Editorial | 10/6/2009 at 3:59 PM

Is Exclusive Content Bad For Gaming?

Anyone who pays any attention to video game releases knows about exclusive pre-order deals for in-game content. Until a year ago, that content was a statue, a figure, a hat, or something we'd consider "swag" in the gaming world. That all changed when retailers and publishers started releasing codes for in-game content. It started off as a gold-colored Lancer for Gears of War 2, or a Warthog with flames on the sides for Halo Wars. While these were merely collectibles that changed in-game aesthetics, it has recently evolved to game-altering exclusives. I'm talking about exclusive characters or gameplay modes that could potentially change the experience of the game itself.

This list from Arstechnica.com has a brief list of the fall releases with exclusive in-game content. We've updated it a bit.

* Halo 3 ODST: Players who preorder the game will receive a code allowing them to play as Sgt. Johnson in the online multiplayer mode, "Firefight."
* The Beatles: Rock Band: Preorders will give players three free in-game songs and an in-game photo book.
* Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2: Unlock the the Juggernaut as a playable character.
* Dark Void: Players will get a gold jetpack, allowing them to use unlimited amounts of boost and pull off as many special moves as they want.
* Assassin's Creed 2: Exclusive access to Palazzo Medici, as well as "the freedom to discover the treasure hidden within its ancient walls."
* Section 8: Players will receive exclusive captain's armor for when you play as either faction in the game, as well as a special in-game pistol.
* Brütal Legend: Exclusive in-game guitar weapon.
* Need for Speed: Shift: Access to the BMW E92 M3 GT2 in the game.
* Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2: A special in-game Ryu Hayubasa costume.
* Uncharted 2: Among Thieves: Players will be given access to the game's multiplayer demo, as well as immediate use of the Revenge Attribute, an unlockable booster in the multiplayer campaign.
* Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time: GameStop exclusive level known as the "Discovery Pack," giving players a museum-like level containing "a moon’s worth of extra content."
* Tekken 6: exclusive Cardboard Tube Samurai costume designed by the guys behind Penny Arcade.
* Forza 3: USB Stick, VIP Members, 2 Exclusive car packs, and Free Premium Theme
* Operation Flashpoint 2 - Unlock a unique mission called Ambush with a code for preordering

It should be noted that while these items are limited to Gamestop purchases, online retailer Amazon, and other retailers also participate in these limited time deals.

For instance, other stores are coming up with ways to counter these exclusive retailer/publisher deals. For Halo 3: ODST, Toys R Us was giving out $20 gift cards, and a free ODST action figure. While the action figure, and the $20 gift card were both accessible to non-ODST buyers, it added value to the package making it easier to swallow a $60 investment on a new game. That was the route I went, and while the sting of jealousy for not being able to play as Sgt. Johnson is there, I have a $20 gift card to put toward other games to play.

Unfortunately, if this trend of exclusive in-game content battles continues, no gamers will ever have the same experience with their games, creating a gap left for gamers to feel disconnected from one another.

No soup for you!

Gamers like to discuss their games. They like to share experiences. They like to try things that their friends have done. One reason gaming communities are so popular is because of our need to share experiences. We also tend to covet; We admire each others collections, we fawn over another persons costumes, and we want what isn't ours. Sometimes we can't have them because we can't afford them, but when we can't have them because they were limited in some specific way, it generates a sense of shortcoming in our game.

If I were to play co-op as the Juggernaut in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2, my co-op friend would have to download the free patch-pack for the Juggernaut, but would have absolutely no access to the character with me. To put this another way, if my friend wants to enjoy the game with me, and I want to enjoy my preorder bonus content, THEY must download the same additional content taking up space on their console, but are unable to actually play it.

This lopsidedness also goes for a general discussion about the games we play. Wolverine: Origins had an in-game exclusive for a "training" room available through Gamestop exclusively. This training room allowed you to call up any enemy through the game to hack up again and again. When talking about X-men Origins with a friend, and asked which enemy was his favorite to pull up in the training room to beat up freely - he didn't have the content, and suddenly felt left out of something because he couldn't relate to the experience I had with the exact same game. While not normally a big issue, this content was not made available to purchase as separate DLC, so even if he wanted to play it - he couldn't.

The Juggernaut in-game exclusive from Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 has turned in to a fiasco which infuriated many very recently. The Juggernaut was an Activision/Gamestop exclusive that changes the gameplay by having access to a character who is vastly different than those available in game. The Juggernauts move set-list (fusion) was integrated in to all of the other characters, he was made to kick ass, but only if you pre-ordered from Gamestop.

