If you look at how Video Games were sold 20 years ago, you’d be able to see how drastically different things are now compared to the past. It used to be simple; developers build a game for people to enjoy and they sell it for an upfront price that depreciates over time depending on the reception that the game receives. Critically acclaimed releases held their value for longer than games that don’t do so well in reviewers hands. Whilst the price depreciation rings true nowadays, developers and publishers have found a way around the issue over the course of the last 20 years. This solution comes in the form of Downloadable Content and Microtransactions.
The change began gradually. Downloadable content was a method of providing more content to a game that had already released. This was popular among players who were big fans of certain games where new content would be welcome to enable them to continue playing the games that they knew and loved. These “expansion packs” came with a price, of course, but players were willing to pay extra for them because it added new content to their favourite games for a relatively low expense. They used to be priced at around $30, which was reasonable given the amount of content that they provided. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind had 2 expansion packs released after the launch of the base game: Tribunal and Blood Moon. These added brand new characters, enemies, quests, items and world spaces to the game which provided hours of new gameplay to play through. The average price for an expansion like this would be around $20, which is very reasonable given the amount of content that each expansion adds. Some developers and publishers still stand by this model. EA DICE’s Battlefield titles usually release with 10 multiplayer maps at launch and then more maps comes later down the line in the form of DLC Expansion Packs, each one containing an extra 4 maps and including new weapons, gadgets and assignments. These are priced at $15 each or can be purchased in advance for $60. Once all expansions are released, this means that in order to purchase the game in its entirety with all of its expansions, players have to fork out $120, the equivalent of two full titles. This might sound steep, but for players who play the game extensively, it’s fairly reasonable. Because of this DLC model, games have become much more expensive over the years. Battlefield 2 contained 24 maps and cost $80 with all of its DLC. The upcoming Battlefield 1 release (confusing naming scheme, I know) will contain 26 maps with all of its DLC and costs $120 to access all of it. If you look at it from a price per map perspective, Battlefield 2 costs roughly $3.33 per map whereas Battlefield 1 costs roughly $4.62. That’s almost 40% more expensive. Even when you factor inflation into the cost, it’s still evident that the rise of DLC has resulted in the prices of complete experiences increasing dramatically.
Whilst DLC has its place within the industry, there is also DLC that can be perceived in a negative way. This is the DLC that is implemented with the specific intention to wring as much profit out of a title as possible with little consideration for players. This DLC usually comes in the form of “Day One” DLC, or DLC that is developed before the game is even released. “Day One” DLC is where a game is released and immediately has extra content that can be purchased. Mass Effect 3 did this. There was controversy when the game first released as content was found on the install disc that wasn’t accessible to the player unless they paid a fee. This caused outrage as many players believe that everything on the install disc that they buy should be accessible as that’s what they have paid for. There is the argument that all DLC should be free; that all content developed for a game should be included within the $60 that is paid for the title at launch, and that all of the content developed for a game before it is released should be included with said game. This is where there is some grey area with DLC, because DLC map packs for games like Battlefield and Call of Duty are put into development way before the game is ever released, and yet these types of DLC content is perceived to be beneficial to both players and developers.
There are also developers and publishers that have adopted a different monetisation method. Instead of releasing expansion packs for a large sum, they instead release smaller bundles of content in large quantities for a smaller price. These are known as “Micro-transactions”. They could take the form of customisation options or they could be for ingame currency packs. For example, in Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, you can buy weapon skins that change how the weapons look ingame for $2. You can purchase in game currency for Grand Theft Auto V which can then get you new vehicles and weapons within the game. This ingame currency can be earned by playing the game normally, but purchasing currency with real life money speeds up the process and removes the “grind” that you otherwise have to go through. The prices for this range from $3 all the way up to $20.
So which method is better? DLC? Microtransactions? Both? Neither? The truth is that both of these methods have their benefits. DLC content like expansions for RPGs and Map Packs for online shooters are able to provide a reasonable amount of extra content to players who want more from their favourite games, and yet this can split a community into multiple pieces. Players who can’t afford expansions for their RPGs often feel as though they are missing out. This is proven by my research where I asked 20 people who play Video Games frequently whether they feel as though they are missing out when they don’t buy DLC expansions. 55% of them said that they would feel as though they were missing out. Players who buy map packs for online shooters eventually end up not being able to play the content properly as server player counts begin to empty over time. There are workarounds for this; the price of expansions for RPGs will eventually decrease over time meaning that players might be able to afford the content at some point down the road, and map packs are sometimes offered out for free once the player count begins to dwindle so low that it become financially beneficial to release the extra content for free. But then that introduces a whole new controversy, like is it fair to charge players money for something that will inevitably become free later down the line?
Microtransactions, whilst irritating when implemented badly (when players are able to pay money to give them a competitive advantage ingame), when implemented non intrusively, microtransactions can work wonders for a game. Take GTA V as an example. In game cash can be bought with real life money, and this cash can then be used to buy more powerful vehicles, better properties and more expensive weaponry in the game, but none of these give the player any competitive advantage ingame. This steady flow of income that comes from the microtransactions enables the developers to create more substantial content like new races and vehicles. These can then be introduced to the game for free. Overwatch has a similar system where players can buy Loot Boxes for a price. These provide the player with cosmetic items that don’t have any effect on their performance ingame. The money generated from these microtransaction sales are then put towards developing new maps and modes that are introduced to the game for free. So Microtransactions are not all bad when implemented correctly.
The hard fact is that DLC and Micro-transactions are incredibly profitable. An earnings report from EA for 2015 showed that $1,300,000,000 of their revenue came from DLC and Microtransactions alone. This accounted for more than half of their total revenue for the entire year, so if these types of monetisation were to simply disappear, then developers and publishers would earn a lot less. In turn, this could have an impact on the quality and quantity of the games that ultimately get made. With less money, games have to be either much smaller or much less ambitious to keep costs down. So maybe, DLC and Micro-transactions aren’t as bad as some people make them out to be. As long as the way that DLC and Micro-transactions is not intrusive and doesn’t exploit the player, then more money going to the developers can only be a good thing as it not only provides players with the content that they want, but it also advances the industry forward as more money is invested in more ambitious projects like new gameplay concepts and rendering engines.