With the release of Mass Effect 2 today, Bioware pushes further into digital content. "We are trying to create an ongoing digital strategy around connecting with players," said Dr. Greg Zeschuk, cofounder of Bioware. The game is launching with the Cerberus Network, an in-game channel for the company to connect with players, sharing with them free downloads and news from Bioware. "In a player's perspective, they just put a code in and get some stuff. It's also a channel for us to communicate with the player. Just that ability to open a channel with them, your most engaged and interested fans, is pretty valuable."
While Cerberus Network will be free, Zeschuk said that not all downloads will be. "We are going to still put bigger pieces up for sale." An example of such sizeable downloadable content (DLC) could be found in the developer's fantasy epic, Dragon Age. Though successful enough to earn $1 million in the first week alone, that DLC received immediately criticism from the gaming public since it was available at the game's launch and was even sold by a character within the game. "I think if the fans love the game and you create an experience that is good enough to live on, they'll buy stuff. If you don't want to buy it, the game is awesome without it. We get arguments, 'It should've been packed in.' We're already giving you a 100-hour game, don't complain about the content value we are giving you."
Looking at the success of the DLC for music games (Guitar Hero or Rock Band; Rock Band has sold over 60 million songs) and multiplayer games (Halo or Call of Duty; Call of Duty: World at War sold 7 million map packs), downloadable content is now necessary for a title to be successful, right? "Most games probably have less than 10% of total revenue from DLC, with the average around 5%," said gaming analyst Michael Pachter, Managing Director of Equity Research at Wedbush Securities. "I think this will increase over time, but it's nice to have, not essential."
Added David Riley, analyst at NPD Group, a market research firm that compiles the gaming industry's sales figures: "There's no doubt in that Online/Multiplayer capabilities can help to sell a title, but DLC? Not enough to move the needle."
Downloadable content does have a business advantage, according to Riley. "DLC helps to prolong the shelf life of a title, while producing additional revenue for the publisher/developer." Zeschuk agrees, "DLC is really working in the games business now. One of the things that has been a challenge for the business is that we really have only had one way to monetize and that has been some kind of retail event. DLC gives us more options, and allows us to reach more people." For developers, creating downloadable content makes sense beyond revenue. "For us it's really beneficial to get fans trying stuff, getting their feedback, and work that into our development," Zeschuk said.
Bioware's DLC releases are also part of a larger strategy to connect with fans on an on-going basis. Dragon Age has a social networking site, as well as a disc full of new content called Awakening, coming in March. The Cerberus Network will keep players of Mass Effect connected and downloading add-ons for the sci-fi RPG. But where can the developer take its franchises next? "One thing we look at is to make something truly multiplatform: You have a world server running. The console can poke it and play on it. Your iPhone can play on it. Your Facebook game can play on it. But they're all doing different things. You might play Mass Effect, using your iPhone to explore the galaxy, using Facebook to build a weapon, and on console you may be reaping the benefits: using that weapon, or going to the planet you discovered on your iPhone," Zeschuk said.