The first game I ever remember playing that featured post-launch content was Neverwinter Nights on PC. The game actually belonged to my stepdad but he shared it with me, allowing me to install it on my computer so I could have exciting D&D 3rd edition adventures and fiddle with the campaign creator to my heart’s content. During my teenage years I never finished the main campaign of the game – I don’t think I ever even made it past the first major chapter – but despite that I put tons of hours into the game. One day my stepdad hopped onto my computer and installed something else on my computer – the expansions for the game. Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark added new story campaigns to the game, and even though I never finished the first one I dove greedily into the next two. I never progressed much in Hordes of the Underdark – it was designed for high-level play – but I got easily as much life out of Shadows of Undrentine as I did the main campaign. These new additions to a game that I loved to play made me even more excited to keep going.
Fast forward to 2019 and it’s clear that expansions were just the tip of the iceberg. Most AAA game releases will eventually include downloadable content, additions to the game that expand what the player can do…for a price. These paid additions can vary widely from cosmetics changes to additional characters or levels to entire story campaigns. They can also vary widely in price, with some games (like Splatoon and Overwatch) keeping the majority of their updates free while others charge for every addition. On mobile, many games manage your playtime by requiring you to spend real money purchasing the currency that is spent to repeat lost levels.
A lot of folks have pretty negative views about the various ways in which video games are monetized. Harry from over at Escape Reality Through Games posed this week’s question and even he phrased it in a way that seemed to look down upon post-launch content. “Do you think its a shame that the days of simply buying a video game without having to fork out extra money afterward are gone?” I think there’s a lot to consider when we think about the ways in which video games are currently priced, so in my answer to Harry’s question I want to explore why I think there’s nothing “simple” about buying a video game.
THE EVOLUTION OF TECHNOLOGY
Ah, the glory of the golden days of yore. Just look at Mario jumping to hit that box. Isn’t he majestic? While some people reading this will certainly value the historical significance of Super Mario Bros, I think we can all agree that by today’s standards the game doesn’t exactly reach the pinnacle of technological performance. The cruddy used cell phone that I let my son play with still has more power and storage than the NES ever thought about having, and as the game industry grows and succeeds the projects it undertakes grows along with it.
AAA video game budgets are now equivalent to some film budgets, and the technology in the consoles that power them isn’t cheap either. But despite the absolutely massive jump in cost on the part of game developers, the jump in cost for game players actually hasn’t increased all that much. IGN has a pretty good (although now quite outdated) article describing the impact of inflation on the cost of older games. A quick Google of current inflation rates reveals that $200 in ’85 when the NES came out would be $473 now, which is quite a bit more than what I paid for my Nintendo Switch despite the technology being way more advanced. The $50 price tag on the games for that console would now be at $120, double what we actually pay for the typical video game.
So then, if you’re doing the math, you may have realized at this point that video games cost more to make than they used to for companies, but consumers are paying less than they used to (from an inflation perspective). So how exactly are companies making money on these wildly expensive yet weirdly cheap technological marvels? The answer is that post-launch content that we all hate so much.
THE LOOT BOX-ALYPSE
Corporations have to make money, and even when they make money they still throw temper tantrums and fire four hundred perfectly good people when they don’t make as much money as they want to. So of course their next move in this chess game of the economy is to discover a new method of getting money. Rather than increase the price of video games at the front door, they increase the price at the back end through the addition of microtransactions and other forms of post-launch content.
A quick Google of microtransactions reveals a number of articles discussing how significant they are to the economy of gaming. Statista reported that in 2017, 3 billion dollars of the game industry’s worth came from microtransactions alone. They are a hot topic in politics, too, with the governments of some countries getting involved to regulate the use of loot boxes. Belgium and the Netherlands are notable leaders in this effort, and even politicians in the United States have made efforts to get some legislation going around loot boxes.
In my search for articles speaking in relatively neutral terms about this phenomenon, I had to look hard. This is a topic that makes folks upset for pretty legitimate reasons. Some people feel that post-launch transactions encourage bad game design, and I certainly have played games where I felt that content that should have been in the main game was saved for post-launch in order to scrounge up some extra cash (I’m looking at you, Fire Emblem Fates). Others are concerned for their children, who can easily be misled into making expensive transactions when they aren’t closely monitored by an adult. Even when the adult is close, many would argue that targeting kids so that they harass their parents for money is a scummy approach too. In general across the gaming community, most forms of post-launch content are pretty despised.
ALL BAD, ALL THE TIME?
Microtransactions, loot boxes, DLC – it may appear so far that there is nothing redeemable about these practices. After all, evil corporations use them as an excuse to make badly-designed games so they can steal our money and manipulate our children. Right? How could something like that possibly have a positive side? There are a couple of different ways that I want to look at post-launch content to examine its positivity: one from the consumer side and one from the company side.
Let’s start with the company side. While I personally don’t mind if faceless executive Chad Yachtlover loses money by charging less for video games, what I do mind is when all the people who work for him don’t get a solid paycheck. Remember how games probably don’t cost as much as they should? The money that comes in from microtransactions helps hardworking musicians, writers, programmers, testers, and marketers all earn a paycheck so that we can keep experiencing the amazing games they work on. And so they can do important stuff like eat.
