A begrudging defence of DLC
Because somebody has to.
In the summer of 1997, I bought my first full-priced computer game. I don't know how long I had saved up for it, scrounging quarters off the ground and doing whatever odd jobs you do when you're 12. The title was Novalogic's F-22 Lightning II, and I had lusted after it for months. I bought it at the Target store on Quincy Avenue, in Aurora Colorado.

It cost me $40.

By that time, F-22 Lightning II had been around for awhile, which made $40 neither particularly cheap nor particularly expensive. Railroad Tycoon, for example, came out five years before at around $50, retail; MechWarrior 2, when it launched, had a retail price of $69.99.

Yesterday I bought my most recent full-priced computer game, the new Saints Row (technically, I suppose, I preordered it). A decade and a half after I first strapped into the cockpit of a virtual F-22 Raptor, and with the painful weight of all those years of inflation, how much did this set me back? More, obviously. $5 more, to be exact.

As production values and development times have both gone up, the inflation-adjusted price for new video games has declined — in some cases precipitously. Microprose launched their F-117A simulation at $79.95 in 1992; adjusted for inflation, that game would cost more than $120. Instead, earlier this year I picked up Eagle Dynamic's DCS, an A-10 simulator, for half that amount.

SNES games retailed at $50 and above (sometimes well above); The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time debuted at $60, which is about the same in inflation-adjusted dollars. But console games have held to that price point, or below, even as two more generations of consoles have launched.

So, whether it seems like it or not, games are cheaper these days. This isn't something that publishers are taking lying down, of course. Some of the difference, I'm sure, they make up in volume. Some... well, remember how computer games used to come in big boxes with maps and manuals and stuff? Back in the day, you used to get games with huge, hundred-page manuals with stories and artwork and everything. Now you're lucky if you get a "quick-start card."

Developers have also realized that they can skip a lot of the tedious work of creating stories or artificial intelligence by simply writing it out of the product. Create the framework — models, maps, weapons — and trust in the "multiplayer experience" to draw people in. After all, all the most l337 sniperz agree that it's more fun to play against other people than bots. Computer game? More like "Most Dangerous Game," right?

But cost-trimming can only go so far. Eventually, at some point, you need to look at your revenue stream. And so to DLC: "downloadable content." You release a game, and then you release additional material — maps, player models, new weapons — for a small cost. A few dollars, here and there. Rarely the price of an expansion pack.

Unsurprisingly, this makes gamers very angry. They feel like they're being ripped off — like publishers are deliberately holding back, and then charging them money for content that, they insist, "should've been included with the game." Frequently this content is derided as being low-quality — "just" a new map, "just" a new rifle, "just" a new car, as though these things sprang from the ether with no effort or investment. People feel like they're being nickel and dimed.

Not to beat around the bush, but, guys, this is your fault. This may not be the world you wanted, but it's damned sure the world you created. You're the ones who demanded prettier graphics, higher polygon counts, bigger maps and more expansive features at the exact same time as you insisted the price needed to stay the same. You're the ones who got up in arms about other revenue streams, like in-game advertising.

I won't even touch the part where you're the ones who fucked the PC platform over with rampant piracy — partly because I think developers who blame platform piracy are full of it and partly because I know you guys just pirate stuff because you hate the DRM, right? Nudge nudge? I think DRM is indefensible, personally, but I don't have to blame piracy — because I can blame legitimate purchases instead.

Steam has created a platform that makes content accessibility ubiquitous, and I love the hell out of Steam. But Steam also realized that they could monetize older or poorly selling games by discounting them to ridiculous prices — I'm talking 70, 80, 90% here. The thing is, since digital copies don't really cost them any more than the bandwidth, a game that sells for $5 stlll gets you more than a game that doesn't sell at all.

This has been great for companies with libraries of older titles. The lesson of iTunes has been that most people aren't intrinsically opposed to paying any money for something, just to paying lots of money for something. So if you still have the rights to, say, Quake 2 or the original Unreal Tournament, people will pick it up for a couple of dollars on Steam because, to be honest, it's easier than pirating that stuff.

At the same time, people know that there is no reason to pick up a title on launch. Steam's infamous Christmas sale will push Saints Row 3 or Civilization 5 or whatever down to, what, $15? $20? People have become so spoiled by this concept that whenever any game comes out there's a substantial group of people urging everyone to wait until the price comes down. Fiscally, this is prudent, but it means that a game developer knows that the "retail price" of their game is always subject to severe downward pressure.

I am not going to claim that this is stealing money from the hungry mouths of developers, but I'll suggest that the combination of digital sales on the PC and the widespread used-game market in consoles has been what has kept the price of games in decline, and has led publishers to look at other sources of revenue. Because in any case, blaming gamers (like blaming piracy) is too easy. We have a visceral reaction to DLC because, yes, mostly we're whiny sons of bitches who want to get stuff for free. But let's think about this, guys.

Pictured: rational conclusion

I come from the community of flight simulation enthusiasts, where it's long been de rigeur to pay money for additional content — there were plane and airport packs for Microsoft Flight Simulator 5 all the way back in the mid 1990s, which is when I started getting into content creation for it. The failure of Microsoft to deliver a sequel to the last version of the game (Flight Simulator X launched more than five years ago) means that the whole platform has become, essentially, microtransactional. Pay for new aircraft, pay for new liveries, pay for new scenery, etc.

