If you really want to freak somebody out and make them completely suspicious of your motives, there's no surer way than to stick the word "project" in front of whatever it is you're fronting.
Exhibit A: "Project Ten Dollar," the brainchild of Electronic Arts' CEO John Riccitiello. Dismayed by the fact that the cats at used-game über-purveyor GameStop are raking in billions by trafficking in hand-me-down copies of big-budget EA titles like Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, Big John wants to snatch some of that profit back from gaming's biggest middleman by parsing out $10 nuggets of downloadable content in the months following an EA game's release. The thinking, obviously, is that if gamers know there are huge new levels, skins or gameplay modes soon to be available for purchase online, they're less likely to trade in their games the second they've blazed through the main campaign.
Well, unless somebody offers them a better deal first, that is. Not to be outmaneuvered, GameStop responded to Riccitiello's salvo by launching one of its more eyebrow-raising trade-in deals ever, particularly for a company not known for its generosity toward gamers — an extra 50 percent bump on trade-in credit for all qualifying titles. The move created a mini-rush of gamers unloading copies of biggies like Mass Effect 2, which only just dropped on store shelves in late January. In return, they got more than $60 in trade-in credit. That's about what most of us paid to buy the game in the first place. So much for all that planned Mass Effect 2 DLC. Touché, baby.
You can see where the battle lines on this particular skirmish have been sprayed, like so much spitter-zombie sludge in the bayous of Left 4 Dead 2. In one corner are the publishers and developers: Crunched by an unsustainable business model and a downturn in the economy, they're looking for new ways to maintain their revenue streams — or, in an increasing number of cases, to just stay in business. In the other are the gamers, who, shall we say, are more than a little justified in feeling Kratos-like levels of anger and rage when they hear that companies like EA are expecting them to cough up an extra $10 to $30 out of their hard-earned scratch for the privilege of adding additional content to a game they just dropped $60 on. Let's be honest — if there's one thing DJ Hero and Tony Hawk: Ride proved, it's that people don't want to pay upward of $90 for a game. Especially if it doesn't come with a skateboard peripheral.
Even though it feels completely traitorous to do so, I find myself siding with the man on this issue. Not because I'd like Riccitiello to have another four-door convertible to park in the driveway of his gold-plated tropical-island hideaway. And not because I want to stick it to GameStop, although there are certainly arguments to be made for doing that, too.
The fact is that game development studios are dropping faster than contestants on American Idol, and the big publishers are losing cash at a rate that's starting to rival professional NBA franchises. If we don't choose to support worthwhile DLC, we're ushering in nothing less than the death of gaming innovation and creativity. We're helping to build a world in which sequels to established franchises (Call of Duty 16, anyone?) and movie tie-in games are the only things publishers will be willing to fund. A world in which great games like Borderlands and Dead Space — heck, even Scribblenauts on the DS — don't get made.
I know, I know, the Cassandra syndrome really grates, especially when it means having to endure things like first-day DLC and microtransactions. But the key to making this work is to reward the companies and developers that handle DLC the right way; the ones who support and prolong our enjoyment of a game by adding interesting twists and gameplay modes, rather than making us feel like the developers deliberately held back content that should have been included in the original package or are simply padding and recycling.
Let's illustrate the point with a couple of recent examples. 2K Games' Borderlands came out last October and gave us a meaty, 40-hour-plus gaming experience that felt like Diablo meets Mad Max. In the intervening four months, the developers have put out three DLC packs, each one timed to hit at just about the point when you'd be finishing up and wondering how much cash your copy was worth at GameStop. The most recent pack, The Secret Armory of General Knoxx, was packed with so much new stuff, it felt like a freaking full-on expansion. That, my friends, is 10 bucks well-spent.
Now let's look at the other side. I'm going to pick on one of EA's Project Ten Dollar pretty boys, Dante's Inferno, an early February release that saw its first package of DLC hit Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network a couple of weeks ago. The original game was a reasonably entertaining and bloody God of War knock-off. The first of three planned DLC packs costs $5 and nets you a single new level and a bonus "Disco Inferno" costume for Dante to wear while he's harvesting demon souls (bell-bottoms — what every hip crusader is wearing these days.) Even though it's only $5, it's hard not to feel like the new enemies in the DLC level should have been used to quelch one of the main game's big weaknesses: recycled enemy types. Much better stuff is coming in April, including a multiplayer mode and a challenges editor, but filling the gap with so-so filler may mean gamers won't wait long enough to enjoy it.
If the arguments I'm making sound a lot like the same ones that print media have been serving up for the last few years as the rise of free-content new media has threatened the established business model, well, congratulations for paying such close attention. But just like those folks who'll get an awfully rude awakening to the costs that come with a world in which citizen bloggers rule all, gamers may soon wake to find their righteous indignation over DLC has its own costs, email@example.com
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