Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 2, 2010
I think the first-ever commercial “expansion” I ever bought for a game was Wing Commander: The Secret Missions. Followed soon thereafter by The Secret Missions 2: Crusade. It was a novel concept that I was all too ready to get behind. I mean, when you really love a game, at the end you want more. Wing Commander was that game for me. I lost count of how many times I replayed that game, but I do know that around my third full play-through I won the highest medal the game had to offer.
And here were two expansions. Each seemed only a little shorter than the original campaign. Between them, I got to fight new enemy ships, fought “friendly” ships (captured by the Kilrathi), and the chance to fly the signature enemy ship, the Dralthi (AKA the “Flying Pancake”). But mainly, the feeling was that I got to enjoy a lot more game for half-price or less with each expansion.
The next expansions I played were either for Wing Commander 2 (Special Operations) or The Forge of Virtue for Ultima VII. Origin, again. I can’t say they truly pioneered the idea – I’m really not certain on the mainstream / commercial side of things, and I played non-commercial “expansions” or “modules” for games years earlier in games like Eamon. But for gamers like me who really loved the game and couldn’t get more of it, it made sense for the developers to assign a “skeleton crew” to expand the experience for us.
Then at one point (probably about 0.5 seconds after they decided to create an expansion in the first place), they hit upon the idea of re-releasing the game bundled with all of its expansions. Sometimes they might even throw in an extra new bonus or two, like a band’s “Best Of” album, for the gold / platinum / collector’s edition. New players, after hearing praise for the game for months (or years), could jump in on the bundle deal, and even some veteran players would re-purchase the game with all updates and patches pre-applied, and all the expansions in place.
That era’s not gone by a longshot, but the advent of downloadable content (DLC) sure has changed things a bit. Although DLC often still gets bundled up into a single expansion or deluxe edition (which I hope to see happen with Fallout: New Vegas on the PC), it does seem that the expansion concept has been cranked up to eleven. I have nothing against the theory, but I have found myself taking exception with the particulars that seem common:
#1 – It feels like we’re paying more to get less. The most famous example of this was the early “Horse Armor” DLC for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but it hasn’t stopped there. Part of the problem is that very small transactions tend to have a higher overhead cost than bigger ones – a problem somewhat solved by consoles, which have you buy “points” in bulk.
#2 – The tiny bite-size of expansions themselves is some cause for concern. When they are that small, is it easy to “miss it?” because they are so narrow in focus? Will I have to replay my game to enjoy the expansion? With larger expansions, that’s rarely been a problem, as they historically tried to make sure there was something for everyone to enjoy at any point in the game. The plus side of this a la carte approach is that like buying individual songs instead of albums, you don’t have to pay for things you don’t want.
#3 – An excess of these “micro-expansions” makes things really confusing. I’m really glad I bought the “ultimate edition” of Dragon Age: Origins to enjoy all the expansions… otherwise, there’s a very good chance I would have bought none of them.
#4 – An even more dangerous problem is that some games have felt that they were “unfinished” without the additional expansions. The more games try to market the DLC from inside the game, the more they will feel that way. The perception is that they ripped off parts from the original game in order to sell them as extras. Like a car salesman saying, “Oh, did you want tires for you car TOO?” And while marketing the DLC from inside the game like that might be a more successful short-term approach, in the long term that eroded trust with the customer WILL hurt.
My apologies to those who have suffered me ranting on this in the past already.
I don’t think these are fundamental problems with DLC. At their heart, they are just expansions, and I’ve loved expansions. They are good for game-makers and for the players. I think the problems will eventually go away through plain ol’ Darwinism, but if I were to be so bold as to make some suggestions, as a customer:
#1 – For most games, be careful about overdoing it on the quantity of DLC. Players can do math. When they see that they’ll have to spend $200 to buy the “complete” game with all of the DLC, they’ll balk.
#2 – Offer free DLC. This is a good will gesture to players, first off. But besides that, free bonus DLC can be offered as extra incentive for buying other DLC. “Buy any one of these four content additions, and we’ll give you a free new dungeon to explore.” This may again go a long way to helping players feel like you aren’t just trying to nickel-and-dime them to death.
#3 – Be really, really careful about providing any premium content that apparently just “unlocks” parts of the game. To players like me, that means you are just charging extra for something we should have already received. Ditto for marketing DLC from inside the game. It’s not a flawed practice – Rock Band 3 seems to handle it pretty well – but it needs to be handled carefully so that the players don’t feel like they’ve been duped into buying an incomplete game.
#4 – Offer decent bundle deals, for crying out loud. Give players the option of buying new mecha for $3 a pop, or all twelve for $25. The bundle deals make a traditional-sized expansion. That can simplify the experience for gamers, AND increase the value-to-price ratio. And with the exception of the rabid fans who would have bought everything separately, the publishers will probably generate more revenue this way too, as players opt for a bigger purchase instead of a piecemeal approach.
#5 – Keep the prices down in general. Think about the value to the player. And don’t you DARE compare the cost of DLC to the price of going out to a movie. People are going to movies less because they are so friggin’ expensive as it is, but at least they go they get to be out of the house in some air-conditioned place with stadium seating and a big screen that can double as a social activity. Playing DLC at home is more like renting a video. I’m paying $16 a month for that, how about you? I guess the market will decide, but for me, paying $5 for 5 hours of quality additional gameplay would be a killer deal, but the same price for a new hat and boots would be ridiculous. When in doubt, err on the side of too cheap. More bang for the buck = repeat customers and a good attitude towards DLC in the long run.
Anyway, that’s my opinion, offered free of charge and no doubt worth every penny.
Filed Under: Biz, Mainstream Games - Comments: 10 Comments to Read