Ideas are a rather nebulous things, especially when it comes to the free market. When I charge you a set price for a piece of fruit, or for a new sweater, or even for something like a car, the transaction is pretty clear. You pay me an agreed upon price for some physical good, which represents a cost in both raw materials and human effort to construct it.

However, the entertainment industry has never been about the physical goods, even though its how their ideas were distributed for decades. When you purchase a new album, or a movie, or a video game, your cost isn’t really for the disc it comes on. You are, in essence, paying for a license to enjoy the content it contains. But for some people, that’s a hard concept to swallow. Take away the physical disc and it seems like the transaction is lessened, even if the final content is the same.

In that regard, downloadable content, a perfect example of detaching game content from physical media, has been a point of contention between game developers and game players for some time, with the former championing its ability to increase profits and extend the lives of games and the latter accusing developers of withholding content from the core product so they can nickle and dime players with $5 and $10 transactions. Both side have a point; the practice allows for lengthy add-ons in games like Fallout and Borderlands, which give players new worlds and entirely new stories to complete, just as easily as it allows developers to charge players $3 for virtual horse armor or a new t-shirt for their character.

But Epic Games, the developers of Gears of War, have added a new wrinkle into the debate. When their game’s first DLC pack hit this week, players were surprised to see the download was a paltry 1.2 MB, hardly large enough to contain the new maps and characters it promised. It turns out, the files for the pack were already loaded on the game discs themselves. The $10 charge was essentially little more than a key to unlock that content. Cue the Internet outrage. If ever there was an example of developers robbing gamers this was it. They were charging for something the players already had but couldn’t access.

But were they? Epic responded that because of a delay to polish the game, they had time to build and finish the game’s first DLC, and thought it would be better to include the files on disc to save players the aggravatingly large download. The expansion content was developed outside the scope of the original game’s budget, which was constructed using a $60 price tag and expected sales. Thus, the DLC was never supposed to be part of the main game; it just happened to share the same method of distribution.

I may be siding with “The Man” here, but Epic makes a good point. It doesn’t matter whether the DLC comes from online or off the disc; in either case you are paying for additional game time made outside the scope of the game’s budget. We aren’t arguing ethics here; we’re arguing means of distribution. For those that claim everything on disc should be theirs, allow me to offer a somewhat shaky metaphor: many hotel rooms contain mini bars inside their four walls. The liquor inside is physically within your grasp, but you cannot access it without paying. Is this the hotel being greedy? No. It’s their way of keeping the hotel room’s cost down. If the liquor became free, then your room bill would probably go up considerably. So instead, the mini bar is there for those that want to use it (and who think that a $10 nip of rum is a fair deal).

The same reasoning sits behind Gears. If the extra DLC was factored into the main game, that work in turn has to be factored in the budget. So instead, the game retails for $65 or $70 with that content unlocked. Here’s the thing: if you have no interest in playing online, you were forced to buy content you didn’t want. Instead, gamers are allowed to play their part in free-market economics. If extra multiplayer is worth the entry fee, they can pay. If it’s not, then they don’t. and don’t get the content.The fact the bits that make up the extra content are on disc is really a red herring; this still boils down to the practice of offering game DLC.

And you know what? Gamers have kind of forced this on themselves. The price of video games has been $50-60 for the last two decades, even though the consumer price index has not remained stagnant. So comparatively, a $50 NES game in 1987 equates to about $100. That means games have been getting cheaper, even though budgets for top titles are approaching those of movies ($20 million and up). And yet, gamers have come to expect that $60 level and would no doubt balk at any increase. So what’s a developer to do? Offer extra content to slowly creep those prices to a point that can cover the budget and eventually turn a profit. For that reason, I love games like Rock Band, which essentially offer a customizable, a la carte experience that works just as well as its vanilla on disc self too. So long as DLC adds new features and keeps my base game costs at $60, I am all for it.

Sure, this all crashes down if Epic lied about the content being outside the scope of the budget, but even then, we’re not arguing basic human rights or grave injustices here. We’re arguing over business practice. And despite all its flaws, capitalism does afford this one grace: if you don’t like something, don’t buy it. We aren’t entitled to anything from gaming companies. All we can do it support the ones that treat us right and shun the ones that don’t.

And now the news:

  • Uncharted 3, one of Playstation’s highly anticipated flagship exclusives, released to glowing reviews this week. Well, mostly glowing. Scott Jones of The AV Club gave the game a “C”, blaming the score on a less impressive story and dodgy controls. As is par for the course, however, the flood gates of Internet rage were rent asunder, inundating the comment section with indignation, insults and spelling errors. Was Jones a bit harsh on the game? Possible (I haven’t played it). But guess what? People have differing opinions on things, and as long as he didn’t fabricate things about the game, his points are well taken. If your self-worth is at all tied to how your favorite game is received by others, however, … I don’t even have advice for that. Just don’t.
  • We’re reaching the heart of “Release-ageddon” this week, with the hotly anticipated Modern Warfare 3 dropping this Tuesday, allowing mouthy teenagers and bros to shoot each other in the head and make offensive racial slurs online on a bunch of new maps. Sorry. I am too tired to mask my hatred of that game today. I am sure it will be awesome and sell billions of copies, though, and if you are reading this, I am sure you are the urbane exception to my generalization. I’ll, meanwhile, be playing the newest Elder Scrolls installment, Skyrim, when it releases on Friday. If I can pull myself away, I’ll have my first thoughts on it next week. I have already taken off work to play it, such is my anticipation. Though if my boss is reading this, I am not. That was a joke. Ha… Lastly, for nostalgia junkies, the Metal Gear Solid HD offers a chance to be Solid Snake again, minus the geriatrics.
  • Last week Drew mentioned his appreciation of my column suggesting new games, especially ones that are cheaper, so I am going to try to include a budget pick each week. This week’s nod goes to Darksiders, the bastard spawn of Zelda and God of War. It’s gleefully violent, engaging, and under $20 almost everywhere. If third person action is your thing, it’s worth a snag for sure. Have a personal favorite game that can be had on the cheap? Let us know!
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