The slippery slope of consumer respect and disc unlocks

BioShock 2 Screenshot

The other day, the subject of BioShock 2's recent Downloadable Content (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, That's right, time machines. 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.

Assassins Creed 2 Screenshot

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.