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Dude, Where's My Content?

Tom worries about premium content.

This week, Microsoft became one of the first companies to distribute premium content over Xbox Live. As of today, folks all over the globe can pay the equivalent of $4.99/£3.63 for two new game types and three new maps. Good, you might be thinking, now we get proper downloadable content instead of just stuff they found down the back of the sofa.

But if you think about it, premium content could pose a serious threat.

Premium content on Xbox Live makes good business sense. You sell 'em a game, give 'em a few months' worth of throwaway downloads for free, and then once you've built up a loyal following you tax them per download. With hardware costs and retail returns almost diametrically opposed, you can understand Microsoft's desire to get its hands on this cash, which doesn't have packaging or promotional costs associated with it. Apart from hosting fees and the time spent developing and testing by a few first party programmers, artists and quality assurance folks, as far as Microsoft's concerned it's pure profit.

From the gamer's point of view though, it's good news and bad news. On the one hand, premium content means that publishers have a reason to keep propping up our favourite pastime, and it opens the door to things like music downloads for dancing games (with royalty payments and gallons of blood going straight from your credit card/veins to the RIAA). But on the other hand, it also elicits all sorts of cynical and arguably unethical behaviour from greedy corporations, who may well lock up certain elements of a game and open them up "for free!" at a later date in an act of faux-generosity - making it a lot easier to justify charging for certain elements further down the line. If premium content proves popular, they may even look at a game nearing completion at one of their studios and decide to carve off chunks to be released "at a price" further down the line, or even start structuring development of Xbox-exclusive titles so they can maximise premium content profits post-release. Imagine what that could do to our hobby.

Some have already tried the first part - Activision shipped various locked maps with Return to Castle Wolfenstein, which it subsequently unlocked when people "downloaded" them. It was found out because it was obvious the maps themselves weren't being downloaded, but what's to stop them bloating the unlock key to a convincing file size next time? If Microsoft came down hard on this sort of behaviour - by making it an absolute that downloadable content should only ever be content developed post-release - that might iron things out, but in reality Microsoft is the chief architect of the premium content service and is probably as keen as anybody to justify gathering loot. Left unchecked, premium content and the little chunks of relatively untaxed profit it offers could ruin future games, at the very least rendering them even more prohibitively expensive to enjoy as a whole.

Fortunately, premium content may well fail to take hold until Microsoft makes some changes to the way it's handled. Unfortunately, it's pretty obvious what needs to be done. You see, my chief concern as a consumer approaching premium content downloads is that it's a chicken and egg scenario - you need to pay £3.63 to download the new game modes and maps to play them on, but you need people playing with the new game modes and maps to make it worth paying £3.63. But all Microsoft needs to do to sell it to the consumer is to allow the download to go ahead and then give the player a few rounds on a demo server, perhaps locking them out or even deleting the content unless they then agree to pay for it. As soon as they figure this out, we'll be a lot more likely to authorise transactions for premium downloads and publishers will suddenly warm to the idea.

So what do we do to combat this threat? Strike Redmond pre-emptively? Boycott premium content in its entirety? Although it's an option, there's no evidence yet that any company has tried to charge for content produced during the main bulk of development - it's just a worrying possibility - and punishing developers genuinely working on post-launch content on the basis of a threat premium content might pose in the future is unjustifiable. All we can do at this stage is remain vigilant and make it clear when publishers push their luck - that way, we may never have to live in a world where X is bound to "pay" and the final boss costs £4.95.