DLC isn’t the Problem – Developer-Player Communication is
DLC. Microtransactions. Expansion packs. These are all words that carry some degree of *ick* with them, at least to gamers that have been playing for 15+ years. On paper, they sound like a pretty good deal - Extra content for when you're done with a game? Sounds good to me! But in practice, we've all seen some pretty heinous attempts to squeeze money out of consumers and these occurrences don't seem to stop. So why do developers keep trying to screw over their loyal customers with these add-ons, even when they know many gamers don't like them?
The truth is that DLC is pretty much a necessity for modern AAA games. There is a very simple reason for this - the cost of AAA development has increased substantially, while the initial price point for these games has remained static. 2005 was the last time initial game prices have risen, going from a $50 standard to $60. I'll use the closest analogous medium, film, as a way to demonstrate how odd this is. In the ten years since then, movie ticket prices have risen from an average of $6.41 to $8.43. Using the same rate of increase, games today should cost an average of $78.91!
But wait! That would be assuming that game budgets are growing at the same rate as movie budgets, when in actuality, AAA game budgets have been rising at a much higher rate. Consider a massive franchise like Call of Duty, whose first entry after 2005, Call of Duty 2, had a development budget of $14.5 million. Just four years later, Modern Warfare 2 had a production budget of about $50 million. I don't have the numbers on the latest Call of Duty entries, but another huge Activision game, 2014's Destiny, had a reported development budget of $140 million. This is even excluding marketing costs, which can be many times that of development costs. For example, with marketing costs included, Destiny's total budget (not actual cost) was said to be around $500 million!!!
Knowing this, $60 per game feels like a pretty good deal now, right? The obvious question is to ask how come game prices haven't risen to reflect increased development costs? Well you see, they have, but developers have done it in a sort of sneaky way - by introducing DLC. Since DLC is a new form of exchanging goods for any medium, developers have been experimenting with how far they can push their playerbase.
Clearly, there are some bad, exploitative DLC models that have been rolled out over the years. Most of these bad DLC models come down to two things: Disproportionate price of the goods, or "walling" off content. In the former case, the first example that springs to mind is the infamous horse armor DLC that Bethesda attempted to sell for $2 following the release of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. This price was considered outrageous at the time for such a small piece of aesthetic content. In the latter case, we have multiplayer map releases for games like Battlefield, which divide the online playerbase into haves and have-nots.
On the other hand, some DLC is actually not harmful. Things like expansion packs for single player games - The recent Witcher 3 expansion is excellent, delivering new, interesting experiences for a very bargain price. Aesthetic multiplayer content, such as skins or hats, can also be implemented in a healthy way. So if there are clearly examples of DLC being delivered in a positive manner, why does it still carry a generally negative stigma?
Much of the bad blood over DLC stems from a lack of communication between developers/publishers and their customers. DLC inherently feels sneaky, especially when content is walled off or "forced" onto the customer, all because of a complete lack of transparency. Essentially, it boils down to gamers being ignorant, but not dumb. Gamers might not know exactly how many programmers, artists, producers, and designers it took to create the two maps that cost $15, or even why the publisher settled on that cost. But that doesn't mean that gamers wouldn't be able to understand if this were explained. Categorically, hardcore gamers are probably among the most intelligent customer bases out there, which explains why DLC has become such a point of contention in the first place. They know something fishy is happening.
The real issue is that the way DLC is being announced, priced, and distributed feels like a slap to the face of an intelligent customer. The developer/publisher is basically saying "We acknowledge that this game you've bought takes a degree of skill and intelligence to play. Now, let me disregard that and attempt to sell you something at a disproportionate value, or force it on you, without explaining the reason why.".
In other industries, companies don't have to justify value to their consumers. Apple will put out a $2000 iMac and no one bats an eyelid. That's because Apple consumers are generally not tech-savvy, so Apple doesn't need to justify their pricing decisions to them. Gamers are not like Apple consumers. They are critical thinkers and intelligent consumers who deserve enough respect to have DLC their models justified or explained. We've already seen developers moved towards more transparency in their development processes, so why not their DLC models as well?
In fairness, some developers have taken these steps. Paradox Interactive, makers of grand strategy games like Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings, recently wrote an excellent dev blog post about how they develop and price their DLC. Here's a quick quote: "We make sure that each expansion has a good mix of major, medium and minor features (with a mega feature instead of several major ones in CoP and ED) and then sum up the total number of features where mega features are worth 10 points, major features are worth 6 points, medium features are worth 3 points and minor features 1.5 points. This is then divided by price to create the actual value, which we ensure stays very close to the value for money in previous expansions". This is exactly the kind of transparency that fosters healthy relationships between developers and players.
Holding developers/publishers to higher standards for communication will help everyone. It'll stop dick moves from happening, like when Square Enix attempted to justify making players pre-order Deus Ex in order to unlock content. Spoiler alert: It didn't work! Not only this, but if justifications for DLC models are solid, then players won't feel like they're getting conned. It's difficult to assign value to virtual goods, so providing context to establish that value, will be a win-win situation for developers. If games are being treated as services, counting on long-term sales to make profits, then it would naturally make sense to foster goodwill among the active playerbase. This goodwill can be easily achieved by making players understand that they're not getting exploited.