Let’s Think Deep: The Download Conundrum


We’re hitting a critical time in the lifetime of video games where a great shift is occurring. Instead of all physical copies of games, the option to download parts or the entire game itself are opening up to those with an Internet connection. Even more, the way games are made has undergone a fundamental alteration that includes shipping unfinished games to market, withholding parts of the game for future downloadable content, and creating exclusive elements for each system or each store for which the game is sold. What do these changes mean for the future of our hobby? Are they good or bad? That’s what I want to think about today, so join me and Let’s Think Deep: Is DLC Ruining Video Games?

You want to see John Marsten fight zombies? Then you gotta pay.

I am a collector at heart. I like to buy games at times purely to show them off on my shelf, hoping to start a conversation or have the chance to lend my copy to someone else to play. I very rarely enjoy watching others play, however, especially if it’s my system they have to play on, mostly because I have no patience.

How this relates to DLC and downloadable copies is the utter lack of a shelf version for a number of my games. I loved Super Meat Boy, but I can’t lend it to a friend to see if they like it, too. I liked a few of the Mass Effect 2 DLC missions, but even if I let someone borrow the game disc, they’ll still be unable to experience the exact parts of the game I’d like to show them. I have a hard time letting go of that tangible object, that collector’s item. Part of the fun of Earthbound is the difficulty it takes to acquire a copy of your very own. I don’t like emulators whatsoever, not because they harm video game companies new and old, but because something is lost with that instant gratification of having every game at my fingertips.

What really stops me in my tracks though is the amount of money games begin to cost when more and more DLC is added to the mix. I understand the need for DLC and I’ll get into that in a second, but I keep hitting roadblocks for games when the amount of DLC piles up to an amount that turns me away. For instance, I’ve been meaning to play Oblivion for a long time now. I’m still searching for a copy that hits my sweet spot for used games- $15- but thus far I haven’t bought the game. Why? Because the DLC required for the complete experience is missing unless I can find the Game of the Year edition, a version that’s difficult to find in used stores for my $15 asking price.

Stop, I'm not talking about horse armor. I'm talking about the Shivering Isles, so shut up.

The reasoning behind DLC is fairly obvious. Companies these days are spending millions of dollars developing huge titles that may or may not sell well at all. Planning in DLC ensures that a little more money finds its way back to the developers. While a $60 game has the profit margin slashed surprisingly low, DLC remains far higher. When customers are willing to pay $15 for another two hours of gameplay in addition to a 60-hour game that’s already cost them $60, why wouldn’t a developer tack it on?

Furthermore, it keeps interest in the game consistent. By announcing DLC, usually before the game is even out, those who purchase the game Day One are aware that their disc is still important and may be less likely to trade their copy away, holding onto it instead of feeding the used game market (which developers are on rough terms with). Plus, if enough DLC comes out, such as in Mass Effect 2’s case, the gap between two games in a series can shrink substantially and keep the game in the gaming community’s eye much longer than expected. I understand and respect these reasons, but all of them happen to have one side of the equation favored over the other: The DLC strategy favors companies, not consumers.

Yeah, that Day One purchase for the Cerberus Network content was totally worth it, wasn't it Zaeed?

Sure, more money into companies means more games for us to consume. But not every single one of us is capable of supporting thriving gaming pastimes. I fall pretty low on the price spectrum, finding enough money for maybe one or two new games a year. I’m required to look at the positives and negatives of any given game in relation to my budget, so when I see that I can snag a copy of Pokemon White for around $35, a game that promises hundreds of hours of gameplay plus free bonus content (Pokemon) given away the longer I keep it, I favor that title way above something like Marvel vs Capcom 3, a $60 title that is expected to slowly trickle out new characters for a fee every so often. How much will the final game cost me in the long run? Or better yet, were I to purchase Black Ops for $60, I’d still have to pay the $60 a year for Xbox Live, plus another $15 for each new map pack just to get the full experience of the game. No way can I afford that.

While I just mentioned two largely multiplayer games, this applies to single-player games as well. Going back once again to Mass Effect 2, the only reason I’ve played the first three downloadable mission packs is because they all suddenly went on sale way after being out for a while. I really like Mass Effect’s story, so knowing that there’s a portion of the story left unread really bothers me, even more so considering the price required to snag those two more hours of flimsily worked-in story. In order to enjoy the game to its fullest, I’d need to either be willing to spend around $100 at this point for a single game, or I’d have to be extremely patient and wait for every new price drop. Guess which option best describes me.

