Nickel and Dimed: How DLC and In-Game Purchases Walk a Dangerous Line

I enjoy playing a good iOS game from time to time. While they might not necessarily be as deep or involved as console games, they’re definitely a good time-killer, from the most harrowing of tower defense games to the interesting puzzle games.

But nothing annoys me more than when I play a game that offers in-game purchases.

Now, I have no problem with the option being there. I see nothing wrong with people having the opportunity to spend their money in order to access new parts of the game. What I do see wrong, however, is when the purchases become central to the gameplay, seriously crippling the player from enjoying the game at a normal pace unless they break open the wallet.

It’s cheap, it’s gimmicky, and it reeks of money grabbing.

Unfortunately, DLC happens to fall into the same category; when it doesn’t add to the experience and even goes so far as to rob the player of the original, organic gameplay, it becomes something of a mockery, insulting the fans and players by not delivering the product as a whole.

So, where is the line, and how can game makers stay on the right side and justify their actions with in-game purchases and DLC?

Even if you’re not a capitalist, it’s hard to argue that the bottom line of the industry is money. As with any other business, earning money is the goal, and companies will do whatever it takes and go as far as they have to in order to make the maximum profit. That’s why we see so many sequels squeezed out of franchises until they become a dragged-out, flattened tube of toothpaste with nothing left to spare. No matter what, sequels will pique the curiosity of fans and make money.

But sometimes, it’s not enough. So, when major publishers need more money out of a game, where do they go?

That brings us to DLC.

Downloadable content is a fairly recent phenomenon in gaming, coming about with our current internet and digital age. Ranging from new multiplayer maps and costumes to entirely new storylines to explore, DLC is a game add-on that requires additional money to be spent in order to access the new content.

But when does DLC cross the line and start to smell of a rip off?

Take Fallout 3. The game’s very ending was changed in order to sell people additional expansion packs and DLC that added more content to the game. (Spoilers) In the original ending of Fallout 3, your character dies, which obviously throws a wrench into the plans of developers to make more DLC. How could your story continue if you’re dead?

Of course, this kind of makes sense. But on the other hand, the new ending wasn’t quite as hard-hitting and sobering as the original, which felt a little cheap and kind of rendered the ending worthless for me.

Other games will take it one step further by completely removing any real piece of the game and forcing gamers to pay for it if they want to have the total experience, be it an epilogue, prologue, or even a significant chunk of story resolution. This is where things get cheap. You’re ripping people off deliberately by not including these kinds of things on the game itself, instead forcing them to pay up for it. Doing so looks greedy and leaves a bad taste in the mouths of gamers who only wanted to play their game.

DLC isn’t the only one guilty of toeing a dangerous line, however. In more ways than one, in-game purchases are often more of a rip off than some DLC.

Like I said before, I take no issue with in-game purchases being an optional way for people to enjoy playing games. While I might be a cheapskate, there’s nothing wrong with other people wanting to spend money to buy new items or unlock things faster in a game.

That is, there’s nothig wrong with it as long as the playing field is still even.

One of the scariest parts of in-game purchases is the risk of a pay-to-win gameplay structure. Through this, players are able to move forward and level up in the game much faster, allowing them the chance to plow through the game and completely dominate using skills and attributes that were purchased instead of earned through gameplay. Often with this pay-to-win model, it is nearly impossible for those who play for free to be able to enjoy the game at a similar pace to the paying players, sometimes going so far as to not allow people access to certain key features in the game without payment. Sure, they’ll get the bare bones items and accessibility, but they won’t have access to the things needed to truly advance in the game without paying up.

In a weird way, this kind of feels like arcade games to me. You sit down to play House of the Dead, pick up your shotgun peripheral, start mowing down hordes of the shuffling undead, and then BAM! you die, and there’s a flashing text box on the screen asking for more money. It completely rips you from the experience, and there’s just a bit of a letdown once you realize you’ve been slapped in the face by a money-grabbing scheme.

With an inevitable and rapidly-approaching free-to-play structure on the horizon for MMOs and even iOS games, this is a serious concern that arises.

So whether it’s forthcoming DLC for your favorite game or an MMO you’re jumping into for the first time, make sure to educate yourself. Are there in-game purchases? Are they a convenience, or an integral part of the gameplay? Nobody likes being nickel and dimed.

Especially when we just want to play our games.