Free Content: The Death of Capitalism or the Nurturing of Community?

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Xbox Live has blossomed into a full-fledged marketplace for downloadable games, expansion packs, movie rentals, TV show purchases, and thousands of worthless jpegs. Much of this content is considered “Premium” and has a cost attached to it in the form of Microsoft points. Anyone who has purchased content on Live knows that the dollar-to-points conversion scale is absurd, the purchasable quantities are deviously mismatched with typical costs of downloads, and much of the content feels unreasonably expensive. While these are all valid issues, none are as problematic as the content that started it all – the expansion packs available for most online games.

The horror, the horror. (Okay I’ll admit I usually like this place)

Since Xbox Live’s humble beginnings five years ago, downloadable maps (multiplayer arenas) have been a mainstay of the service. Most of them have come at a premium price, a price which has made a sharp increase as of late. It’s not something I have a problem with – developers should get paid for their work and they’re free to price them however they want – but the problem is that they never have any say.

In early 2007, Gears of War developer Epic pushed for the release of free expansion content for their title. Microsoft denied them, eventually coming to a compromise: the content would be free after three months. Valve, another big name, has released several free expansions to their popular PC title Team Fortress 2, yet there’s no sign of the content on the 360 version. Valve’s mission statement calls for additional content to be free, saying it should encourage more people to buy the game and build the community, not nickel-and-dime existing customers. Thus far, there’s been little news on any developments in the matter.

With the huge success of Halo, including 2007’s Halo 3, series creator Bungie has dealt with the issues of pricing new content and contending with MS longer than any other developer. With two map pack releases and the recent freebie Cold Storage (a remake of Halo 1’s Chill Out), Bungie has kept busy and vocal about the state of its content. It has stated it doesn’t want to charge for content. Microsoft’s stance is that offering free content devalues any similar content that isn’t free. In past releases, they came to the same compromise Epic made for Gears of War, charging for map packs in the first three months. Microsoft made their money off of early adopters and Bungie’s community wasn’t indefinitely fractured between haves and have-nots. Ultimately, it’s not a terrible situation, and after three months everyone is satisfied.

But what happens when the premium period for content never ends? In the case of Halo 3, where its convenient matchmaking system automatically finds opponents and selects a map for you, the premium content is rarely seen. In order for a map to be played, all players in the 2-16 player matches must have downloaded the map, and it must be selected by matchmaking among the full set of maps. In my experience, I have never played a premium map in these conditions. Once the maps are free, Bungie requires them for matchmaking, and they come up far more often. But, with the newest premium offering, the “Legendary Map Pack”, there are no plans to make it free.

One of Bungie’s new, beautiful maps that you may never see in matchmaking.

This is Microsoft’s call – as stated in the recent Bungie podcast, MS wanted to experiment in offering the content at a discount rather than free. This puts Bungie in the difficult position of deciding if and when they’ll require the Legendary map pack for matchmaking. Further escalating the situation, Microsoft would not allow Bungie to release Cold Storage for free without requiring that you already purchased the Legendary map pack to play it in matchmaking.

Through these methods, Microsoft is needlessly complicating things and splintering the Halo 3 community. They are creating ill will towards the brand, the Xbox 360, and the Xbox Live service. Worst of all they are leaving Bungie to clean up the mess. Along with the release of the free map, Bungie also released a new video explaining the requirements to play the map online. Needless to say, they were nearly as confused as we are about the situation.

Bungie’s Shishka and Luke Smith (Actual Photo)

Microsoft’s business model calls for profit in nearly all aspects of the Xbox Live service. They charge a subscription fee, charge for content, charge developers to release content, and more. On paper it’s an appealing model, but it’s clear they are shitting on their customers and the developers who toil for years on these games just to make a quick buck. How much longer can Microsoft laugh in the face of developers who try to support their fans? How much longer will we all blindly support it before we speak up?

7 thoughts on “Free Content: The Death of Capitalism or the Nurturing of Community?”

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