More than just DLC, exclusive features between platforms or even stores has become a real issue for me. Game Stop has a habit of including a special weapon or outfit exclusive to their store when you pre-order a copy of the game at one of their locations. More and more stores are including these little extras, meaning that it starts to become virtually impossible to have the truly “complete” copy of a game. While these are motivated more by the retail chains, it still presents a problem for the consumer beyond just the simple inability to own every version of the game. Developers now must spend time programming these exclusive items into the game, and while the time may only be a day or two, that’s still a day or two that isn’t being used to debug glitches, smooth textures, edit scripts, or any number of tasks that have more value from my perspective as a customer looking for quality and value to my purchase.

Anyone remember when people were more concerned about reliving a Star Wars fantasy than playing the game that had no relation to Star Wars?

Worst is the aforementioned exclusive feature for each platform. An example of this is the exclusive nature of Darth Vader and Yoda in Soul Calibur IV for the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, respectively. Including Star Wars characters in a Soul Calibur game is strange enough, but the fact that you can’t pit these characters against each other is rather frustrating. Initially, for a complete Soul Calibur IV experience, I’d have to purchase both versions (eventually you could download the opposite console’s exclusive character…for a fee of course). Arkham Asylum had this as well with the Xbox 360 version lacking bonus challenges where you play as the Joker. Nothing huge, but still a feature lacking from an otherwise perfect game.

Let me be clear on this: Competition is good for video games. I’d definitely prefer not to go back to the days of the NES where there was little quality assurance, the prices were stupidly high, and there was little incentive for games to be extremely good. The Super Nintendo and the Genesis were better systems because the other was there, constantly challenging it with new and more advanced games. But the draw of one system or the other wasn’t based on a simple aspect like James Bond being in the SNES version of Street Fighter and Indiana Jones being in the Genesis version. Rather, the draw of the system was that Super Nintendo had Mario and Zelda while Genesis had Sonic and Gunstar Heroes. Or rather, the exclusives each system had were entire games instead of just small features (obvious exceptions like the original Mortal Kombat not considered). The cost of owning every feature is starting to climb higher and higher, and it’s beginning to scare me.

The fights are never going to be better than this.

The future seems very likely to favor the DLC model over all others as more and more game companies are finding the monetary value very enticing. And we as gamers are more than happy to fuel this momentum. Eventually we’ll see more instances like Sonic 4: Episode 1, a game that while enjoyable for fans was extremely short, decidedly being released in smaller chunks. A greater number of games will soon be released in this way, causing us to lose the effect of a full game all at once and perhaps that full immersion in a title like we used to get.

Could the free model work just as well though? Perhaps, as Zynga has demonstrated with gusto. While Farmville is free to play, Zynga is stupidly rich right now. All of this comes from the premium content offered for a real price, but the core experience remains free for all. Were Mass Effect 3 to offer special armors and guns for a fee but keep all DLC episodes of the story free, I’d be extremely happy. Would the game still make as much money? I have no idea, I’m no Michael Pachter, but I know brand loyalty would be at an all-time high.

That’s about all I can muster to say about Downloadable Content though. But what about you? Are you perfectly fine paying $5, $10, or even $15 for a little more to your favorite games? Or do you agree with me and wish we’d go back to the days where a game was released and had to stand on its own merits? Leave a comment and let me know. If you’d like the ability to moderate your own comments though there’s a fee of $15. We accept cash and Microsoft Points.

Want more articles of Let’s Think Deep? Check these out:

Let’s Think Deep: The Moral of the Story

Let’s Think Deep: Achieving Perfection

Let’s Think Deep: What Makes a System Good?


About Author

Chris was the former Head Writer/Editor of Toy-TMA. He did a great job overseeing the site and getting new content published regularly. Always more than willing to respond to a comment or two, but pitiless with trolls! He has since moved on from TMA, and we wish him the best.


  1. I wrote some thoughts on this a while ago when there was an story out about blaming multiplayer for low sales.

    But I think you’re dead on about prices. DLC should *lower* the price of games overall. Sell the core game for $25 then just stack on DLC after DLC for $10 or less. The price on DLC is the key. DLC needs to be micro transactions, ideally $5 or less. Unfortunately, CoD’s $15 add-ons has already broken the DLC curve.

    But all that said, I do agree with you that games should come out of the box and be full game. DLC should be entirely optional and not a crutch on which the game to stand and be sold. That’s like buying Monopoly only to be told you have to pay extra for the dice.

    What I don’t think the game industry has realized is that us gamers will pay MORE for a game over time via small transactions instead of one big initial purchase. I’ll give Rock Band as an example. I paid $25 for the base game(s)…but I’ve spent hundreds of dollars in DLC. When add-ons are only $2 it’s easy to get sucked in and spend more than you would if you saw a price tag of $150.

Leave A Reply