Today’s post is written by Ellyndrial from the Cat Context Podcast and ThatAngryDwarf.
I’ve written before about my dislike of the current state of monetization in games (and I’m sure there are some F2P rants floating around – if not on my blog, then at least in my friends’ ears, or on the podcast), but today’s topic is something that is a little bit trickier. It’s an area that is a little tricky because it seems like something that is beneficial to us, as gamers. But… is it? Is it really? Let’s start with a story.
Recently, I actually went to an honest-to-god brick-and-mortar store to pick up a copy of Bioshock Infinite (because I decided I wanted to play it that night, and didn’t want to wait for Amazon to deliver it – I’m only human!). While I was at this unnamed Stop on my drive that sells Games, the dude behind the counter tried to sell me the season pass. For only another $20, I could get all this TOTALLY SWEET CONTENT (that nobody knows about or has seen, yet), and by god, that content would be worth ALMOST THIRTY WHOLE DOLLARS. That’s like, a huge savings (note: it’s not)! For content that was almost certainly planned out well in advance of the game’s release, but then not included with the game itself. Or, in some cases – ME3, I’m looking at you SO HARD – it is included, right there on the disc. Just, you know, behind a handy-dandy paywall.
So, DLC. Everyone likes it, right? It takes a game that you like and makes it better! It adds new maps, and new… whatevers… hooray! And all it costs is a few dollars! So it seems like an easy purchase. But is it really making the game better? Or is it just a bunch of bullshit filler that replaces something that we always used to get (complete games and/or sizable expansions) with something that is cheaper to produce, bad for us, and tastes worse? (But is more profitable!) Obviously, I think it’s the latter. At least in the general sense.
And that’s how we generally see high fructose corn syrup as a food additive – an cheap way to sweeten things (that very often shouldn’t be sweetened) so that they “taste good”, but contain as few actual nutrients as required by law. That way, we can all continue to gobble up their delicious, delicious shit while our bodies fail to react to the overwhelming amount of easily digestible sugars and then we get fat and die. Except it’s all good because we saved a few dollars on our grocery bill and some farming megacorps earned a few extra percentage points of profit. I’m sure the good folks over at SweetSurprise.com would have some TOTALLY UNBIASED facts, but I trust their version of the story almost as much as I believe EA when it tells me most people actually totally love freemium games. Which, one can surmise, is not very much.
“But, Mr. Dwarf! What if I like getting new content for games I enjoy?”
Well so do I, honestly. There are a lot of games that I come back to again and again. There are a lot of games that I buy DLC (and even Season Passes) for. And there are other games that I wish had been longer and/or explored additional story points. I don’t even necessarily want this sort of thing to go away. But as it becomes the norm, I find myself asking why it has to exist for every single game.
Because the problem is that DLC is inherently exploitative. The pricing structure leverages what psychologists call the Foot-in-the-door technique – a process by which one person asks another for something small and safe at first, subsequently ratcheting up the level of commitment required. We’ve probably all experienced this in one form or another. “Hey, can you help me out with this quest? … Oh, there’s this other thing I need to do, can you stay for that, too? … How about running an instance or two?” Selling you on the initial game ends up being as much about getting you to commit to all the up-sales and DLCs that come out over the next year as they are about the game itself.
This, then, changes the underlying value proposition of any purchase. When you buy a game that is known to have DLC coming out (and, let’s be honest, most games these days do), it is incredibly hard to actually know what the “real” price of the game is going to be. When I decide that I want to buy Bioshock Infinite, am I going to be spending the $60 on the box? Or am I immediately – possibly before I even finish paying – going to be asked to spend $80? Or warned that – hey, you might miss out and have to pay $90! And what does that Season Pass even cover? In the case of Borderlands 2, the Season Pass doesn’t even cover all of the DLC. It nominally covers the 4 “campaign” DLCs, but then it also included the recent Ultimate Vault Hunter (playthrough 3) DLC – but it excludes both additional characters and a ton of random cosmetic options. How much do I have to pay if I just want the whole game? Is buying the “whole” game even a notion that exists, anymore?
Now, if DLC is attached to a “normal” price-worthy game, but that game is sold at a discount (say, $40 plus a $20 Season Pass), then this tactic would still be tricksy. But at least, once we fell for it, we’d have ended up paying what we expected for the game based on market standards. And, honestly, if publishers really think their game is worth an $80 or $90 or $100 price tag, why not ask me for that much money up-front? At least that way, I can make the decision on whether I agree with that assessment or not.
And that’s really my issue, in the end. When we buy a game, what are we getting? Are we getting the complete game, the way it is intended to be played? Or are we just getting a game-like product, cheapened by the intentional exclusion of nutritional content, created this way just to save some money and/or sell it back to us at an undisclosed date for an undisclosed price?
Also, why the hell does my yogurt have so much corn in it?
Note: For more on pricing strategies and other psychological phenomena as they relate to gaming, I highly recommend following The Psychology of Video Games. See, specifically this post and this post.