To some extent, I bemoan the loss of what used to be a more vibrant free content community although, of course, such content is always out there to be found. I never charged for my own work, and there are still people who have resisted the siren's call of going commercial. But it's been a decent living for people who found they had a talent at creating increasingly faithful reproductions of Boeing airliners, and it seems distasteful to critique folks for the crime of being successful entrepreneurs.

What grates on people, I think, is the troubling sense that they are paying for something that exists only digitally. When you buy a new airplane for a flight simulator, or a new gun in Far Cry 2, you're not really paying for a thing. You're paying for an idea of a thing — some vaguely Baudrillardish simulacrum, where the assumption is that virtual goods in a virtual world with a virtual experience must lead to only virtual gratification. Conversely, people don't really seem to mind buying the "idea" of a live concert or attendance at a studio recording, say, when they pick up a CD, presumably because at least those soundwaves have some appreciable form.

Of course, in the real world, we pay for ideas all the time. We pay for the idea of sophistication and taste when we purchase an expensive wine, even though, to exaggerate only slightly, most people can't tell the difference between a grand cru and Two Buck Chuck. We pay for the idea of adventure and discovery when we order tourism packages to carefully constructed experiences in far-off lands. We pay for the idea of fidelity and love when we pick out a diamond, even though the stone is atomically identical to pencil lead.

Train simulator RailWorks has taken a lot of flak for being a DLC platform — once you buy the game, it's expected that, should you desire to expand beyond the default sceneries and trainsets, you will purchase them. Some of this, no doubt, is because the world has always had a tenuous relationship with model train enthusiasts. They were perhaps the original outcast geeks — deeply focused on their esoteric hobby, spending hours working on things that nobody else cared about or saw. Trains, we are sniffily told by by people with more respectable hobbies such as fantasy football, Star Trek fanfiction, or furry pornography, only go in two directions. Why would you waste your time?

We discover, for example, that you can purchase a replica of the iconic Union Pacific Big Boy locomotive, with that majestic 4-8-8-4 configuration and that gorgeous steamship whistle, for $20. Now, at this point, DLC critics have two possible responses. They can, firstly, suggest that this content should be free. Given the amount of time that 3D modeling and texturing takes, I suspect (but am not certain) that the people who make this argument are not themselves particularly adept at such things.

Or, they could ask: "what are you really getting for all that money?"

Yes, it's true that an N gauge 4-8-8-4 would set you back at least $200, such critics would argue, but it is — at least — something you can pick up and hold. You could put it on display, for example, or sell it (always presuming, of course, you can find a buyer). It is yours, to do with as you like, and so it has intrinsic value as a physical object.


But can I explore the conductor's cab and the firebox from the inside? What? No? Well, then at least I must be able to operate all the engine's complex control mechanisms, right? Not that, either? Oh. Well, that's disappointing — but surely I get to experience the stark beauty of Cajon Pass, in the crisp light of a fall evening, rolling down that notorious downhill grade with a consist of fifty coal hoppers behind me, certainly?

No? You don't say.

Well then, what good is it? Who the hell cares that it literally exists? Are you really trying to tell me that I'm paying more for something just because I could throw it at somebody's head? What kind of a practical advantage is that? That's the best you can do, is tell me that DLC is worth less than something in the real world because it's not subject to gravity? Pshaw, I say! Balderdash. If I get enjoyment out of it, that's real-world enjoyment. Or do you think the most valuable part of going to see a movie is the ticket stub, just because it's tangible?

Naw. I say DLC's probably alright. If I pay $5 for a new civilization in Civilization 5, and I play just one four-hour game exploring that civilization's unique attributes and building an empire to stand the test of time, that means I spend $1.25 an hour. That's peanuts. The alternative is to say that I shouldn't have to pay anything, but I'm not comfortable with this. If I enjoy that stuff, it has value. I might be happy if its creator chose to make it freely available, yes — but expecting that they should give me something with evident value just because I want it seems... well, ever so slightly gauche. Try going to a Mexican restaurant and eating nothing but the complimentary chips and salsa, and I think you'll find that they'll start charging you for it, your protestations that it used to be free to the contrary.

Now, mind you. There are valid reasons to dislike DLC. The "freemium" content model, for example, naturally creates scenarios in which someone can purchase an advantage over other players. In World of Tanks, for example, someone who has spent $10 can probably get a better tank than someone who has spent $0. This grates on our sensibilities, in an ethical sense. I posit, though, that if you take the time to think about it it's hard to see why. For one thing, it's $10; cry me a river. For another, someone who has spent $0 is still getting to play a pretty damned good game for zero friggin' moneys. Zero!

In either case, DLC is here to stay. But let me suggest, heretically, that it's also probably not the great sin it's cracked up to be. Of course, alternatively — particularly now that high-quality, low-cost modeling and coding solutions exist — you could just make your own stuff. That's what I do, when I've a hankering.

After all, it's "just" content — right?
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