A rant about exclusive DLC, featuring MGS5 and friends
Posted by Matt at 14:28 on 10 Dec 2013
So Metal Gear Solid 5(?): Ground Zeroes: Snake's Revengeance: Prelude (abbreviated to MGS5 from this point) has a release date! March something or other depending on where you're hopelessly trapped on this awful planet. I love Metal Gear like no other franchise, so I am of course very excited about this.
But along with this news comes the additional reveal of an exclusive mission for Xbox One and Xbox 360 featuring everybody's favourite [insert character type description] Raiden, in his cyborg form. He has a gun, not a sword. Because unwarranted developer effort or something. This is in addition to the prior announcement that the Playstations 3 and 4 would also receive an exclusive mission featuring a low poly-count version of Solid Snake. Hu...rray?
So far so uninteresting right? So why does this inspire my annoyance to the point where I feel compelled to cast off my vow of No More Writing 2013-14? Because it's a really fucking dumb yet perhaps important part of a larger dumb yet perhaps important trend that's gnawing away at the gristle of our beloved pastime.
Console-exclusive DLC has risen up to become the new third party exclusive. The simple reason for this is that big budget games are simply too damn expensive for a publisher to risk limiting the potential market for them, while the hardware manufacturer in most cases can't justify investing hundreds of millions of dollars into locking down a single game to their platform. Titanfall is a recent rare exception to this, simply because it is one of the most hyped new IPs in years and become a crucial reference point in Microsoft's roster.
But even if hefty financial considerations were to be ignored, perhaps the greater note of importance is that third party exclusives just don't actually make much sense anymore in today's industry. In the days when console 'services' didn't exist - when online infrastructures, social media and multimedia functions didn't factor in at all - the list of exclusives that a platform could boast of was THE key differentiator. But in the time since the Xbox 360 and PS3 launches, the rise of these very factors as genuine influences on console buying decisions, has led to a state where in spite of a game being multiplatform, there can be a clear advantage to buying that game on one platform over the other. In the last generation, this was typically the vastly superior online infrastructure offered by the 360 over the PS3, and so it became the primary platform on which to play multiplatform games, regardless of the fact they weren't exclusive to the system.
And you know what? The world is better for this. It means that instead of just being able to throw money at a publisher to artificially bolster the strength of their platform as the dominant force, the onus is on the hardware guys to make their platform the best that it can possibly be in order to make their version of the game the best one available. Everybody can play the game, and nobody is excluded, but the prize of it being something of an honourary exclusive is still up for grabs. There is a reason the Call of Duty brand was inseparable from the Xbox brand for five years. Microsoft offered a better reason to play the game on their system, and reaped the reward of licensing money from the majority choosing the 360 version over the PS3's. Did this mean PS3 owners couldn't play the game if they wanted to? Hell no. The only losers were Sony for having failed to offer a good enough service, and it forced them to improve their offering, which has carried forward into their efforts with the PS4.
The benefits to us as gamers have become numerous, particularly from Sony's side as they have attempted to create new incentives to turn the tables in their favour, without electing to simply throw enough money at a game to exclude the Xbox market, as would've been customary in generations of old. Playstation Plus is the golden example of this, and has put a severe dampener on Xbox Live's appeal in recent years. It champions the message of 'if our platform isn't the only place you can play games, we're gonna make it the only place where you want to play them.' Nobody loses out; everybody gains from the competition to offer a better user experience. And the console manufacturers simply aren't allowed to become complacent.
And so these considerations make exclusive DLC a frustrating and cynical throwback to worse times, which stubbornly refuses to go away and flies in the face of aforementioned trends. The exasperating thing about exclusive DLC is that it's often too token to seriously sway buying decisions, but still results in a whole demographic missing out on content they may have enjoyed. The obvious answer is 'buy the one with the content then', and this would work if everybody owned every console, but that is an unrealistic scenario to apply to the general market. Effectively you are saying 'buy the console with the most exclusive DLC.' Suddenly we are regressing in the most depressing way possible, exploiting the gamer's desire to experience the full package.
The worst instance of this however, and one that sadly applies to MGS5, is exclusive content on both platforms. The presence of different sets of exclusive features across different platforms effectively cancels out the original goal of attempting to sway allegiance by dangling an extra rotting but technically edible carrot in front of either the X or PS logo, since regardless of which version the buyer picks, they are still missing out. Now, granted, in the case of MGS5 the missions seem so superfluous you can say it doesn't matter, since the core game is seemingly unaffected. But as with many things in life, it's the precedent set that matters. Particularly in a series as story and character driven as MGS.
The longer this practice goes on, the more aggressive the efforts to secure more substantial exclusive content seem likely to become. The next logical step is a platform securing exclusive side missions that take place in the main canon of the game. Then of course the competition wants their slice of the pie as well. Now you have actually somewhat important content missing no matter how pliable you are or where you choose to play. Of course, this depends on how willing the producers are to section off and dish out parts of the pre-existing game among platforms, and I sincerely believe people like Hideo Kojima have too much integrity to do this. Others though: who knows? Certainly there seem to be plenty of people in this industry more willing to occupy ethical grey areas in order to put food on the table. Surely the only essential content is the core storyline, right? And who's to say what's core nowadays? Didn't I hear once that every story is just a beginning, middle and an end? And I've always thought that whole middle part thing could've done with some trimming...
But, when you think about it too much like I do, even with these possibly worsening trends aside, the shallowness of the content secured in the here and now somehow makes its exclusivity even worse. Especially for a series such as MGS whose fans are invested enough to want to experience the whole thing, frivolous extras and all. It has little chance of actually influencing buying decisions, as more meaningful content might, and so the only real effect it has is to make people miss out on a daft little thing they might have enjoyed on the side. Nobody wins; the people to whom the game experience means most lose. See the problem?
The sensationalist response is of course to boycott everything. Send a message to publishers and console makers alike in the only language they truly understand: don't give them your money. But I want to play MGS5 on the day it comes out. So that's not gonna happen. I'll buy it, play the main game and dabble in the extra content I inadvertently supported, and then perhaps watch the content I missed on Youtube, wondering if it's any more exciting to play than it is to watch.