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On DLC and Virtual Property

March 12, 2010

I recently got into a bit of a disagreement on Twitter with my esteemed colleague Brad Gallaway about the nature of lollers!DLC as it pertains to ownership.

Firstly, Twitter royally sucks for that sort of interaction.

Secondly, those of you who have spent more than 10 minutes on gaming message boards are already aware of where this is going, that being the practice of “DLC” consisting of unlocking data on the physical media that was previously inaccessible, as opposed to downloading said content. Brad, like many people, finds this inexcusable because they have “paid” for that information.

Now, I wish to state that Brad is an intelligent individual who I absolutely respect and has probably forgotten more about games than I’ve learned in the first place. He is also wrong.

The problem here is that he’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. Accessing that other information is not only not your right, it is, taking the contractual agreement that you enter into by buying that media at face value, actually illegal.

Several recent examples involving games show that what you are actually purchasing is access to the data that the company wishes you to access: for the American release of Yakuza 3, Sega has removed access to the hostess bars as well as the shogi and mahjong minigames, all of which are available in the Japanese version of the game. Said data is almost certainly not actually been removed from the disc, just blocked off. So, do American consumers have a right to access this data? I invite those of you who feel this way to bring litigation against Sega of America and let me know how this goes.

In a more extreme example, we have Ubisoft’s new DRM for their PC games where if you are not online, you cannot access the game at all. This includes network outages on Ubi’s side as well as your own. Again, you paid for the game, yet if you try and bypass the DRM to access the game data, it is you who would be doing something illegal.

As a final example, if you buy a game with an online component, you only buy the right to access online content for as long as the servers are up. In this case, it is easier to understand why this is, because the relationship between the consumer and the data is explicitly separate from the physical property, even though almost all the code and art assets used in the online experience is packed on the physical disc.

The part of this issue that is boggling to me is that Brad, and presumably many people who share his viewpoint on this, are against the unlocking of data, yet are fine with paying for information as part of a DLC package so long as it’s downloaded. Now, I have some first-hand experience with how DLC is generated,  and I assure you that in most casees that whether regardless of whether it is eventually downloaded or unlocked, it is generated in the exact same manner. Meaning that people are only willing to pay for said information if they have to go through an inconvenience of having to squeeze that information through their personal bandwidth.

This makes a certain amount of sense as anybody involved in selling product throughout the years will tell you that people will prefer to pay more for something when presented with the illusion of work having been done, even if said “work” is completely unnecessary for the end product. In fact, if something is seemingly “too easy” to produce, it must be a rip-off, regardless of the value of the end product. In this case, the significant download* of said DLC data is “proof” of the good faith of the developer.

However, this shouldn’t be an issue of contention for much longer as we’ll all be dealing with download-only content eventually, which will bring all sorts of new arguments (that will soon feel old) along with it.

* – I use this awkward phrase because technically, you’re still downloading something when you unlock access to DLC, it’s just that the download is of a trivial size compared to the actual amount of bits contained in the “downloaded” content.

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10 Comments
  1. I concur.

    It’s just growing pains. People coming to grips with content creators being able to exert more control over their property, whereas before it was left to the public conscience.

    I’m not saying it’s wrong or right for people to have heartburn about it, but there it is. There are certainly steps content creators could implement to reduce the ill will, but would it be worth it? Apparently not thus far.

    • slacktron23 permalink

      Yes, I am being somewhat disingenuous in that it’s not wrong for Brad to gripe about this sort of thing*; I’m saying he’s wrong in that he doesn’t own all the information on the disc (although he certainly owns the physical disc). In fairness to him, I took an offhand comment and ran with it.

      * – Not that I have the right to say what’s right or wrong in that sort of context either.

  2. S A R Parker permalink

    Whilst a lot of this post picks out some very interesting points about DLC, I just want to add something regarding DRM.

    I feel a comparison to DRM is misleading. The truth is, whatever peoples thoughts about DLC, DRM and its surrounding furore is an entirely different beast; one much more evil.

    It’s akin to purposely giving a product that you assumed would be a lifetime possession a very limited lifespan.

    It’s true all products (including games) are only viable for a certain number of years, however if a product such as an iPhone had inbuilt programming to shut down after 2 years, whether it works or not, or self-destruct after a resale; people would be in uproar. Whatever excuse a software company states for using it, this is the effect of most DRM in digital products.

    Day one DLC (content that was already there from day one of release) is a different animal, one that is hard to love because it could easily be released as part of the game, and not sold separately. In some extreme cases its pretty clear to people with a quick mind that certain DLC had been a part of the game before being removed for the sole purpose of being sold after release in order to generate more revenue.

    I’m not saying game developers are not within their rights to do this, but just because something is legally sound, does not make it morally so.

    An argument used more than once in this post is that because something is legal it’s right and because it’s illegal, it’s wrong. Right and wrong however, are defined by socially acceptable standards, not law. Just because something is legal, doesn’t make it right.

    Paying for DLC that was developed after game release makes sense, and will always be supported by me, but paying for DLC created during the original game’s production doesn’t sit well with me because there were no additional production costs for that content, therefore it’s a simple case of exploitation of a fanbase.

    My most humble 2 cents. Thanks for the interesting post.

    • slacktron23 permalink

      Firstly, DRM is relevant in this discussion because it represents how companies control access to content, similar to how DLC “unlocks” are really just companies selling access to new content.

      Secondly, part of the issue that I have with these discussions is that I don’t really see “right” or “wrong” as applicable. Or “good” or “evil” for that matter.

      For example, contrary to what you claim, I never say that something is “right” or “wrong”. I say that Brad is “wrong” in the sense that I deem him to be making an incorrect judgement and never step into making moral judgements.