The big mistake Activision made? Making this exclusive code an online redeem only with a limited number of available codes. In an attempt to regulate where their codes went, it was decided these codes were only to be redeemed with a valid receipt number online at Gamestop's website. Unfortunately, when something is free and on the internet, it's up for grabs if you can figure out how to break the system....and boy was the system ever broken. The response to the attack on the website denied many legitimate pre-orders their own code, though, according to many complaints, people were having problems before this even occurred. When the site came back up, Gamestop had claimed they ran out of Juggernaut codes. How does one run out of a digital piece of content?

Would the same problem have happened if Activision had gone on record of saying Juggernaut will be available to purchase at a later date? Perhaps. Instead, during our interview with Dan Tanguay, the game's director, he had this to say regarding the animosity created with exclusive content. " I’m sorry to hear that Juggernaut has created some animosity in the community. Unfortunately, we can’t speak on our DLC plans quite yet, but I can tell you that we are always listening to the community." A simple 'you'll still be able to get the content, but it'll cost you money' could have solved the situation.

Developers and publishers claim this exclusive is to combat the used game sales at one of the premier places to purchase used games, i.e. Gamestop. But, they have the same excuse about overpriced DLC. The irony here is they are helping out the company that created the used game problem for them to begin with.

Sgt. Johnson here has a few tips to include all your players

We fully believe there are much better ways to encourage gamers to purchase games new:

Releasing demos long before the game is released - if people know what they're getting in to, they're much more likely to hype themselves up after playing a clean sample of what is being sold. Also, saying "to hell" with the deadlines of games; a lot of the best titles are delayed, and come out with much more polish than the ones that are rushed. We'd rather see something good, than something immediate. And finally, stop pushing garbage. I have a hard time believing any quality control went in to games like Two Worlds, which was marketed as a mash-up between Fable and Oblivion, but came out nowhere near the quality of either title.

This quality concern can be applied to Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2, which unfortunately did not live up to the original. Even a predecessor of the same title can't dictate the quality of the game; Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 was approximately 7 hours in length from start to finish, where the first was 20-30 hours for the average player. Gamers hoping to get long hours of four player co-op play with their friends found a planned weekend of MUA 2 cut abruptly short. Even our own editor's 8 year old son stated as the credits rolled - "That's it, Dad?" Does a small piece of exclusive DLC make up for 20 hours less gameplay?

This tactic of luring gamers to their poverty with incentives that may change, or even ruin a games experience if not obtained is not appreciated. I'd like to see all "exclusive content" made available after a period of time, for purchase through DLC as a secondary incentive to get the games sales moving again. Excluding those of us that have a limited gaming budget up front, isn't going to fix the situation of used games. If anything it encourages it.

After a disheartening conversation where my friend would not be able to play as his favorite Marvel character in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 due to limited funds (as many gamers experience,) he wrote a (private) blog ranting on the topic. He gave me permission to post a short excerpt to help get the point across.

"Confectioners have been making new flavors of candy available for pre-order for some time, to make sure there's a market for this new flavor and to help those after this particular flavor guarantee their hold on it when it becomes available, this isn't new. Special wrapping or a book on how these sweets were made is also a concept that's become popular these days, though not originating in them. What is new though is the fact that these candy makers are now going straight to the men on the street and telling them, "Look. I know you sell our candy second-hand. There's no way we're going to be able to stop that, even if we filed some law suit against you, you'd still either win, or sell anyway. But because you're such a big name on the streets, I'll tell you what we'll do. If instead of pre-ordering our candy with the stores we typically sell it in, if they pre-order it with you, man-on-the-street, we'll give them special wrappings drawn by Amano Yoshitaka that they can't get anywhere else. Sure, they can get a crummy sampler CD if they order through one of our main online stores, or a crummier-still calendar if they order from one of the biggest chain stores we deal in. But you, you'll get what the kids really want." This isn't so bad, really.. I mean, yeah, it sucks that the used candy store gets the best pre-order premium but it's not the only game in town. Now this is what irks me. This is what gets my goat. This is the thing I hate:

Gamestop, one of if not the biggest secondary market video game chains is cornering the market for exclusive pre-order premiums and specialty bundles. The secondary market is the 'cancer that's killing video game production' yet only GameStop sells the PlayStationPortable's Final Fantasy Dissidia pack. GameStop is the ONLY way that you can get special levels in video games such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine or Batman: Arkham Asylum. And GameStop is the ONLY way you could get The Juggernaut as a playable character in Marvel Ultimate Alliance II. And this makes absolutely no sense to me."

The question we're now left with is: Do we spend the additional money (full price) on a pre-ordered item to get the full experience and risk wasting a hefty chunk of change, or wait to see what reviewers and friends say about the same title and make your decision accordingly - potentially saving the money but losing that chance at playing the entire game. The question I leave you with is this: Do you feel cheated out of content when you don't have access to these pre-order goodies, or does it not bother you?