Friday, June 26, 2009

Dr. Pepper, DLC, and a Bad Taste in My Mouth

gross lion If you couldn’t tell from yesterday’s Marginalia, the news of a marketing deal between EA and Dr. Pepper has my feathers ruffled.

Normally, I’m pretty understanding of the advertising industry. I wasn’t bothered by the Dell billboards in Quake Live. I’m a big fan of Mad Men. And I understand that the anemic economy is breeding strange bedfellows, as companies with shrinking budgets band together to share commercial time.

But this isn’t just some head-scratching marketing ploy. It’s part of a larger problem: exclusive downloadable content (hereafter referred to as DLC).

Now, this Dr. Pepper DLC seems kind of silly. According to Dr. Pepper’s Marketing VP Tony Jacobs, "The first-of-its-kind partnership with EA will give Dr Pepper fans an unrivaled experience by adding exclusive value to their games such as new levels and items.” New levels and items? In The Sims 3? So…if I like Dr. Pepper in the real world, I can make my Sims like it, too?

The people at EA really should have read Section 2 of Ian Bogost’s book Persuasive Games. Bogost concedes that a game like The Sims is really the only destination for most product placement, since few games “[depict] the quotidian household tasks that most consumer products facilitate.” But he also notes that “EA cancelled plans for product placement in The Sims 2 after its failed experiments in The Sims Online,” quoting former EA ad sales director Julie Shumaker as saying, “We realized breaking the Sims fantasy in this case would detract from the player’s experience, so we declined.” Well, I guess we know how EA’s changed since Shumaker’s departure a few years ago. Bogost also goes on to argue that product placement like this fails to capitalize on what is unique about games: procedurality. Simply adding soda cans with a Dr. Pepper skin does not demonstrate how tasty or refreshing it might be. But I’ll stop there, lest I recite Bogost to you ad nauseam (do yourself a favor and read his book).

This exclusive DLC nonsense doesn’t stop at EA and soda, however. What about all of these GameStop preorder exclusives? “Get a longer demo if you preorder at GameStop!” “Get a goofy suit for your character if you give us all your money!” “Have a demo key and a multiplayer item if you only shop with us!” Okay, so does any of this break the games in question? No. But I don’t like what this does to games. By partnering with GameStop to withhold content from those who don’t preorder, developers are essentially saying, “What you’re paying $60 for isn’t the full game. Jump through these extra hoops to get the full experience.”

Bullshit. I don’t have to go to a specific movie theater to watch the entirety of Transformers 2. People didn’t get extra pages in Twilight (or whatever the tweens are reading these days) because they ordered it on Amazon. And don’t feed me the “Games are a different medium” line. That works when you’re discussing artistic content. That doesn’t work when you’re talking about screwing over customers.

Because that’s what exclusive DLC does. It’s not the same as offering a free poster when you pick up a DVD. Or entering you in a raffle if you stand in line at midnight for something. DLC walks a fine line as it is. In single-player gaming, I suppose it’s less troublesome. You can elect not to purchase the extra levels in Fallout 3 or the bonus side-quest in Mass Effect. That, to me, is analogous to Director’s Cut DVD editions. But multiplayer content is a little more tenuous because it splits the user base. There’s always been fuss around exclusive Pokémon. And map packs are a bitch, too. When I was regularly playing Halo 2 online, I never purchased new maps. I gave you my fifty bucks, Bungie, because you promised a revolutionary multiplayer experience. Don’t tell me I need to give you more for something you already promised me. Bungie, however, was smart and eventually released these maps for free. They must have realized that fracturing your product is stupid and a slap in the customer’s face.

Thanks to the success of Xbox Live and the ubiquity of online gaming, DLC isn’t going away. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Adding a few more hours to a quality game isn’t wrong. What’s wrong is the advertising that makes a supposedly complete product look hobbled. All of this is, of course, colored by the egregious $60 price point. Still, I’d be a lot happier if I could play the Sims without this song playing in my head the whole time.