      I also never say what my personal opinion is of DLC (or DRM, for that matter). I’m merely talking about what I perceive as misconceptions in terms of what is “owned” with products that have both physical and virtual components.

      however if a product such as an iPhone had inbuilt programming to shut down after 2 years, whether it works or not, or self-destruct after a resale; people would be in uproar.

      I would question why these people bought this product (assuming the information was available previous to purchase) in the first place. And if they hadn’t, why they were so upset.

      And that is a point that I did not make in the post yet I feel is important and relevant: it is in the power of the consumer not to consume. If people don’t like DLC (or DRM), they are free not to purchase.

      • S A R Parker permalink

        DRM is never openly stated, its always slid in under the radar. There’s your answer as to why people are upset about it. People have to actually do research to find out if it’s there at all. The majority of the consumer’s of a DRM product are completely unaware that DRM is present, or even what is, until the the day when they can’t use the product hits them squarely in the face unawares.

        The entire argument surrounding DLC and DRM is about the ethics of the practise; to refuse to see it from a moral perspective is to not really see the big picture at all. Also, it completely removes the opposing argument’s standpoint outright; a smart tactic if you want to win an argument in one’s own mind, but very, very blinkered.

        • slacktron23 permalink

          DRM is never openly stated, its always slid in under the radar.

          This is untrue. As deplorable as Ubi’s DRM scheme was and is, it was announced well before it went into place and was covered widely on the Internet, Rock Paper Shotgun being where I heard about it.

          While I agree that companies should do more to indicate exactly what their DRM consists of, it is by no means impossible for consumers to research it before purchasing.

          The entire argument surrounding DLC and DRM is about the ethics of the practise; to refuse to see it from a moral perspective is to not really see the big picture at all. Also, it completely removes the opposing argument’s standpoint outright; a smart tactic if you want to win an argument in one’s own mind, but very, very blinkered.

          I don’t think I’m being willfully ignorant here; I’m willing to listen to any argument about it, I just haven’t heard one yet that convinces me that DLC is an unethical business practice or has anything to do with morality.

  3. This makes a certain amount of sense as anybody involved in selling product throughout the years will tell you that people will prefer to pay more for something when presented with the illusion of work having been done, even if said “work” is completely unnecessary for the end product.

    that’s because there’s a formula you could plug into excel (a legally bought version, of course!) that will give you the “fair” price for any piece of software.

    shorter version: too much marxism in government run schools has embedded the labor theory of value in peoples’ heads.

    Paying for DLC that was developed after game release makes sense, and will always be supported by me, but paying for DLC created during the original game’s production doesn’t sit well with me because there were no additional production costs for that content, therefore it’s a simple case of exploitation of a fanbase.

    1) additional productions costs were most likely accrued during the production of additional content because:
    a) someone(s) had to plan this stuff
    b) someone(s) had to make this stuff
    c) someone(s) had to budget for it
    d) and so forth

    just because it was worked on at the same time as the main game doesn’t actually mean anything one way or the other as far as what sort of man-hour cost it had. and that man-hour cost means nothing in terms of how much something should cost. if a game takes five years to make or two years to make, a triple AAA title is still going to be 50 bucks or more no matter what.

    2) paying for something you desire is exploitation in the same way that not getting a pretty girl’s phone # is actionable breach of contract.

    that said, i have no problem with people sitting out dlc entirely. i just think framing it as a moral issue is outlandish and lends itself to taking the entire thing far, far, far too seriously. (a la jon blow and wow).

  4. Giel permalink

    Selling any type of digital media can be thought of as selling a box with something unknown inside. This box has pictures on the side of what is inside it. It also has stories of the people who already had access to the box contents and have written about it. We don’t get to see what is in the box until after we’ve paid to open the box. We can just look at it from the outside and listen to what the reviewers of the box contents have said. The makers of what’s inside the box also have stories of what is in the box.

    Based on all this information we have to decide if we want to pay the fee for access to what is inside the box. With any sort of DRM or DLC we have to keep in mind that were not paying to permanently have what is in the box. We are paying to have access to what is in the box for as long as the company that made the box contents says that we have access or until the company goes bankrupt or something goes wrong with the validation or server systems. If anything goes wrong, whether it is their fault or ours, were have no option to reclaim our access of what is in the box.

    Now there is another problem. If the stories people have been telling about what is in the box are wrong or we don’t see things the same way as the reviewers we have no way of “unbuying” our access rights to the box contents. We are paying for the privilege of getting to look into the box, we don’t get ownership and we don’t get our money back when we can’t look into the box anymore. If we had bought a book we could sell the book to someone else but the box is not like that, we pay for continual access but we can’t give our access rights to someone else.

    Because we have no opportunity to look into the box we don’t know what we are buying access to. It’s difficult to estimate the value of what we are buying. It’s like making a gamble that what the box sellers are asking for is the correct price for the actual box contents. The reviewers of the box’s contents can be influenced by the sellers of the box. They can directly give money for favourable reviews but they can also threaten to no longer give advertisement money to the reviewer’s sites. This means the reviewer is motivated to write good reviews thus allowing the box seller to up his asking price even if the box content’s really aren’t that nice.

    The conclusion is that we have no way of knowing that what is in the box is worth what they are asking for it. We have no way of either getting our money back or reselling our access rights. We also have no way of getting a good idea of what is inside the box unless we find some independent and unbiased reviewer of the box contents. Our only option is using the rights of someone else to get a taste of what is in the box, loaning the box contents from a licensed loaner or looking at a demo of the box contents that may have no good representational value. Whatever happens, we run a good risk spending our money on something we won’t like and we have no way of getting that money back.

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