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The slippery slope of consumer respect and disc unlocks

Brad Gallaway's picture

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.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   Wii   PS3   PSP   PC  
Topic(s): Game Design & Dev  

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I totally agree. I refuse to pay for items on the disk.
At least when Fallout 3 DLs was released (as underwhelming as it was), you knew it was created after the release of the game. They even created entirely new artifacts entirely for much of their dlc.

I do get frustrated with people who don't care about this. If if we accept this behavior it can open a huge can of worms.

How about paying for the last paragraph of a review or maybe there will be a charge to watch the special features on a dvd.
It may sounds extreme but if we come to accept this as normal practice we will surely be taken advantage of in the future.

Bad Business Practice

For me, this kind of behaviour is just, as you said, disrespectful to the customer. That and how they are doing it shows once again, that game publishers are even worse, than other parts of the content industry, like music or film.

No record label, no movie company could get away with what game publishers are doing. Sell a movie and ask the customer to pay something extra, if they want to view all of the scenes on the DVD or worse, sell them tickets and in during the movie, ask them to pay some extra bucks to see all of the film. Sell them a CD and tell them the bonus tracks on the CD they just bought are locked until they spend another $5 or something. Customers, pitchfork in hand, would send them to hell for such practices.

And don't get me started on DRM. Only game publishers get away with this ****.

It's just that publishers see, what they can do with and to their audience and they will do it. And I think a big part of the problem is, that most gamers are not mature enough to stand up against business like this. It's a juvenile "want want want". Most criticism towards this wrong way we're going is coming from gamers some 25+ and that's why business like this doesn't work with other forms of media, the audience is more mature and there is a public voice that can be heard, if something goes wrong. It's a long way, until the gaming populace is up there, too.

Should have made this a blog post myself, this has probably gotten a little too long for a comment.

Moral judgement is permitted

"...If not, then there'd better be a disclaimer somewhere on the package telling me that I'll need to chip in another $5..."

You hit the mark with this statement, Brad. I read Thom's post and he seems to presume that critics of unlockable, on-disk-DLC are primarily concerned with *paying*, when we're actually quite willing to support the people who make our games. We're much more concerned with the ethics of business, the way we are treated as customers and (at least in my case) how this affects the gaming industry as a whole.

On a par with these concerns is another of your statements: "Just because it's possible (and even legal) to slap all kinds of partitions, controls, DRM or any other sort of control system [...] doesn't mean it's right."
Thom and several people who commented on his post keep using the legal argument as the super-weapon that supposedly ends the discussion (people will get used to publishers doing what they want and so on...). We are perfectly capable of critizising stupid legal practices and absurd business practices (and actually have a duty as gaming journalists to voice these criticisms). We shouldn't stop demanding decency, integrity and fairness, even in the face of such terrible odds.


Thanks for clearly codifying how on-disc DLC is a disingenuous and dishonest sales tactic to the consumer.

I'd like to see full disclosure on the box for these kinds of things, much like the rating, number of players, display resolutions, and console features supported.

Publishers have the ability to stash stuff on-disc, and we deserve to make informed buying decisions. Really I doubt it would negatively impact sales and would only help publishers' sullied image. Until they do share that information, they are implying that the product is only what you can play and nothing more.

What text would be most descriptive? Maybe something along the lines of those disclaimers that say additional online service fees may apply for online playable games, etc?
Additional Charge Required for Optional Content

Shane wrote: How about

Shane wrote:

How about paying for the last paragraph of a review or maybe there will be a charge to watch the special features on a dvd.

Yep, I've been drawing that same comparison myself for a few years now.

Can you imagine if they tried to pull this crap with DVDs? Why is it that the gaming community will roll-over so easily?

It's messed up, and there's no justification for it. Games are already overpriced as it is, so using this dirty little tactic to gain more cash is beyond redemption. It actually makes me disgusted to be a gamer sometimes.

