Sunday, October 2, 2011

The weird case of DLC

Reading this outraged (and not very persuasive) article on the subject of downloadable content, I found myself wondering what I personally think of the concept. For those of you who aren't total geeks, the idea is basically this: major video games rarely come out with all their content intact. Some of it is set aside, in advance, to sell to gamers later through digital distribution networks, usually for small fees (somewhere between $1.99 and $4.99). Nearly anything can be a candidate for sale as DLC, including additional characters, levels, costumes, horse armor, weapons, or stories. Often, in games like Fallout, you get a combination of all these things: a unique level with its own story that rewards you for your purchase and play with a unique, powerful weapon or equipment for the game. In Fallout 3, you might spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to earn the power armor upgrade. Or you might get the DLC that comes with power armor and an electric katana.

Horse armor!
The article linked above is an interesting example in the genre of gamers' confused responses to perceptions of "being ripped off." Development costs have expanded geometrically as game systems grow more powerful, but games themselves are about the same price or often actually a little cheaper, in real terms, compared to fifteen or twenty years ago. This is possible because the industry has expanded its user base. And making a successful game can indeed be immensely profitable. But the relentless entitlement of gamers is, well, unattractive. If DLC sells -- and it does -- then it's hard to see why game companies shouldn't make it. There seems to be a misconception at the heart of all this: that game companies are in the business of making art. For the most part, any art that they produce is incidental, and DLC is the proof. They are in the business of making money. Designers, programmers, artists, composers, etc. may be individually in the business of creating art, and a game is indeed art when its production is finished, but that doesn't mean that's what these companies do. These companies make money. I don't mean that as an indictment of "the system" or something. What I am saying is that smuggling emotionally powerful experiences through channels that compensate capital for their investment (and, furthermore, finance the creation of additional art) is where art comes from. But the more money you need to justify an investment, the more blah blah blah etc. You see where this is going.

Anyway, what seems to outrage players most is the growing awareness that extras are not really "extra," that they were always planned as part of the game's design and produced alongside the other, more canonical content. The most egregious example is when the "downloadable content" is, in fact, already on the game disk, simply waiting for an unlock key, which is what the gamer really buys. To be sure, the idea of paying for the ability to use some of the data for which I already paid is not exciting. And in fact I almost never buy DLC: I was raised with such an intense, defensive suspicion of anyone attempting to sell me anything that I have been known to destroy advertising materials within sight of the person who handed them to me. ("You didn't have to take it!" he said, of the flier I had crumpled. But so then why did he touch me with it.) But you can hardly expect these companies not to push every envelope as far as they can. It's not like they're killing baby seals or starving African babies. They are asking people with demonstrably disposable income to dispose it like so in exchange for something they clearly want. Meanwhile, an industry worth billions of dollars struggles mightily every day to entertain us. We tell them their efforts are shit even as we give them the billions of dollars. A relationship of mutual contempt is guaranteed by such weird transactions.

The thing is, it would be weird for an author to sell us a book one day, and then to offer us an opportunity to buy a "really fun chapter" or an intriguing new secondary character -- perhaps a romantic interest for the previously lonely lead. We might justifiably call that author an "asshole." This is based on the premise that a novel will not be released until it is finished -- until it is a satisfying, powerful, beautiful piece of art complete unto itself. This is not how most games work -- not the big ones. The undertaking of developing a triple-A game is so difficult, expensive, and time-consuming that the first entry into any franchise (and we are inevitably speaking of a "franchise") is necessarily a half-baked proof of concept, half-broken, half-interesting, half-beautiful, and, if it's lucky, charismatic enough to sell enough copies to finance the production of a second iteration on the core concept. And this one might even be pretty good! Big games are not art the way books are art. They can't be (yet).

You wouldn't sell a book without one of its key components, and games should not be sold without theirs if they want to be seen as art. And yet DLC is rarely, in a decent game, key to anything, and quite often throws balance. (Fallout 3 is particularly egregious in this respect: in the game proper, it takes tens of hours of effort to build a respectable arsenal. With a little bit of DLC it takes about one hour. And yet Fallout 3, the core experience, is a very good game in itself, even as it is also a failure, which is how I would describe most successful big-budget games.) When I feel betrayed by DLC, here is what I am really feeling:

I am angry that something I love so much is not really beautiful. I am angry that the developer is undermining my ability to convince myself otherwise by making such a hack move. I am wanting to believe that I can have a profound emotional experience with this game. When really, if that's going to  happen, then it will take place at the purely mechanical level -- in the joy of simulated ballistics, for instance -- or with a smaller, self-limited game with a defined mission and means.

You can't really do DLC for beautiful games like Ico or Shadow of the Colossus because they already have everything they need. Instead, Sony releases the equivalent of a Criterion edition. Other games can do DLC because they were always already incomplete. They were always already exciting, absorbing failures.

The funny thing is that a lot of gamers seem also outraged by DLC with no in-game function. But I've always taken such things as a good sign. Little Big Planet is one of the most complete, artistically satisfying games released in the last decade. (Though it's worth noting that, like many other artistically successful games of this period, it achieves that completion by soliciting player-created content, allowing the creativity of a few remarkable, uncompensated gamers to fill the gap between their vision and its completion.) Little Big Planet had a lot of DLC, but most of it was strictly cosmetic: cute outfits for your sackboy avatar. The fact that this didn't at all affect how the game played, that it was entirely cosmetic, was for me a kind of proof that the game believed in itself: that they were interested in the interactions of artists and art lovers, as well as those of sellers and happy buyers. The pure, simple commerce of buying an astronaut outfit for your sackboy is far preferable to the weirdness of more typical DLC.

But DLC doesn't outrage me. It only proves what I already knew, and never wanted to know: this medium is only beginning to deliver on its potential.

1 comment:

  1. DLC in single-player games is absurd. The first time I played Fallout 3 it made me sad, because I was excited to find a new corner of the world with my old character, but then of course it was just a corner, and a weirdly compressed one, so that I was no longer roaming wastes and occasionally sniping some raider but instead chewing through a dense base of soldiers, and then it was quickly over. The price didn't bother me there so much as the weirdness of having something tacked on to a much fuller and complete experience, like coming back from the dead but only to stumble down the block for ice cream before returning to the grave.

    I had an opposite reaction to the zombies DLC released as part of Red Dead Redemption, but I think there it was because the new story was so thematically different than the main one that I couldn't imagine it even existing on the same disc. Rockstar did something similar (but not as fully distinguished) with GTAIV, so maybe they're on the right track.