Should It Be Free? The Video Game Economy and the Cost of DLC

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(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Remember when we were kids and gaming was a much different experience? We played games like ExciteBike and Mike Tyson’s Punchout on the original NES, and maybe even Streetfighter at the arcade. Some of these games, although visually simplistic by today’s standards, were truly challenging to go through and beat. You had to have impeccable timing to beat Tyson, but many of us could make it look easy. Today, things are so different. Gaming has evolved beyond entering a game cartridge into your system and having all of the game’s available content right there on that one cartridge (except for maybe a code that’ll help you out a bit.) Today, we can purchase a video game or even obtain a game free of charge, but only receive a portion of all that game has to offer. The rest, well, that comes in the form of downloadable content (DLC), of course. From additional characters, to outfits, to weapons and armor, to bonus levels, DLC comes in many forms. Some games (like Titanfall) allow us to earn game money instead of (or in addition to) buying in-game currency. But with advantages that can help us through a level in our favorite games potentially costing 100,000 or so coins or cards, we’re inclined to occasionally shell out a few bucks to buy these in-game perks. Some games draw a distinction between in-game purchased currency and earned currency, and you can only buy certain items with each. A lot of free-to-play games, like Dust 514, have different pay-currency and earned in-game currencies. Read more9 Video Games for Alternative Summer ‘Beach Reading’ Whether an in-game currency comes in the form of coins, cards, or something else, it can cost us some serious cash for things that we generally didn’t have to pay for 20 years ago.

What are some pros and cons?

Perhaps the biggest benefit to DLC is longevity. While it was exciting and challenging to get to the end of a game on NES or Sega Genesis and finally beat that last challenge (whether it was getting through the maze in level 8-4 on the original Mario or finally getting through the skull dungeon in The Legend of Zelda), once it was over, it was over. Sure, you could replay the game, but the thrill was gone for the most part. DLC can make a game experience last much longer. The DLC in Batman Arkham City, for instance, allowed us to play the game as Catwoman instead of Batman, providing another 12 or so hours of game play. Sometimes, with games like Diablo III, we can play the game several times on various levels of difficulty using different characters. The downloadable gear makes for an all around better experience. On the other hand, there are also those games that go overboard, and the concept of downloading bonus content to enhance the game experience is transformed into a pay-to-win type setup. Very few gamers truly enjoy those experiences. They’re frustrating, and games are supposed to be fun and relaxing. Other games take it too far and make certain content DLC — like certain levels, patches, or things you actually need in the game — that just don’t belong as DLC. Read more: 5 Successful Video Game Developers That Delved Into Mobile Apps A report by the Worcester Polytechnic Institute examines the controversy around downloadable content. “There is a lot of criticism around DLC, why it’s released, how and why it’s developed, and whether DLC is really adding new content or is merely unlocking content on the disk. Microsoft has taken the brunt of the criticism around DLC because of their points system on Xbox Live and their notoriety for holding back developer content in order to turn it into purchasable DLC later. The Microsoft point system requires that Xbox Live users must first buy Microsoft Points in predetermined amounts and then use some of the points to buy DLC,” it reads. Another disadvantage is, of course, the cost of this content.

How much are we spending?

Depending on the type of content, an in-game bonus can cost anywhere between $1 and upwards of $50. The Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Season Pass costs around $50, but it offers all four of the game’s map packs, plus you get an in-game calling card and a bonus map. Two games from the Call of Duty series — Ghosts and Block Ops 2 – were among the top ten best selling video games of 2013, and many gamers shelled out the money for the pass. Read more: Against Digital Market, Every Gamer’s Favorite Store Stands Strong Even those who aren’t willing to spend large amounts may make a purchase of a dollar or two here and there for additional levels or a new weapon. As time goes on and buying DLC becomes the new norm, it seems as though we’re becoming more comfortable with these purchases. “I would spend $60 on a game disk, so downloading it for free and spending $20 unlocking content isn’t that bad,” we may think to ourselves. Or, “the deluxe edition is a good deal, because I would have to pay for all of this extra content,” we say to ourselves. Each year, we’re spending less on physical format gaming items and more on digital items. In 2010, 71 percent of our spending was on physical format items and 29 percent was on digital items. Last year, 47 percent was on physical format items and 53 percent was on digital format purchases. Last year, we spent roughly $15.4 billion on gaming content (of all types), and a combined total of around $6.2 billion on gaming hardware and accessories, according to the Entertainment Software Association. What does the future hold? So 20 years ago, we were simply entering cartridges into consoles and playing games without having to be too concerned about whether or not the game had all of the characters, weapons, or storyline available for us to beat the game. Our primary concern was whether or not we had the skill level needed to win. What about 20 years from now? A PBS publication reports on its predictions, and they actually make a lot of sense. “The future of gaming will not be all that different than the future of any other form of entertainment. As the masses of players determine what they want to get out of gaming, large corporations will throw their money and workforce into providing it … Just like with television, we’ll have to take the good with the bad. As more 18- to 34-year-olds check out of network television and check into gaming, marketers will go after that valuable consumer demographic. Product placement may become so abundant in games that NASCAR will look like NPR in comparison. Play a driving game and you’ll see familiar landmarks: the Shell gas station on the corner, the McDonald’s on Main Street, the Budweiser billboards near highway exits. “With games’ ever-growing online components, game companies will also try to create massive shared experiences online. They’ll launch “must see” events in an attempt to draw millions of players online simultaneously … It’s feasible that millions of people will soon compete in a virtual world for the right to become Donald Trump’s Apprentice … Some [ideas] will be genius. Others will be reprehensible.”

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