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All you need is a little DLC


This post is my entry in a cross-blog conversation with Nels Anderson about downloadable content for games. Nels is a developer who works at Hothead Games in Vancouver. He's also sharp as a tack and fun to hang out with, as I discovered when I met him a few months ago at GDC in San Francisco. You can read Nels' response here.

This all began innocently, Nels. I was playing Tiger Woods 10 on my PS3 last night when the game alerted me that a new course was available for download. I decided to check out the Playstation Store to see what other goodies I might find, and lo and behold I uncovered the duffer's motherload. More Tiger Woods DLC than I could shake a sand wedge at (full list here). I guess you could describe EA's strategy as "granular."

My first thought: "Wow, look at all this stuff!" My second thought: "Uh oh. They're charging for it. This is gonna get ugly." And I was right. It didn't take long for me to locate the Tiger Woods DLC resistance army already in full swing. From a post at Loot Ninja (a site I enjoy, by the way) called Why I've Decided NOT to buy Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10:

This year, I’m speaking with my wallet...I refuse to buy the game. Charging gamers $3.75 to get Max Stats on their golfer or $1.99 for Expert Wedges (and Irons, Fairway Woods, Drivers, and Putters) is bullshit. They’ve turned it up a notch this year with how much and the amount of cheat codes you can buy.

If any of you feel the same way, I encourage you to not buy the game as well. Let your money do the talking and don’t give it to EA.

This reaction makes little sense to me, and I said so on Twitter: "Tiger Woods 10 DLC: unlock all courses for $2.25 and max your stats for $3.75. Angry gamers call this an insult. I call it a good idea." That's where you came in, objecting to "DLC that's just cheat codes." Then we challenged each other to a dual at dawn, but cooler heads prevailed and we agreed on a cross-blog conversation instead. ;-)

EA made a good move and here's why. They've found a way to balance the needs and desires of two very different types of players. One savors the challenge of unlocking courses as a reward for progressing through the game. The other has no interest in plowing through challenges or racking up points. This player sees the list of courses available and wants to play them immediately. The first player, likely a more experienced gamer, understands the system of unlocking content based on in-game performance as a game design staple and a long-time feature of the Tiger Woods franchise. Both players get the gaming experience they want.

Isn't EA just cashing in by monetizing cheat codes? Yes and no. Yes, they've clearly figured out how to make more money, and that never seems to go well with gamers, especially when those gamers perceive they're being charged for something that used to be free. I don't begrudge a developer or publisher charging for stuff they've made. If the market doesn't want it, that message will be delivered. Bethesda learned from the Oblivion horse-armor brouhaha, and they altered their approach accordingly.

But the cheat code analog doesn't work for me. EA is making a play for casual gamers across the spectrum of their products. Most people new to games don't even know what a cheat code is. The very concept is a relic of old-school gaming, as is the progress/unlock mechanism that dates back to the arcades.

I think EA is looking forward by offering new gamers a familiar option they immediately understand. If you'd like to skip all the unlocking stuff, give us $2.25 and we'll open up all the courses for you right away. Are these gamers too stupid to learn how to enter a cheat code? Of course not. EA is saying we're not going to do that anymore. Gamers steeped in game culture may miss cheat codes, but no one else will. That's EA's bet anyway.

But why charge for it? Why not just add an "unlock all courses" menu option? Because doing so would destroy the balance I described above. A simple menu unlock devalues the effort of earning it. Attaching a monetary amount, even a small one, and going outside the game to download the content clearly separates this player from the one who has unlocked content from inside the game through his own efforts. As ridiculous as that may sound, I think it's a compelling difference.

We perceive value psychologically (see Xbox 360 Achievements). Games with additional content not immediately available to the player have made that content valuable. Hackers try to get at the stuff for this very reason. Cheat codes are so called because getting something of value without earning it feels like cheating. In my view, it makes sense, if you're EA, to charge for something players consider valuable...even when you've created that value by locking content.

And, of course, no one is putting a gun to your head. If you want the Tiger Woods courses or other DLC for free, play the game and unlock them yourself. No additional content is DLC-exclusive, aside from an additional course not on the disc.

So that's my best shot, Nels. Despite my tone of certainty, I'm aware there are many salient arguments against for-pay DLC. Consider this my attempt to build one side of a case. I'm sure you and others will help me see more complexity than I've acknowledged here.