This post is a follow-on of some ideas raised in my last post, and again makes videogame-tabletop game analogies...
The Rise of DLC
Anyone with much to do with PC (or even console) gaming will be well aware of the phenomenon that is "DLC" or "DownLoadable Content."
DLC is a catch-all phrase for things like extra maps, units/classes, weapons, uniforms, equipment, as well as full blown expansion packs. These typically are inexpensive, but are bought in addition to the base game. Whereas in the past sometimes popular games would have an "expansion" (usually crammed with all the above content, often a complete standalone 'sequel' game) if they turned out to be really successful, DLCs are increasingly being used to dole out game content in dribs and drabs.
For example, you might play $20 for "Empire Total War" but then pay $5 each for four "unit packs" - Ottoman, Indians and various elite units - effectively doubling the price to $40 for the "complete"game. I paid $15 for Titanfall, but had to pay an extra $25 for 10 more maps so I could play with my friends.
This is not the same as "free to play"games (which we know aren't free) where you may expect to be gouged somewhere. DLC is added on top of the price of an already costly 'full' game, and is often mandatory in all but name: e.g. if you don't own the DLC, you usually can't use the item/unit/map in multiplayer, which can "force"you to buy them if you want to play with friends that do (or even access online play.) Basically it's pay now, then pay again if you want the full game or to be able to play with your friends/keep up with the Joneses.
It's all about the money.
Most games have a single upfront cost usually $50-80. Some online games are subscription-based (like World of Warcraft) - there is no upfront fee, but an ongoing cost - say $10/month - $120 for a year's play. Companies like EA have realized they have their cake and eat it - they charge $90 for a game upfront, then $20ea for 4 DLC 'expansions' ($170). Or they issue a "season pass" i.e. all upcoming expansions for $50 - a subscription in all but name. Owning extra units, weapons and options, leads us to:
Pay to Win
Owning extra units is usually beneficial. Even if the unit is not particularly powerful or "OP" compared to the 'stock' units/factions, having more options conveys an advantage. It's like having a wider range of tools - beneficial to have, even if they aren't all sledgehammers and chainsaws. If it offers ANY gameplay benefit, it is pay to win. Even worse are units which are particularly strong, or enable a certain combination of tactics and abilities not available to others. Pay to win is a thing, and it's big money. This long (40min) but interesting article by an EA manager explains how stats show most players DO want to pay for an advantage, especially if it is not too overt.
Early Access (Alpha rules = Pay-to-Playtest)
This is different from "early access" to in-game weapons/gear*, and not the same as pre-order**.
Not content with forcing people to pay twice, EA (who are like the Games Workshop of PC games, if you haven't twigged yet) have realized people are dumb enough to pay to playtest unfinished games. Whilst the most high-profile culprits, they aren't the most extreme example.
Claiming to allow players to help "shape the game to be what they want it to be" the companies are basically asking playtesters to pay for an unfinished product. Bizarrely, some companies even charged MORE for the 'privilege' claiming it will help weed out the 'serious' playtesters from the casuals. Wait, wut?
Most concerning - this is increasingly becoming the norm for the industry. On Steam, games are digitally distributed and Steam assists wannabe game designers by allowing them to peddle their concept ideas/half finished wares to the public. This freedom and accessability for indie designers has seen the amount of new PC games more than double from 583 to 1300+. However, only 25% of these games were actually completed.
Hey, isn't this supposed to be a wargames blog?
Ok, now here's the 'link'.
Army/faction books are tabletop gaming's obvious 'DLC' parallel. You want to play the Japanese in Bolt Action? Pony up $20 for a "DLC.' I mean, it's not like the Japanese were important in WW2 or anything. They're obviously on a par with the Romanian & Hungarian army books...
Games Workshop are the 'EA' of the tabletop world, with a codex "arms race"of ever-improving factions, with $$$ buying you powerful units and more options, but they are not alone in this practice. Another, more debatable area is small indie companies like Ganesha Games and Two Hour Wargames. They reuse the same "core" game 30 times, and simply add new "special rules" for period flavour, and charge the full rulebook price again - for what is effectively a "new unit pack" in videogaming terms. I'm about to review a Song of Myths & Legends - and it'll be a straight copy+paste job from my other Ganesha reviews.
But lately I've been thinking about a few sites, which have the potential to massively advance and benefit wargamers as a whole, namely:
The Wargames Vault (the primary source of online PDF rules distribution) is kinda like Steam for indie tabletop devs. It's an easy, accessible, low-risk way of getting their product out there. However, whilst browsing for new rules, I've come across several "playtest" rules for sale. Yes, you pay for the PDF, for the privilege of playtesting their unfinished rules for them. This is exactly like the "early access" business model which now dominates digital PC gaming. God forbid it gain a foothold in wargaming as well.
Kickstarter is a primary source for "crowd funding" wargames projects. Whilst it is a great way for the "little guy" to garner the cash to turn ideas for wargames rules, miniatures and terrain ideas into reality, putting down money upfront for an unfinished product/cool concept is a risk. In fact, Kickstarter backers are exchanging something for nothing except a pledge that they will, at some estimated date in the future or very possibly after, receive what they paid for – something which very often will not even exist when one commits one's money. This isn't investment. It's not even purchasing. It's whatever comes before early adopter on the continuum of high-risk ways to rid oneself of cash. (When Crowdfunding backfires)
In summary, tabletop gaming shares a lot of parallels with videogames. This post is a cautionary tale: I'm not the only one who would have noticed it, and I'm concerned more wargames companies (besides the obvious culprits) will adopt the "DLC, Pay-to-win" revenue model which is good for the company (in the short term, at least) but not the consumer. While they are a boon in liberating indie designers, Kickstarter projects are essentially exchanging money now for a promise of something - which may or may not be delivered. And again, I'm not keen on the "Pay to playtest" PDFs that are appearing on the Wargames Vault, either.
Remember - every time you plunk down money you justify a companies business decisions. They are unlikely to care what you post on a random blog or forum. Your only vote is with your wallet.
Glossary of Terms:
*This "early access" is more "exclusive access"- when people pay to have access to a particular item or faction that non-paying players cannot access. For example, in Mechwarrior Online, people could buy "early access" to Clan Mechs. They claimed this was "pay to not wait"- but there was no need for anyone to wait - the mechs were already developed. They were paying $60-$240 for exclusive access to powerful Clan mechs while everyone else was stuck with weaker Innersphere counterparts. Pay to win at its finest.
**Preorder = people to put money to sit in a game companies (let's say EA) bank account, earning them interest, on the promise of a game that may be good, balanced and free of bugs. When they (the consumer) could actually wait til it was released and make an informed decision. It annoys me people are stupid enough to do this, but fair play to them, and there is precedent for it. It's like buying a Christmas hamper, contents unknown, in July, from a famously dodgy mail order company. (One EA game was so buggy the devs were sued by their shareholders!)