Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Slippery Slope of Consumer Respect and Disc Unlocks  

Games: Yesterday, the subject of BioShock 2’s recent DLC came up and spurred a lively debate between a few people and myself on Twitter. As any tweeter knows, it's difficult to carry on an in-depth conversation with a limit of 140 characters, and trying to jump back and forth between several people at the same time is an even greater challenge. As a way of continuing the chat without the technical barriers, this post.

For those unfamiliar with the news, it was revealed that BioShock 2’s “DLC” was not so much additional content as it was an unlock key for content that was already encoded in copies of the game. BioShock 2 isn't the first game to do this and it certainly won't be the last, so before the rant begins, I just want to be clear in saying that this particular post is about the concepts of unlock keys, DLC, and ethics, and not about BioShock 2 in particular.

(Also, as another preface, I would invite you to check out my good friend and esteemed colleague Thom Moyles’ blog HERE. Thom’s a brilliant, standup guy, and I've got nothing but respect for him. However, this time we found ourselves on opposite sides of the issue. To see the counter to what I've got here, go check him out.)

Now, getting down to business…

In general, I'm a big fan of DLC. I can't even begin to count how many transactions I’ve completed, and I keep a pretty vigilant lookout for new additions to titles I've enjoyed. I think DLC is a great concept, I believe it adds value to games which would otherwise be cast aside or traded in after completion, and I support it as an effort on the part of developers and publishers to recoup losses they claim are incurred due to sales of used titles.

(Are used games REALLY costing them money? I'm not going to go there right now because that's an entirely different topic, but for the sake of this post, let's just assume that it's so.)

However, I do believe that there is a certain ethical element involved with the production, implementation, and sales of DLC, and I feel that it's often ignored or looked at as irrelevant in deference to the rights and profit of developers/publishers.

In Thom’s blog, he states “The problem here is that [Brad’s] applying the pragmatics of physical ownership to that of computer data. You see this a lot on the Internet, and it never works. It never works because when you buy game media, you’re not buying every bit of information contained in that media, you’re paying for whatever bits (literally) of that data that the game company chooses to give access to.”

Thom is not the only one who has cited this particular piece of logic, but in my view, anyone advocating this line without qualifying it is either profiting from this new era of online transactions, or simply drinking Kool-Aid to a certain degree. I certainly don't mean to insult Thom or anyone else, but I really don't see why the concepts of ownership that have served the human race since the dawn of time have to be chucked out the window just because we have so many new ways of controlling and limiting access. ‘Can’ does not equal ‘should’.

As someone who works for a living, who has responsibilities and bills to pay, value for the money I spend is always foremost in my mind. When I decide to put cold, hard cash down, I want to know exactly what I'm getting.

In the case of games which contain “extra” content on the disc that can’t be unlocked without paying an additional fee, I can't help but feel that there's something inherently dishonest about the practice. If I put $60 down on something and it's sold to me, I expect to be able to take full advantage of everything on the disc that is intended to be played.

The phrase “intended to be played” is an important distinction I need to make because as Thom pointed out, it's extremely common for any game to have a certain amount of content locked away for various reasons -- the developers weren’t able to effectively implement it, there wasn't enough time to bug-test, certain things had to be censored, so on and so forth.

For example, Rockstar locked away the infamous ‘Hot Coffee’ in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for good reason, and it was never intended to be accessed by anyone. The same goes for a more recent example, Yakuza 3. In that case, Sega said up front that certain parts of the game were going to be removed (most probably disabled and not actually removed) because they were deemed “too culturally Japanese” for the US audience.

In these (and similar) instances, I absolutely respect the decisions on the part of the developers and publishers to snip, tailor or edit a product until it takes on the appropriate qualities and profile that they’re after. However, if Rockstar came along later and said that the infamous locked scenes could be made available for an additional $3, or if Sega said that Yakuza’s host bars could be unlocked for $5 online, I would have a serious problem with that.

To me, if there is content on a disc I have paid for and own, and if that content is actually intended to be used and played at some point in time, then I'm of the view that developers and publishers have an ethical responsibility to say so up front. Full disclosure. They obviously have planned it in advance, so it's not as though they can say they had no knowledge of the contents status. Why don't they disclose? Because they know that the audience would go ballistic and never stand for it. And who could blame them? In my mind, that's the same thing as buying a house only to be told after the fact that a bedroom you weren’t shown will remain forever locked unless you pony up another couple thousand. It's the same thing as buying a new car and then being told later that you actually have anti-lock brakes, but that they require a fee to be activated. It’s always an unpleasant surprise to find that you didn’t buy exactly what you thought you were buying, and not in a good way.

No one wants to feel taken advantage of, and people who are spending good money (especially in this economy) want to feel like they're getting an honest deal. If developers craft content that's actually on a disc being sold, it feels very dishonest to be asked for an additional monetary contribution in order to see a part of a unit that the consumer has already paid for.

This is where the “physical/data” part Thom mentions comes in. As I mentioned earlier, I really don't see the need to throw out concepts which humans have employed since we as a species were able to understand buying, selling, and ownership. Regardless of what publishers and developers may want to convince me of, the simple fact is that if they sell me a disc, I see it as mine, and I expect to use it as I see fit. Trying to turn that simple idea into the current concept of “developers and publishers get to do what they want because everything is licensed and the player doesn't really own any of it” feels incredibly disrespectful to the consumers and fans who keep the industry going. I'm not interested in participating in this Brave New World where portions of a product I paid for are locked away and held prisoner to micro-transaction greed.

