On Stimulus and Standards

This week’s rule: No iPad talk. Additionally, there’s an addendum to this week’s rule: no iPhone OS talk. Now that the ground rules are established, let’s get back to your and my favorite topic: Downloadable Content. The recent Stimulus Package for Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2 has been a polarizing discussion point among gamers with an opinion. Some are excited for new maps while others are disgusted at the price point. A lot of these emotions are expressed in the moment, but there are long-term consequences that will be influenced by the success or failure of this content that have most gamers worried. Is it just me or are more and more games being analyzed based on their financial prospects and not their reception as a piece of interactive entertainment? Is the business aspect taking over an industry that used to be judged on whether or not it was “fun”?

Bring a calculator, there’s lots of number crunching ahead.

Full disclosure: I didn’t pay for the Modern Warfare 2 Stimulus Package. I received a download code from Robert Bowling after PAX East. Whether you think that invalidates my opinion for the rest of this post is up to you, but at least you know the facts. For those of you outside of the loop, here are the basics: Modern Warfare 2 is a very successful game, both critically and financially. Previous installments of the Call of Duty franchise have seen huge successes with their after-market support, specifically financially. Seeking similar financial success with Modern Warfare 2, and much to the chagrin of consumers, the Stimulus Package Map Pack was priced at $15. Internet rage ensued and we all waited to see what would happen. Would enough people “vote with their wallets” to send a clear message that this kind of aggressive pricing would not be tolerated?

In a word: No.

To put the Stimulus Package in proper context we need to take a look at the track record of downloadable content covering past Call of Duty games. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare only had one dose of anti-”mapathy” in their Variety Map Pack, but the numbers — over 9 million downloads in its first two weeks — speak decibels louder than words. Proving that our purchasing habits were not a fluke, three separate Map Packs for Call of Duty: World at War each sold over one million downloads within the first week. All priced at $10, it’s not hard to extrapolate a few assumptions based on the behavior of consumers over the past few years.

Which brings us to the Stimulus Package: five maps — two of them remakes — for $15. Sure, it was a big risk for Activision to bump up the price. But considering the data on past downloadable content, is it really that unreasonable to see why they chose to take this risk? Of course, it comes down to money. I’m sure there were plenty of people in Activision board room meetings hypothesizing revenue and feedback to pricing just one of World at War’s Map Packs at $15, but the timing was not right. But something this risky needed the backing of one of the biggest multimedia releases of all time to support the price point. Numbers do not lie. Consistently atop the Xbox LIVE Leaderboards, billions of hours logged on multiplayer, and now Day One records for downloadable content all belong to Modern Warfare 2. Over one million downloads in the first 24 hours and over 2.5 million in the first week. At the new price of $15, there isn’t enough time in the day to describe the stacks of money that are piled on top of the stacks of money in Activision’s vaults.

And what of the dissenters? As soon as the details of content and price were released, the most recognizable and immediate response was “booo.” I’m sure there were online petitions — just like the ones to boycott Modern Warfare 2 on the PC — and angry forum posts for as far as the eye could see. But none of that mattered. In this instance, the vocal minority has been put in their place. It’s not to say that Infinity Ward isn’t listening to complaints (about price points or game glitches) but the results speak for themselves. Welcome to the next stage of gaming; I hope you saved your pennies.

Infinity Ward’s Creative Strategist, Robert Bowling stated that the price was set by Activision and it was up to Infinity Ward to figure out how much content they could deliver. That kind of a mandate from above, along with the ongoing legal battles, doesn’t really show off the most engaging relationship between these two companies. I could speculate for days about this situation. Maybe Infinity Ward wanted to charge $10 for the same content. While we will never know what kind of discussions or debates occurred over this content internally, externally we are all witnesses to the results. Millions of dollars supporting Activision’s bottom line and a new acceptable standard for pricing after-market support has been set in stone.

This is what voting with our wallet has gotten us. Enjoy.

This post is featured on Talking About Games.

[One More Thing] I normally write these posts in a vacuum. Focus on the task at hand and move on to the next one as soon as possible. But something about this post made me think of an earlier editorial I wrote about DLC and Left 4 Dead 2. I won’t make you read the whole thing, but the conclusion is worth reading again, and not just because I wrote it:

“Have you heard the anecdote about a frog in boiling water? If you try to put a frog in a pot of boiling water it will jump out but if you place it in cold water and slowly turn up the heat it will not react to the gradual change. Now substitute gamers for the frog and the cost of DLC on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace for the pot of water. We have all been oblivious to the price creep over the years and are virtually helpless to do anything about it now that we finally notice something suspicious going on around us. Prices have slowly risen over the years to the point that we barely react to the fact that we are paying $15 for an arcade game and $10 for a map pack with almost no complaint. The debate over DLC is not about whether it should be available for a price, because we already lost that argument. The debate is about price point. How much should something legitimately cost? What is the value of 800 MS points? These are the questions we are forced to ask because we never spoke up in the beginning, because we didn’t know any better. I wish this weren’t the state of the Xbox LIVE Marketplace and PlayStation Network, but the water is already boiling. Our only hope is to pay as much attention to the market and properly respond when something is out of line: TMNT: Turtles in Time Re-shelled says hi.”

-On Frogs and Finance. 8/7/09

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