What consumers expect from a video game has changed over the last thirty years. In the 80’s there were cloth maps and thick manuals in every box. When slim CD cases became the standard packaging, players stopped expecting pack-in items beyond a tiny manual. Since hard drives were added to consoles Downloadable Content has become nearly unavoidable, as are “Ultimate Editions” that compile it all. Despite the proliferation of digital delivery, Collectors’ Editions with physical bonuses have resurged, packed in monstrous boxes that loom ominously on store shelves. With all of these bells and whistles clamoring for consumers’ attention, is just making the game enough anymore? Explosion spoke with industry vets Brian Fargo and Steve Allison to find out.
Decades ago, when graphics were primitive, the physical bonuses compensated for technological limitations. The maps provided gamers with a detailed view of where their adventures would take place, printed manuals told the history of the world through short stories, while hand-drawn art gave a clearer picture of what the characters were supposed to look like. Often these items contained hints on how to beat tough sections of the game, back in an age before online walkthroughs.
Explosion spoke with Brian Fargo CEO/Leader of in Exile about his recent Kickstarter-funded games which include old-time physical bonuses for some buyers. “These first big Kickstarter games had a strong nostalgia factor and having cloth maps, thick manuals and boxes just seemed appropriate for the overall presentation,” Fargo said, “It was also partly driven by seeing the faces of people who came into my office and saw the collection of boxed games I had. There is some kind of warm feeling when you open a new box and sift through the contents.”
When the CD became the dominant format for games they were packaged in jewel cases that saved space on store shelves. They barely had enough room for a disk and an instruction booklet, let alone a full-sized map and a replica Zorkmid coin. A few holdout developers like Blizzard continued to sell full-sized manuals filled with game lore, but such extravagance was rare. During that time, what players expected from a game was what came on the disk, and they usually got a long fine by using in-game virtual maps, and the new-fangled internet bulletin boards.
Game publishers were still looking for ways to keep players engaged with their products after the initial launch, though. PC games received Expansion Packs which were released on a disk and sold in retail stores for about the price of a full game. Smaller updates, patches and bonus missions would be available to download from the fledgling internet, but these were difficult to monetize at the time because many consumers didn’t even have internet access at all.
With the arrival of broadband internet and consoles that could store multiple gigs of information, there was a sudden surge of downloadable extras in the form of paid add-ons and “Micro-transactions”. On the PC front Valve and their Steam service led the charge in 2003 offering full-sized downloadable games, but a smaller developer was hot on their heels.
Telltale Games imagined a future where players could download their purchases right from the internet in small episodes that would roll out over the course of a few months. “Everybody in the game business told [Telltale’s founders] that they were crazy,” says Steve Allison, Senior VP of Publishing at Telltale Games. “This repeating chorus of ‘That’s Never going to work.’” However Telltale’s idea of digital distribution did work and resulted in blockbuster hits like The Walking Dead along with numerous indie developers who aped Telltale’s episodic format.
“Our games are designed to be consumable by all gamers, that’s appealing to all gamers, but that is not a fifty hour commitment,” Allison continued “You can get a five dollar consumable experience that you’re super excited about, and knock it out in a couple of hours… People drop everything they’re doing on other games to fire up the next episode to play it, then they go back to their standard gaming behavior.”
This publishing model freed Telltale and other developers from the traditional method in which the Developer makes the game, while a Publisher produces the physical copies of the game (And any bonus items). Allison pointed out the major problem with the old publishing relationship “We [At Telltale] happily pay for everything we make, that way we get to take home 100% of the revenue. We don’t need to be fronted, we’re highly profitable and the revenues are really good, thankfully… If the development team works super hard they’ll invest two years, three years, four years of their lives to build the game, and generally they don’t see much after they’ve shipped it. The Publisher does.”
Fargo agrees regarding Digital Distribution “The world has changed greatly since Wasteland 1 and had there been digital distribution back then [In 1988] you can bet we would have had Wasteland 1 on it.”
The downside to digital distribution is that it can be used to add superfluous downloadable content to existing games. When the first Micro-transactions began appearing, players were extremely hostile to the notion of buying in-game items with real-world money, and skeptical that DLC missions were simply material left out of the game at launch in order to extort more money out of consumers. Despite these suspicions some DLC has been of high enough quality to even eclipse the core content of its game. However, players still have to scrutinize every DLC purchase.
“The games business is so fragmented and DLC for one game can mean cosmetic items whereas in other ones it could be pay to win. In some cases DLC is a blatant money grab sitting on top of an already very profitable game and in others it is a genuine attempt to keep the world alive,” says Fargo “I still prefer the definitions when we called them expansion packs as it denoted a certain volume and quality of addition to a game. With Wasteland 2 we are likely to keep a small team adding free content for a long period of time to increase the value of the base game for existing players and potential new ones.”
Allison sees a generally benevolent intention behind the abundance of DLC “What we’re seeing in the market is that people are contracting around their favorite franchises. People would rather play more Call of Duty than buy four first person shooters during the year. So that’s a little bit of a conundrum for people who want to make new shooters and that’s the reason why you’ll see Activision want to make those expansion packs and have season passes. People will stick with the game they love if you give them more stuff and the new stuff is compelling as well.”
When asked about developers creating intentionally superfluous content, Allison said “Lots of people have done DLC that’s throw away and wasteful of people’s time. You don’t want to do that, you want to make great games and great DLC if you want to support your fans… On the really great games, people want more stuff after they finish the disk or the first download, I hope nobody is doing it just to shovel crap out.”
In the days before digital distribution retailers could influence the production of extras in the form of store-specific preorder bonuses according to Fargo, “I used to get a fair amount of pressure from the big retailers to put something in for each of them. This was always a tricky situation as it wasn’t something we organically wanted to add but yet we could not live without a retail presence. Fortunately we don’t have this kind of pressure on the digital front.”
Although these extra ruffles and frills often have a justification for the consumer they raise the question as to whether or not they’re necessary for a commercially viable product. Explosion asked Fargo about the feasibility of a crowdfunding campaign where sponsors pay a flat fee for the game, with no other options. “With our current campaigns you could choose to just get the game and that was most popular choice, but a good 25-50% of our backers opted for additional things like a physical copy, or novellas or collectors editions etc. On one hand physical goods means less money for the development but it also gives more options for people who would like to contribute more.”
Steve Allison commented on the GOTY edition of The Walking Dead which was released on a physical disk, “I think we would have sold more or less the same amount of games if we didn’t release the disk version, we would have sold them digitally.”
The days of wondrous bonus items packed in with every copy of a game are long gone, and fans who want that experience are stuck buying limited editions when AAA games launch. As download speeds grow faster and storage devices become larger, digital distribution will become the norm, replacing the old physical bonuses with new in-game extras. Are the old bell and whistles needed for the industry to survive? No, some developers thrive without physical packaging of any sort. Although discriminating consumers can find excellent choices among DLC packs, they are hardly mandatory for publishers.
InXile’s Wasteland 2 is currently in beta testing, and a physical edition is heading to retail through publisher Deep Silver. Telltale Games just released episode 2 of The Wolf Among Us, and is in season 2 of The Walking Dead, with Game of Thrones and Tales From the Borderlands coming soon.