Shifting the gearbox into reverse now, I’m going to talk about the times when retailers actually add content to the games they’re selling, rather than taking content away.
Retailer exclusive content has been a rather recent phenomenon, but has been gaining steam over the past few years. Unlockables ranging from different skins for characters, weapons and vehicles, to starting with weapons that would normally be available much later in game, all the way up to access to exclusive levels depending on where and how you buy your copy of a certain game.
Now this issue is hardly clear cut. On the one hand businesses like to be able to offer people an incentive to get the product - which in this case is otherwise functionally identical to any other copy of the game you could buy anywhere - from their store as opposed to the one down the street. So retailers strike up deals with the game studios: an exclusive costume for Batman, a nice starting package in an Elder Scrolls game, that sort of stuff. But there is a note of concern and indeed some derision from gamers that believe (and rightly so) that in some cases offering this exclusive content is punishing people for simply having the choice of buying a game at all.
When it’s a matter of perhaps unlocking content early on that would - and will be - otherwise accessible later in the game, then it’s not such a big deal. Sure, having a gun on level one that you normally couldn’t get your mitts on until level 10 is certainly useful and definitely enjoyable, but in the long run it’s not game breaking or unbalancing because by the end of the game everyone who plays will have gotten the gun, regardless of whether or not they picked up their copy of the game from EB, or GameStop or even Steam. However, when five different retailers are offering five different exclusive skins that won’t be available at a later date, then even though it’s simply cosmetic and not game altering from a mechanics perspective, it’s still tough shit on anyone who wanted more than one of those pieces of content.
Perhaps the most recent example is when it was announced that for Batman: Arkham City, that British supermarket Tesco would be given access to sell the game with an exclusive challenge map that, according to this article could add as many as “four hours” to the overall gameplay. Four hours is not a small amount in the world of gaming, with average games lasting between 20 and 40 hours. That’s a 10% or higher increase in playtime if the estimate is correct, and it’s only available from one retailer.
It is likely that the content will be released when the inevitable Collector’s Edition of the game comes around. But in the meantime what if people don’t want to buy the game from Tesco? Well then, it’s too bad for them because that’s the only way that they’re going to be able to get that content for the foreseeable future. It’s caused a lot of gamers to cry foul play over the fact that content that should be included on the disc is now being doled out to five or even ten different retailers, making getting a “complete” game a technical impossibility unless you feel like paying for that make separate copies of it in order to get all the content codes.
It’s not much of a hassle at the moment, more of an annoyance or at most a minor inconvenience. But what about when retailers might start demanding exclusive content much like the Arkham challenge maps, but for every game. Games will end up with black boxes, content inaccessible based upon where you buy or do not buy your game. Content trapped on a disc all there for lack of a code or certain file installed that blocks or unblocks it. That’s when I start to get really worried about where this direction is heading.