Tuesday 13 January 2015

Game Design #19: PDFs, "Early Access," Pay-to-Win and the Rise of the DLC

What is a DLC? What's Early Access, and what does it have to do with wargames?

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!)


  1. As you say, we've been paying for expansions and supplements for years and they typically are a good percentage of the original book price. However, I think its a lot more honest than DLC because it adds extras to the experience rather than making it a full experience, which DLCs tend to be.

    1. I've heard anecdotes from games designers who were told by publishers to split a rulebook into two... ...which I don't find particularly honest.

      Having to buy army books (or codexes) to be able to play a faction integral to the game setting doesn't seem a great deal either.

      That said, I like how Corvus Belli has separated their rules into a "fluff" book and a "core" rulebook... but sadly they bundled them together!

  2. For me, with video games the answer is honestly going to be kind of cheesy because if I really like a game, I'll buy a TON of DLC (I bought pretty much everything for the Mass Effect series f.x.) while if it's just okay, I won't buy anything.

    I tend to avoid kickstarters unless it's artsy fartsy stuff where you aren't really buying a product.

    For gaming, it's tough, because there's absolutely an expectation from players too that the game should be "alive" and "supported".
    I'm probably guilty of this as well, since I do a lot of supplements though I try to make them cool and interesting.

    The problem is that there's pretty much no incentive for people to only do a big core book and then nothing else. I've had people tell me that they didn't want to learn Crossfire or Stargrunt because the games are "dead".

    (Getting decent playtesters is an entirely different problem. Of 100 people who promises to help, you'll hear back from 5 and at least one of those 5 will be crazy)

    1. You could also argue with a Kickstarter you are supporting art without necessarily needing any tangible reward, like going to a fundraiser for a local gallery.

      I don't get the "supported" idea where people demand to be sold stuff. A game is good or not, or complete or not. An ongoing option to spend money is not necessary to enjoy a game.... No one playing the game = dead.

      Agree with the playtesting bit. It's too much like hard work for most people.

  3. Yeah, those are the kind of things I tend to prefer kickstarting. I figured I was just being old fashioned :)

    As for "supported", I'm not sure where it came from, but its pretty evident when you frequent forums and whatnot.
    I feel comfortable blaming GW though :)

    1. In the last post I reckon tabletop gamers, like MMOs are being "trained" to have certain expectations. Usually ones that benefit the company, at least short term. I think GW's bubble burst a while back and now it is just hanging in there due to a well-developed IP and a "brainwashed" I mean, die hard customer core.

      I mean "it's easy to get a game" is a common reason why people play GW. But at ~$500 for an army, I'm could try a new system, buy both sides and the rules, and repeat this 3x - and still have change...

  4. Seeing as today we (well, me and some other people) are remembering the life of John Hill, it's worth looking at how Squad Leader might be a case in point of your argument. Squad Leader was a standalone game when it came out in the late 1970s. Two subsequent modules allowed you to play East Front and Blitzkrieg scenarios, and each added a few more rules. GI Anvil of Victory came along and added lots more bits and more rules but it wasn't mandatory. You could play SL basic or with any of the modules, depending on what you and your friends wanted to. Then came Advanced Squad Leader, which required you to throw everything away and start again if you wanted to stay in the system. David Greenwood, who managed Avalon Hill then, said it was in hindsight a huge mistake, because they alienated a large part of a small and fairly static user base. GW can afford to alienate large portions of its user base regularly because it hopes for a large churn of its young customers, whereas SL and similar boardgames appeal to an older and smaller demographic.
    Had John Hill introduced SL now instead of a generation earlier, with the advantages of online forums, an interconnected customer base (think of the Too Fat Lardies community) and Kickstarter as a way of gauging interest in future expanses, it might be a whole different story.
    Hope some of that is relevant to something.

    1. You're right - small companies have less margin for error and rely on consumer goodwill. TFL, Ganesha and Two Hour Wargames do "community" very well.

      I think Kickstarter has a trap in that a mum-and-dad small company gets innundated with support, and then reacts and tries to ramp up/expand to an unsustainable size.

      Remember Rackham's Confrontation? It had awesome metals (and an involved but interesting 1:1 skirmish game) and was beloved, but relatively niche. Then it tried to change the game to a 40K-size squad game , and sell masses of pre-painted plastics. It was never going to go toe-to-toe with GW, and in attempting to expand to a wider audience, it alienated its consumer base. Within a few years it was bankrupt.

    2. I think there's certainly a risk in that. You gotta play to your strengths at the level you are at.

      People come in with different expectations whether it's 40K/Bolt Action/War Machine (top tier), the mid tier (Chain of command? THW) or the indie tier.
      You can play to those strengths because that's why your fans are your fans to begin with.

    3. I think there also tends to be a clear division between "rules with miniatures lines" rules and "rules without miniatures lines".

      The "top tier" (let's call it the commercial tier) always comes with a miniatures line and is "well supported" by lots of supplements/books.
      I'd also add Flames of War and Infinity to your list.

