feels like to be deemed insignificant. Maybe—just maybe--this 2800 word blog entry will melt the icy heart of an economic growth-devouring executive... or be used as their toilet tissue.


1 comment:

  1. Another Great read Zoop, I agree.

    I firmly support DLC if it's priced correctly and don't give you an advantage over other players. Paying $5 for something another would have to complete the game on the hardest difficulty for, for example, is just plain greedy for the developers. Where's the fun in earning different armor and such if you always know that another person could've just bought it in a matter of seconds?