Then there’s the consumer side. As briefly mentioned in the above paragraph, most of us who play video games probably want video games to still exist. Post-launch content helps that. Many of us probably don’t want to start paying $120 for each individual game, either. Post-launch content helps that. And while there are plenty examples of companies using sketchy practices with loot boxes and the like, there are games which incorporate post-launch content responsibly. When purchasable additional content for video games is up-front about what to expect, doesn’t give you a competitive advantage against people who cannot pay, and isn’t something that could or should have been included in the main game, then I personally don’t see a problem with it. Buy it if you want it, and don’t if you don’t. I’ve gotten greater enjoyment out of games like Breath of the Wild, Mario + Rabbids, and the aforementioned Neverwinter Nights because additional paid content allowed me to expand the world of a game that I already loved. Post-launch content is not inherently unfriendly to consumers; when developers treat us with respect, it can be a great way to enhance a hobby we already love.
“THE GOOD OLD DAYS”
Now Harry included a side question along with his main question about post-launch content, and I want to address it as well. Specifically, he asked if I think it’s a shame that most video games don’t come as a complete package at launch anymore. And my answer to that question is a resounding no. The choice by some developers to moralize whether or not a game has post-launch content is an odd one to me. When Square Enix bragged about how Octopath Traveler would be sold at launch as a complete experience, it seemed odd because a game without DLC is not inherently superior to one that has it. One isn’t “right” and one isn’t “wrong.” They are two different approaches, and it’s a matter of opinion which approach someone prefers.
What I think post-launch content brings to the table is the ability to dive as deeply as you want into a game. If you play a game and find it middling or bounce off of it, then you can put it down and move on to something else. But if you play the game, love it, and find yourself wanting more ways to experience it or more opportunities to enhance your experience, then you can invest more in that game to get more time and value out of it. I’ve got plenty of games that I played that I didn’t buy the DLC for. But I’m really happy that the games I did buy DLC for gave me the opportunity to explore them again, or enhanced the experience by adding content that made me more excited about the game. That’s something I’ll never get to experience with a game that came out before post-launch content. No matter how much I love it, it is what it is. With any game that has additional paid content available, if I fall in love with that world and what to experience even more of it, that choice is there for me. And for me, expanding my power of choice is something I can get behind.
Another big thank you is due to Harry over at Escaping Reality Through Games – be sure to go check out his blog and to keep an eye open for his response to the question I asked him! This was a fun topic to research and it was nice to try to look at post-launch content as something more than just the reason that EA is the most evil company on the planet. If reading this post gave you an idea for a question that you want to ask me, follow this link to the Charming and Open page where you can post a question in the comments that will then be answered as a blog post. Thanks for reading, adventurers!
I agree. I think it’s a matter of how it’s used and how it’s interpreted. For instance, I think of Awakening, the DLC “expansion” for Dragon Age: Origins. People grump about it because “the real ending was behind the DLC” but… when BioWare made Dragon Age: Origins, they didn’t know whether it would be successful so they *finished* the game. Personally, I’m glad Awakening came out afterward, because, like you said, I was able to jump in and experience more of the lore, and story, and characters that I love. It’s something that couldn’t have happened in the days of the NES, although ironically enough Super Mario Bros. takes – really – fewer than five hours to beat ($60, please), and then you have something like The Witcher which can take up to 200 hours to complete ($60, please), but no one seems to see Super Mario Bros as a rip off. Sometimes I think it is a case of comparing apples to oranges. And more often, I think it’s a case of intent.
I think sometimes DLC content has been lumped together with lootboxes or the “pay to win” type of practices that sometimes get implemented (I know I waxed poetic about this in a post of mine so I’ll try to sum up here haha). Because that is also content that is downloadable, and because sometimes people jump to very incorrect conclusions about the “why” something was done the way it was done, all of a sudden EVERY DLC is bad. Awakening was made DLC for a very different reason than From Ashes (Mass Effect 3). The former wasn’t purposefully locking plot behind a paywall, and From Ashes was.
It only takes a few rotten apples to spoil the bunch, though. And that’s what people remember.
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Oh yeah, there’s a whole ‘nother conversation to be had around whether or not the length of hours you can put into a game should affect the price. I’ve read online that in Japan they actually do price games that way – a 100-hour RPG will be more expensive than a 10-hour action game. I feel like that wouldn’t go over particularly well in the American market. At the very least, for someone like me who mostly plays those long RPGs, that pricing model would be something of a bummer, haha. As you’ve said, different devs have different motivations and ultimately it’s not going to be possible to make a blanket declaration about DLC as inherently good or bad. But people will always want to simplify things the most black-and-white conclusion that they can.
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Yeah I don’t think different game lengths should have different prices. I think it’s just ironic that people are getting more game for the same amount of money and then talking about greedy corporations. Is it the best, most consumer- and worker-friendly model they could be using? No, but I think to argue the price of games now vs. “back then” is silly.
You’re right; reducing to the lowest denominator is always the easiest to do, and that’s an unfortunate thing for complex or nuanced issues like this one
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