      The "mid tier"(let's call it the "well supported tier") would include Tomorrow's War, Chain of Command Often has a hard copy rulebook, and sometimes "associated" miniatures lines - partnerships with miniatures companies. I find this ideal as the miniatures do NOT drive the rules design, but are usually in response to, or in partnership with, the rules designers, such as AAG and GZG/Empress/Iron Pig, or Osprey and North Star. Also may include smaller boutique "commercial" lines like Malifaux and Bushido. They usually also have a big enough fan base for decent playtesting.

      The "indie tier" tends to be PDF-orientated like Ganesha, although I'd put Iron Ivan, 2HW and similarly cheap-and-cheerful rulebooks in here.

    4. 2HW sits in a weird spot, because they are clearly bigger than a lot of other indies but they still fit the "indie" mentality very strongly.

      Actually, if you haven't done so yet, a post about indie vs "pro" developers and companies might be interesting, with pro's and con's for each.

    5. I would find it very interesting to do, but I actually get on well with quite a few of the mid-tier and indie developers, I'm not sure how I would go about it. I don't mind nitpicking their rules (as long as I explain my reasoning) but I'm wary about comparing indies/mid tier directly.

      If it was just a generalization of "indie vs pro" it would be easy, but probably a bit vague.

  5. Interesting what you said about Kickstarter, I would tend to agree based on my experience with Ares magazine, which was a KS -funded reboot of the old SPI SF gaming mag from the 70s/80s. It seemed to me that even when they felt they reached their target and launched the project, their inexperience with printing and production showed through and delayed the launch. Once upon a time, a gaming company (say, SPI in the Jim Dunnigan era) had to poll its user base as to prospective designs, read the trends in the market, and then commit capital and wages to designs without knowing how they would do, and committing to enough designs that the winners would carry the company and a few dogs would fail. That's a pretty white knuckle business model, but it served SPI well for a while. Companies that take risks on investments, if they survive the first few years, learn how to execute in the marketing/production/distribution phases. Kickstarter doesn't give you any of that knowledge.

    1. It does give you some knowledge after the fact.... ...but it also places all the risk on the purchaser. A big difference.


      It states "the creator is responsible to fulfill the project once funded" Kickstarter does not "refund money" to backers, who are responsible for deciding if a project is worthy (or even "safe") - often on the basis of video and a paragraph or two. The backers are "helping create" not actual customers.

      The fulfilling the project is solely on the creator, who is supposed to be honest - but Kickstarter don't seem to have a mechanism in place for compelling this honesty. It's buyer beware. Only you're not even a "buyer."

  6. I'd be curious what people think of established companies using Kickstarter as basically a pre-order scheme.

    1. It does seem kinda against the spirit of Kickstarter, doesn't it? I.e. helping a mom-and-dad company fulfill a dream vs a convenient system for pre orders.

      That said, it's the most risk-free for the buyer, as companies like Reaper know all the pitfalls and have all equipment and processes already in place.

    2. Yeah, that's my thinking too (on both counts).

      As an aside, I think Kickstarter shows that contrary to our economics textbooks a lot of people want to have some sort of connection to the things we buy, at least in the hobby world.

      Kickstarter lets you get that a bit more, I think.

    3. From a economic point of view, it makes absolutely 0 sense.

      However, if you view it as giving away money to a worthy cause (we don't control how charities spend money), or funding an artistic project, I suppose it has merit.

      It reminds me of people who preorder videogames. They give $80 out of their $800 a week paycheck in order to "support" a multi-million dollar company. (and often give this as reasoning on forums)

      The other bit of monkey logic is when people justify ridiculous digital purchases (say $240 for a few in-game mechs) by "I can afford it - it's nothing to me" or my favourite "I spend more than that on beer" and accuse those who point out the ridiculousness of the pricing as "being lowpaid peasants" .

      They ignore the fact they paid $240(!) for a few in-game avatars, not even an actual full game. If you could buy a game like Skyrim with 100s of hours of content for under $20, does it make sense to pay $60 for a single character or avatar within that game? *
      Sadly, the fact they paid this stupid amount justified the company's desision to do so.

      *This is all real examples, btw.

  7. If you want the mind to boggle, look at the amount of cash people have spent on Star Citizen. I literally thought it was a joke at first that some people are a thousand dollars in the hole already for a game that may or may not ever materialize.

    1. That always reminds me of the meme where Fry (from Futurama) says "Shut up and take my money!"

      That game is a lose-lose: it's so hyped people are going to be disappointed no matter what. So many amazing (unbelievable) promises have been made - sure the designer isn't Molyneux? There will be tears.

      It may even be the most amazing vapourware ever not made.

      You can pay to have a fishtank on your ship. The toilets flush. But gameplay? Hmmm. It's still a glorified tech demo.

      Fanboy flamewars rage over the Star Citizen vs Elite debate. However they miss a critical difference - Star Citizen may one day cure cancer, but Elite is actually a functioning game NOW. One made promises, the other made a game. (Also one game costs $40 - the other game that $40 only buys you a fishtank)