Video games have changed immeasurably since the days of tape loading and cover-mounted floppy discs. Today, we get lifelike 3D virtual worlds where the player can seamlessly connect with companions and opponents from every corner of the globe. An online triple-A title will now offer literally hundreds of hours of fun spread across years of play. Yet, inflation aside, the price we pay at the till remains the same now as it was 25 years ago.
To make this possible, a lot of things have changed about the way the games industry works – but those changes haven’t always been well received. When problems arise, frustrated consumers will often blame “money-grubbing” publishers or “lazy” developers. But is that fair? We asked the industry to explain five of the most controversial aspects of modern games buying – and, crucially, why they happen.
1. Downloadable content
Games today are ruled by two main types of payment system. Premium, in which you pay upfront for the product, and free-to-play, where the base game is free but can be expanded upon with microtransactions. Publishers often face flack, however, when a premium game then goes on to also offer microtransactions – even if they only give access to vanity items like new skins or costumes.
So why do so many full price games now offer mini-payments? The obvious answer is that it works: downloadable content (DLC) is hugely popular. Publisher Take-2, for instance, recently reported that 57% of its total digital sales are accounted for via such recurring revenue, most from Grand Theft Auto Online. Activision Blizzard made over $3.6bn from optional DLC included in titles such as Call of Duty and Overwatch.
THQ Nordic’s marketing director Philipp Brock adds that such practices have also allowed smaller games to flourish. “Look at Rocket League,” he says. “You can see how the DLC enables the developers to keep doing the thing they want to do.” Speaking off the record, one executive at a leading global games publisher pointed out a logical maxim: only the popular payment systems survive.
In short: DLC wouldn’t exist if consumers didn’t spend their money on it. The modern games business has a huge range of customers who all want slightly different things. Some are willing to pay more for more content, so providing they are getting value for money and aren’t gaining an advantage over other players, the system works. It all might sound horribly cynical, but the argument coming from the industry is that without maximising profit for reinvestment there simply wouldn’t be new games.
2. Season passes
A season pass is an additional purchase on top of a game’s upfront price that grants access to future content that will be added to a game, be that new multiplayer maps or story levels. If handled correctly, season pass content can be entirely positive. The Witcher 3, for example, offered two wonderful expansions that were developed after the game was released.
What can be less palatable, however, is when season pass content is announced at the same time as the game itself. How is a consumer to differentiate between genuinely new content and content that has instead been cut from the main game in the hope that it can be sold separately? This demands a level of trust from the buyer.
“We plan DLC in advance and start working on it once the main game content is finished, or have other studios working on it in parallel to the lead studio’s development of the main game,” says Anne Blondel, VP of live operations at Ubisoft. “This means we can start to deliver even more content not too long after the release. One reason why we sometimes announce that new content in advance is because we want players to know they’ll have the choice to continue playing in the game world long after the game’s release.”
In short: Offering season passes is a way to assure players that a title will be supported throughout the year, and to ensure there is demand – and therefore funding – for the development of supplementary content like maps and missions. Triple A game development such as movie and music production is about mitigating financial risk. Season passes lock in gamers and keep them playing – and paying.
3. Day-one patches
It’s happened to all of us: you put a new game disc into your PS4 or Xbox One – or download it from the digital store – and a message appears on screen that you need to download an extra update file before you can even start. Sometimes these patches can be almost the size of the original game.
It’s a problem that THQ Nordic, which has internal rules about limiting patch sizes, says it takes very seriously. “Not everybody lives in a metropolitan area, especially in the US where physical sales are still going strong,” he says. “Imagine you have a 30GB game that you are buying and the day one patch is 40GB. That’s really bad PR.”
However Jason Kingsley, the head of UK developer Rebellion, points out that the protracted submission process for console games means day one patches are often inescapable. “We submit the game to the hardware manufacturers probably four months before the actual street date,” he says. “A lot of consumers don’t realise the game they’re playing at Christmas was probably finished in the summer. You’ve got a team of experts sitting around waiting for release. What do you do with them? The simple answer is they keep working on that project because as we test it and as we play it more we might find obscure bugs or little bits that need to be fixed.”