Tuesday, 21 April 2009

On the problems of format exclusive DLC...

We might want to file this one under 'rant'...

It's not often that I stop to think about the ways in which games companies shoot themselves in the foot but today I had one of those moments. I had been reading through the recent press releases for Bethesda's Fallout 3 downloadable content (DLC), entitled Broken Steel. This is the third release to date which extends the world of Fallout 3, following Operation Anchorage and The Pitt.

Unlike the previous two releases, Broken Steel, promises to take place where the original game left off. The other games were set in the same post-apocalyptic game world as Fallout 3 but they deviated from the original title somewhat. Broken Steel allows you to increase your character's skill level to 30, beyond the original 20, and also brings with it other various perks. That is, if you have any version of the game that isn't PS3.

Having games be exclusive to a particular system is not a new thing. In fact, it was a big part of Sony's success with the original Playstation and its successor, and may have even been pivotal in platform purchase decisions. That can make a lot of sense in terms of a large scale marketing campaign focusing on brand exclusivity, but I'm not convinced the same thing can be said of smaller DLC.

The problem...

This is where my problem begins. The press release material all sounded pretty attractive to me - I am more than happy to buy additional content for those games I have enjoyed playing, especially if they promise to extend the pleasure of that experience or offer added value. However, I own a PS3 and a Mac, not an Xbox 360 or a PC where the DLC is going to be headed.

None of the DLC has been available to date for the PS3. The reasons for this? Unknown, although rumours of a deal between Microsoft and Bethesda are littered across various gaming sites. IGN reported back in July 2008 that Bethesda's Todd Howard promised "extensive" DLC for Xbox and Games For Windows. No official announcement was made at the time as to why the PS3 was excluded. Edge carried a story around the same time in which Colin Sebastain of Lazard Capital Markets remarked thus:
"...I think it's a very good possibility that Microsoft and Bethesda were partners in this decision. Obviously Microsoft paid up to secure exclusive online content for GTA IV, and online is a cornerstone for Microsoft's digital media strategy."
In the same article, Bethesda's marketing boss Peter Hines is quoted as saying:
"...We aren’t going to get into the details of the hows and whys," said Bethesda marketing boss Pete Hines in an e-mail. "[DLC] will be exclusive for PC and 360. [We're] not going to give any other qualifiers or clarifications as it relates to other platforms."
Incentive to buy?

As you can see, Fallout 3 is by no means an exception. Microsoft signed an exclusive deal with Rockstar so they get the GTA IV DLC on their platform. Now, I have to ask, who really benefits from this kind of exclusivity deal? Do Microsoft really gain that much by securing the rights to exclusive DLC content? Do the game developers gain from the cash tie-in which denies one platform? I enjoyed both GTA IV and Fallout 3 and would gladly buy the DLC if it were available. However, one platform having exclusive DLC whilst another does not is not enough to make me buy that machine over the other.

The only solution it would seem, is to buy an Xbox 360, then buy the games I already own, then buy the DLC. As you can imagine that is not something most consumers in the middle of a global recession are likely to do just to play an extra few hours worth of content. A quick estimate of exactly how much this would cost from Amazon goes to show you the potential implications:
I had to include Wireless Network Adapter as I'd be unable to connect my machine to my wi-fi router any other way, and I had to include an Xbox 360 which has a hard drive to download content onto. I excluded the cost of the DLC as that would be paid for on either format for the sake of this example. I also excluded the cost of Xbox Live Gold subscription which wasn't needed to get the DLC. The free Silver package is fine.

Almost £240 to play the DLC is beyond reasonable. Not everyone can afford to buy two machines. Not everyone can have the foresight to know which companies are going to get which exclusives, or which games are going to be so enjoyable you will want to buy more expansion packs. Not everyone who buys a games console is aware of the past deals signed between developers and manufacturers.

I make these points to highlight the shortfalls of DLC exclusives. DLC will seldom be a major purchasing factor when people decide which of the largely similar consoles they will opt to spend their money on. It may play a role, but not the deciding role. Therefore, I ask who actually wins and who loses as a result of these exclusive deals?

And the winners are...

I can only guess that the developers win in the short term by virtue of receiving a cheque from Microsoft. Microsoft may stand to win a small PR battle over Sony, but there are other areas in which they may lose out (Blu-ray functionality; cheap expandable storage; etc). The real losers here are the gamers who can't access the content they would gladly buy because of a format battle (one which is actually good for games in that it fosters competition and technological advancement).

Each of the Fallout DLC costs about £10 (or 800 Microsoft Gamer Points). That's £30 that Bethesda will not be getting from me or from the other angry PS3 owners who would have made excellent customers. Who's winning now?

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