Anyway, 100% agree with article, and show absolutely no sympathy for anyone who thinks that DLC that is already on-disc is fair game. It isn't.

the cost

I think we should also recognize that, especially in the case of the XBox, on-disc DLC isn't without opportunity cost. Somebody has to be working on the "DLC" ahead of release, rather than on the main game, of course. In addition, that content takes up space on the disc that could be used for the main game or the standard multiplayer. Did the players who, like myself, bought the game only for the single-player receive smaller, less-detailed levels or lower-quality audio so that 2K could cram this extra multiplayer content onto the disc? Was the base multiplayer content trimmed back so that this portion could be sold again? To what degree was 2K willing to compromise the player's experience so that this could be included on the disc?


what sucks though, like you said, is that this won't stop. What worries most is that I could be lied to and told that the new DLC was created off disc when in fact it's locked on the disc and I'd never know the better. There's a way of finding this out to be sure, but I'd say your average gamer probably wouldn't go through the trouble of doing so.

Also, as you say, you will continue to buy DLC, but with the hope that this sort of behavior ends; problem is the behavior won't end until people stop paying for it. And until disclosures are mandated any DLC content is always potentially on disc, thus meaning the only way to stop it is to stop buying.

I can't see that happening. It's like the complaint (not that I'm equating your argument with this because I actually agree with you wholeheartedly) that movie stars and athletes get paid "too much." The complainer doesn't realize he/she is the one paying them.

Obviously it's more complicated than that, but the point stands. Blah.

This is a very interesting

This is a very interesting subject, my instictive reaction is also 'I bought it, I should have it', but following this line of thought to it's logical conclusion brings serious doubts about (almost) all DLC, while it's tempting to draw a line on ownership at the physical disk level would you want to pay for patches? How about if it improves performance or load times rather than fixing a bug (Bayonetta)?

It's hard not to assume that if DLC is being prepared early enough in the production process to be included on the disk it should be part of the primary product, is this really fair, have we already paid for it? Would defining rules really make things better or worse? If, for example, an arbitary line is drawn in the sand when the final code is compiled, won't some producers simply rush the release? If a different team has to work on DLC seperately, won't a single large team become two smaller ones? Would ending DLC altogether lead to more content in the final product or not?

I suppose really the question is whether the primary product as sold is value for money, if content or quality is compromised, if additional payments are required to get a satisfying story or reasonable length of play then something is clearly wrong, but if the product is worth buying at the price and there is no compulsion to purchase the DLC, if all the features that are listed on the box and in the adverts and review copies are there we should perhaps accept that it is the complete product and that add ons, even if physically present, are add ons.

In a way, the whole DLC

In a way, the whole DLC phenomenon is an outgrowth of MMOs. They've realized that it's worth developing a service for payment relationship with the player.

Some MMOs have an even shadier add on content development, though... the sale of virtual items and virtual gameplay advantages. This gets to be very insidious because the game developer can engineer the game in such a way to encourage the players to pony up, or face a bleak outcome to their game experience.

Still another shade of comparison is the quarter muncher arcade games, the ones designed specifically to drip feed content at the cost of a quarter every minute and a half, unless you were unnaturally skilled (and they could jack up the machine's difficulty if they needed to).

So DLC has the potential for some serious issues in the future. Right now we're in the setting principles stage. But imagine a game that, in fine new Ubisoft tradition, is always online, receiving instructions from the home office. The player is facing a problem in the game that is limiting his enjoyment. He's not progressing, because it's too hard. But wait! He recieves a call on his virtual cellphone from an NPC with a weapon that will solve the problem, if he'll pay the finder's fee of 800 microsoft points!

Cobble together those elements that all exist in current gen games, and then imagine that the company may have engineered the difficulty specifically, after the fact, over the net, when too many players weren't paying up.

DLC has massive potential for consumer abuse, where the company doesn't respect the idea of producing a complete, finished, quality product for the initial sale.

To simplify: The company

To simplify:

The company chooses to charge and the consumer chooses to pay, regardless of whether a DLC is unlocked via disc or downloaded. Any further arguments wade into linguistic semantics and random bias.

I don't like it either, but they're entirely in their right to implement whatever profit-inducing activities they please, and it's our right to not give them money for doing so.

This is just the beginning.

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