As a consumer, I don't feel that this new philosophy is ethical, and that has nothing to do with any kind of imagined “gamer entitlement” -- it's just a simple truism inherent to the concept of buying and selling, and intimately linked with the diminished perceived value of something that is suddenly revealed to be less than what the buyer thought it was. Disclosure from the seller and the buyer's ownership of the property in question is the basis of any financial transaction, and trying to modify (and then justify) this age-old understanding only sours goodwill on the part of consumers and flaunts the current imbalance of power.

Just because it's possible (and even legal) to slap all kinds of partitions, controls, DRM or any other sort of control system in games sold to consumers, that doesn't mean it's right. Supporters of this new e-control philosophy can try to manipulate words and twist the issue as much as they want, but ask anyone on the street if they're happy to pay for an unlock key to a disc they've already bought and the answer will always be the same – hell no.

Call me old-fashioned, archaic, behind-the-times, or any other title you’d like, but if the content was ready to go at launch, if it's actually on the disc, and if it was intended to be played at some point in time, then people who have paid for these discs should have full access to all of the content on them. If not, then there’d better be a disclaimer somewhere on the package telling me that I'll need to chip in another $5 to get the ‘full’ experience. (And no, don't bring up the whole ‘you get the full promised experience without the unlocks’ argument. It doesn't make the practice any less shady, and it doesn't make the consumer feel any less taken advantage of.)

Will the practice stop? Probably not. If consumers knew about such practices ahead of time, we could potentially vote with our wallets -- but with this knowledge intentionally and consistently held back to avoid such a circumstance, there is no way to know which games are guilty and which aren't. The fact that this knowledge is routinely hidden speaks to the attitude of those engaging in the practice. If publishers and developers genuinely thought it was all on the up and up and that nothing was wrong, then why not be straightforward about it? In this case, actions most definitely speak louder than words.

Like I said earlier, I'm not against publisher and developers earning a profit, I enjoy and partake of DLC just as much as the next guy (and probably more so) and I'm all for extending the life of games that I've enjoyed. That said, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about doing this, and no matter which way I look at it, I can't see disc unlocks as anything other than dirty, disrespectful business. DLC will keep getting made and I’ll still buy it, but I certainly hope that those with the power to make such decisions will show consumers some respect, concede that there’s an undeniable taint to the practice, and avoid this delivery method in the future. It just makes everyone involved feel icky.

What next?

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5 comments: to “ The Slippery Slope of Consumer Respect and Disc Unlocks


    I don't feel icky!

    Then again, I don't buy much DLC.

    And I know why it feels wrong and it does feel wrong because we have such a strong history of buying something physical and expecting to own all of it.

    Unfortunately, we're not talking about something physical, just something that appears to be physical. And that illusion is what's causing the cognitive break.

    As I pointed out elsewhere, if you downloaded that DLC instead of unlocking it, it's a dead certainty that that content was generated in the exact same manner as the unlocked DLC, which means that you're fine with paying money for having to download it rather than unlock it, which doesn't seem to make any sense to me.

    BTW, this is Thom, just an old Blogger account I still use.


    Brad, would you be ok if the DLC was available on the day of the game's launch but you needed to download it i.e. it wasn't on the disc.

  • Anonymous


    The issue I think a lot of folks have (including me) is that when the DLC is made available on launch day or as unlock code, then the publisher is simply holding back content that was obviously developed during the "normal" development schedule of the game. And, as games continue to get shorter compared to their predecessors (Bio2 is roughly 20% shorter than the original), this seems like a blatant money grab and not the "extra effort" you're paying for.

    I've been on-site a number of times with developers, seeing them get started on DLC content before the initial launch and with each of those instances, it was clear that the contend could not possibly be finished and tested before ship date. That is the issue.

    If the content was made during the normal development process, polished, tested, and included on the disk just as the rest of the game, then the only reason it's not available automatically is greed.

    DLC gives consumers a chance to support continued work and dedication by developers to a game we love.

    I read Brad's and Thom's blogs and both make strong points, but for me, it's not about physical media or ownership, but of timing.

    Games cost $60 -- not a small sum! Rare is the day I buy a game these days and don't have buyer's remorse because of the price. Instead of holding back parts of it that are already on the disc, why not release it all and give people a reason to stand up and cheer how much value they got? More people might actually buy the game that way.


    Thom: I definitely hear your point, but I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this.
    = )

    Costas: I’m not a big fan of release-day DLC for the same reasons that Doug outlines below. He's done a great job of summing it up, so I won’t repeat his statements. However, I will say that I dislike same-day DLC less than unlock keys for the fact that it's something separate and apart from the disk that I buy. It's up to me whether I choose to purchase it or not, and knowing it's out there doesn't mentally devalue the product I paid for the same way that knowing there’s inaccessible content on a disc I own does.

    Doug: Excellent comments there, and I couldn't agree more. I was trying to stay focused on the topic of unlock keys rather than taking on the entire sphere of DLC in my blog post, but you basically made my argument against same-day DLC for me.


    One good thing of having it on the disc though is that you don't need to have internet access to get the content.

    Also in 360's case you don't even need a Gold account. I am not sure whether Silver members have access to DLC.