Saturday, February 6, 2010

Where is Downloadable Content headed?

I remember the good old days when on a whim, my Mom offered to buy my brother and me a Nintendo Entertainment System.

Video game purchases are a lot more complicated today. The current generation of console systems - ones like Xbox or Nintendo that play on a special machine as opposed to a home computer - are all able to plug into the Internet and gaming companies are able to sell downloads to players.

Downloadable Content, or DLC can take the form of an enhancement to a game - such as additional levels or items. DLC can also be entire games. There are a lot of small DLC-only games that have never been released on a disc. in addition, some older games that were released on disc can now be purchased digitally and downloaded.

Technology wise, this is great. Not only can DLC keep a game fun and playable longer, it gives developers longer to add to a game. Fans of the space opera Mass Effect had two different DLCs released with more alien-blasting adventures for $5 a pop. Cheap, short games are now possible, instead of the regimented $60 price tag.

But there's one big problem I have with DLC. It is not transferable.

As Hal Halpin, a video game consumer advocate, said in the October issue of Game Informer:

"...The downside may be that you sacrifice ownership rights. For $60, you've had a reasonable expectation that you'll own the game that you're buying. You can legally re-sell that game once you're done with it... With digitally-distributed content the question of what you bought comes in to question. In fact, the new question becomes if you bought it at all! It could be that instead of buying the game, you actually just licensed it."
For example, my friends and I have really gotten into Civilization Revolution for the Xbox 360 in the last few months. Because it's been out for a year and a half, it can be purchased from for $28 with free shipping. A used copy sells for $20 at Gamestop.

In addition, a digital copy can be downloaded onto the Xbox hard drive for $30. So far, it's a bad deal. In addition, the game takes up 5 gigabytes of hard drive space. Xbox hard drive space is tough to come by - a 20 gigabyte drive costs $45 and a 120 gigabyte drive costs $150. To simplify a complex problem, the game is occupying in the neighborhood of $6.25 to $11.25 of space. DLC can be deleted and reinstalled for free, but it incurs an unavoidable transaction cost - the slow speed of console downloads.

But even if they brought the download price for Civilization Revolution down to $10, I'd still find it a tough sell over a physical copy. You don't have the same rights with downloaded copy of a game that you do with a physical one. Because a downloaded game is married to your hard drive, it can't ever be sold or even lent to a friend.

DLC can also entangle a game to your hard drive like a tree growing in your yard. Sometimes disc-based games come with a one-time use code for DLC, like Fallout 3 Game of the Year edition. The game came out in 2008, and five DLCs were released for $10 each. In 2009 the game of the year edition was released as a $60 package that includes the original game and the five DLCs.

However, the five DLCs are not played on a disc. They still have to be saved onto the hard drive* where they stay forever. Indeed, once a person has a game with a few DLCs they can sell or lend the disc as much as they want, but the DLC stays in the hard drive like tree roots.

There's a lot more to this issue - a lot of video game enthusiasts allege that companies are removing the content of the disc in order to sell it by the download later. We're also seeing DLC levels come out the same day a game is released. Those are valid criticisms of business practices, but essentially this is the same as saying a game costs too much. As this is merely entertainment, consumers who don't like the price simply shouldn't buy the product.

I don't see any technological reason DLC resales couldn't become the norm. If enough consumers really care about the issue and made it known to the video game companies, you would expect it to materialize. As it stands today, there simply isn't enough demand for resales to make it a priority.

*Edit I have since learned that disc-based version of DLC, like the Fallout 3 edition I mentioned, do not have CD-keys to limit the download to the original customer. It turns out they can be copied unlimited times, possibly because the whole point of having them on a disc is for people without internet access, and the companies can't justify the cost of making an offline CD-key that can't easily be cracked. This changes my point that some DLC is stuck with the original customer, as disc-based DLC can be shared just as easily.

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