The allure of videogame add-ons
The fact that he looks like a man reincarnated from a slightly confused squirrel is facetious of me to point out, but his ability to find and plant ideas like acorns only to forget where he put them later on, is uncanny. A man of many tall tales, Molyneux is now promising to change the life of one person through his social media ‘experiment’ for PC and iOS. The experiment, tantalizingly monikered Curiosity, asks players to join together to chisel away at a floating, virtual black box. The contributor who delivers the crowning strike will be the only person to witness the cube’s clandestine innards.
It’s maybe a bit too eccentric to start thinking outside the box about the inside of a box, but as a regular benefactor of high concept (often with low payoff) wares, we shouldn’t have expected any less from Molyneux and his new studio 22Cans. Eyebrows were only genuinely raised about the already quite confusing project when it was revealed that chisel upgrades would be available as downloadable content. 69p upgrades are one thing, but when £50,000 grants one lucky (deranged?) individual the coveted, infinitely more durable, diamond chisel to deliver strikes that are 100,000 times as effective as the regular, standard utensil, one has to ask: is this one content download too far?
Molyneux rationalizes the princely add-on as being a “test about the psychology of monetization”, but unfortunately his normally infectious moxy doesn’t hold water on this occasion. The fact that it has taken such a staggeringly anomalous example as this to highlight the increasingly devious monetization of add-on content within the industry is symbolic of a much wider issue concerning the value and cost of downloadable content.
Much of this economic model is built on the idea that the lustful materialism of your average gamer knows no bounds. This also taps into the belief that videogames are to be completed rather than simply played or experienced, and is a concept gamers have been conditioned to accept since even before Mario grabbed the top of his first flagpole. And so the logic goes: If there is more to complete or more items which aid this quest surely this only serves to make the game better?
This obsessive compulsive behavior drives the internal logic of some of the finest videogames ever created, but its wider effect is troubling. Promotional materials that define collectors editions of games as somehow being more complete than the ‘vanilla’ offerings is often a disingenuous marketing ploy, but in some cases this has become an actuality.
Downloadable content falls into one of two categories: gameplay or story. Gameplay is a wider field. Whether it’s a multiplayer map, a new game mode or a piece of in-game ephemera like a Final Fantasy costume for your customizable Sackboy. Of the most heinous examples the most exorbitant single piece of downloadable content isn’t Molyneux’s outrageous pickaxe. No, that honour goes to the significantly more affordable, but still inexplicably overpriced in-app purchases in EA’s ‘freemium’ Theme Park for iOS. The equivalent of $60 for a single ride? Who’s really being taken for a ride here? While we’re on the subject of EA, does anyone really need subscription-based DLC for Tetris?
Collectors/Special/Ultimate editions tend to offer DLC bonuses in a complete package, boasting that their premium content is the absolute experience. But, the fact is that these bonuses offered are, as in the case of Theme Park, features that games from previous console generations would have included as on-disc unlockables or simply standard content. Dead Rising 2: Off the Record and Saints Row 3 have even monitised cheat codes. Now it seems that even archaic functions that are almost extinct from the modern gaming landscape are ripe for profit rather than a throwaway gimmick included by cheeky developers.
DLC is now an inextricable part of the gaming landscape, just ask Sam Ghera the father who found out his twelve year old son had ‘accidentally’ spent £1150 on extra content in just six months (including Call of Duty, an 18 rated game, but more on that subject next time). As a concept DLC presents a videogaming utopia, a continuous post-launch expansion of your favourite games. Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV expansions were prime examples of fulfilled potential that DLC offers by being comprehensive, varied and offering new content that both expanded and improved on the original game. While it may be the value of the content rather than the literal price of expansions which need renegotiating, the real burning issue is with additional content that isn’t additional at all.
On-disc DLC has been described as many things by videogamers, most unprintable here, but the industry’s stance is still fairly mixed. Leading developers like CliffyB have described on-disc DLC as a “necessary evil”, while others, like Tekken producer Katsuhiro Harada, have distanced themselves from it. The fact remains however, that it exists and has been shamelessly profligated by publishers out to make an extra profit on content that already exists on the game disc.
If DLC is comparable to an EP in the music world or maybe a director’s cut when thinking of film, on what basis can we compare on-disc DLC? Imagine a DVD with a scene missing or an LP with a song being omitted from the release despite both having the data present on their respective media copies. While digital media offers different economic models for distribution and consumption, in the realms of physical media there is simply no excuse for locked-content as the payment is then just for a minuscule download key that gives you access to files and content you’ve technically already purchased.
As long as gamers accept the inflated prices for superfluous content (on or off disc) the model will endure. In the end, if Peter and his diamond chisel do find a buyer, it will at least say something about the psychology of its audience.Tagged in: add-ons, Curiosity, downloadable content, gaming, Molyneux, upgrades, videogames
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