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DLC and the Psychology of Incompletion

This morning, I went to pick up Mass Effect 3 and Street Fighter X Tekken at the Gamestop around the corner. There was a line of seven or eight people in front me, all accepting delivery on the former. When asked if they wanted to buy the $10 “From Ashes” DLC that adds an extra character and mission on top of the $60 retail price of the game, all agreed on the spot to purchase it. No questions asked. Except me. But I won’t lie, I was definitely tempted because the way that DLC of this kind works at a psychological level is to make you feel like your game is somehow not complete out-of-the-box. I mean, it’s a fully playable character and storyline. You don’t want to miss anything, right? You don’t want to rank low on the Galactic Readiness Meter and get a bad outcome from your 100+ hours of the Mass Effect story, do you?

It’s a play to fan emotions, hype, and the simple psychology that people want to get the full Mass Effect experience- such as it is, with “bonus” content scattered across numerous promotions, exclusives, and other marketing devices. Many will justify this from a fan position. Many more will simply spend the $10 without questioning it, appealing to their fandom for validation or simply not really considering the psychology that’s at work on them.

Frankly, I don’t care about the add-on character- and I love Mass Effect. I can read about this character online if I really feel the need to in order to get the full story. I don’t have to play with it, even it’s an addition on the level of Shale from Dragon Age: Origins. Aside from that, if BioWare and EA don’t feel that the content is integral to the core experience of the game, then it’s not essential to me either. And for $10, I can take my son to Leapin’ Lizards twice. Doing something with my son wins out over video games every time, whether they’re complete experiences or not.

It’s ironic that I picked up the new Capcom title at the same time with the froofra going on about the 12 future DLC characters being already present on the disc. If you sell somebody something and tell them that they’re going to have to pay more later to access stuff they’ve already got in their possession, that doesn’t tend to go over to well. But here again, what fan of this game wants to be without these extra characters? Your game is incomplete without them. Even if you’re content running your Poison and King team ad infinitum, it’s always going to be in the back of your mind that there’s something missing, as if you bought a puzzle at the thrift store knowing that it was missing pieces. And that’s a strong mental lead-in to a purchase.

You can feel this pull as well in any online multiplayer game with map packs- log in to Modern Warfare 3 and see if you don’t feel left out like you’re playing a hobbled game if you don’t have the map additions. Additions which are only available right now to Elite subscribers. It’s not as easy to dismiss DLC content as “optional” when there is a certain psychology at work that makes the consumer feel that the product they own is not complete. And when you can hop right onto Xbox Live or PSN and charge it up when you get that impulse to buy the rest of the game, it can be hard to resist. If all your friends want to play Domination on a map you haven’t bought, the content becomes less optional, doesn’t it?

We’ve heard wailing and gnashing of teeth now for years about on-disc DLC, day one DLC, the cost of map packs and so forth yet the march towards a la carte, per diem monetization continues. And it’s all your fault. Yes, you who bought or are going to buy “From Ashes”. And you that buy all the map packs and worthless horse armor nonsense like weapon skins, costumes, and system voices (really?). If either this kind of silly cosmetic garbage or essential content split out into multiple purchases didn’t sell, the publishers wouldn’t be doing it. For every forumista that stridently (and impotently) declares that they’re protesting and not buying a game, there’s a thousand that are forking over the cash without batting an eye.

Now, let’s be clear. Neither EA, BioWare, or Capcom are starving artist community that are Just Doing It Because They Love Games, Man. They are not doing what they do to make you happy or please you beyond providing a product that you will give them money for. All of the immature, childish hollering that you see online about companies “milking” their properties or making “cash grabs” is apparently the bleating of people that have no understanding of how capitalism or for-profit business works. And if you think that EA and other publishers aren’t running numbers to see how much they can charge you for DLC, the extent to which they can monetize a title, and what your “will not buy” point is- you’d be mistaken. They know exactly what they can leave out of a “finished” retail product and you’ll still pony up for it.

With that said, I have to say that as much as I dislike the trends around DLC and as insidious and pernicious as I think the psychology around parceled content is, these companies are doing the right thing. They’re doing exactly what smart businesses with saleable product should be doing. You’ve voted with your dollars, you’ve responded favorably to their mind games. And you’ve said “please sir, may I have another”. We’re not too far off from a future where we won’t be buying games, we’ll be buying digital storefronts with shelves stocked with ephemeral, transient products marketed to make you feel a sense of lacking and designed to appeal to the psychology that makes us want to spend money for complete products without a sense of lack- even if it means spending an extra $10 to complete a $60 purchase right there at the register.