MAG 2: Digital Gaming

So last week I talked about the growing expenses of gaming with respect to new technology. This week I want to shift gears a bit onto Digital Gaming, a subject that's been much debated over the last two years. To set the parameters of this particular MAG column, when I say Digital Gaming I mean any form of gaming that doesn't strictly involve a physical copy of any video game.  This would include DLC, downloadable copies of existing video games, and finally download-only games.  It's a fairly small range of subjects, but this article could still become cumbersome if I don't shrink it down to a single question: Are console gaming companies taking advantage of their consumers with digital gaming?

To begin with, let's examine the current state of downloadable video games.  Since the release of the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360, both Sony and Microsoft have sought to occasionally bring out games that could be downloaded off their personal services as well as bought in stores. But despite the publisher having no disc printing costs, no distribution costs, no overhead for storing copies, and no other person to split the profits with, the cost of the game from either location are identical.  Certainly the desire to make profits is and should be a driving force for any business, but if businesses get half the profits from a new $60 game, then surely pricing an online version at $40 is a sufficient profit margin over what you would get for the physical copy?  Particularly since even after you make money off the sale of copies to GameStop those other costs still have to be paid; costs that are non-existent for the digital copy.

Even worse is their insistence of remaining at a high price long after places selling physical copies have dropped to half of their original price, or even less.  The argument could be made that perhaps they don't want to unfairly strip away customers from their brick-and-mortar partners, but the truth is there will always be a subset of gamers who will prefer to own a physical copy of the game rather than just a download.  Particularly when DRM and DRM-esque measures surrounding electronic versions of games are so strict.

In the realm of downloadable content (DLC), things aren't much better.  One might even go further and say things are even more problematic.  I'm trying to be impartial and logical here, but I have to come right out and say this: Day One DLC is bullshit. There's no excuse and no apologetic fan can convince me of otherwise.  This idea that "there is a separate budget" for DLC is a slap in the face to gamers everywhere.   Let explain something: While there are millions of gamers in the world total, you have to cut that into fractions.  Gamers who play console games.  Gamers who own a current-gen system (there are tons of people who still own PS2s).  Gamers interested in your game.  Gamers willing to buy your game.  Gamers willing to buy your game on the day it comes out.  Chop. Chop. Chop.  Each new group is a smaller fraction.  Now, you want to take that comparatively small group who owns a current-gen system, is interested in and willing to BUY your game (these are not the same thing), and willing to buy your game on the day it comes out, and say: Sorry, but you're going to need to pay another $10 to get the extra content.  Are you fucking serious?

Here's the thing: When I first heard of the concept of DLC, I thought it was great.  Ever the optimist, I pictured companies adding new characters to games like Transformers: War for Cybertron while you waited on the sequel to the next game.  I thought of RPGs that maybe didn't have the biggest fanbase, but had a devoted one.  And maybe you couldn't quite foot the cost for a brand-new game, but you could add a few new side stories to expand the universe and play time of the original one.  In fact, that was generally what I thought DLC would be for: to bring replay value to games you'd already owned for a year or more.   What I got instead was Dragon's Dogma, a game that managed to have downloadable content on the very same day it was released.   And Street Fighter X Tekken, where the characters are already on the disc and you pay another $20 (basically making it an $80 game) to add the code to finish and unlock them.

The only thing sort of holding up its end of the deal in all this is download-only titles.  These tend to be side stories to major games, or smaller developers who can't quite afford to make a huge print run of games only for it not to sell.  A lot of these tend to be honest, genuinely enjoyable efforts by talented developers.  The graphics sometimes may leave a little bit to be desired, but "graphics aren't everything" has been the mantra of countless gamers since the early PS2 days; this just gives all of them a chance to put their money where their mouth is.

Now, while it could be argued that console companies have had digital gaming for over a decade now, the truth is early online efforts were secondary thoughts at best.  The short-lived Dreamcast's best showing for online gaming was Phantasy Star Online, a game that could only be bought physically, supported a maximum of four players, and even had an offline mode for those with meager or non-existent internet connections.  The Playstation 2 and Xbox were better, but not by much: online gaming was still relegated to small groups, and DLC and downloadable games were pretty much nonexistent.  This means true online gaming didn't really come into existence until the current generation and thus, still in its infant stages.

With this in mind, one might believe the reason it often feels like game publishers are taking advantage of their consumers is because this is a relatively new field that they have little to no experience in, and they are simply figuring out what works and what doesn't.  In which case, surely we can allow for some missteps, correct?   Well, not exactly.  PC gaming has been doing online gaming since at least the late 90's, and since many of the publishers that make console games are also known for PC games, the "We're still figuring things out" excuse is flimsy at best and outright lying to the faces of consumers at worst.

The next few years of gaming are going to be crucial in deciding how the landscape works for us all.  We have to stand up and SAY something when developers cross lines.  If we just lie down and take it they'll keep doing a half-assed job and all the publishers will turn into EA and Capcom, disingenuous money-hungry businesses designed to give you the smallest amount content for as much money as they can get out of you.  Yes, there are more important issues, but letting businesses take advantage of their consumers isn't cool either. So don't let apologists make you feel bad when you voice your disapproval, both online and with your wallet (both are important), because in the long run they'll benefit from your "bitching". 

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