The console makers are on to a winner with these so called "micro transactions", providing relatively cheap add on content for games via digital download. Microsoft's Xbox Live Marketplace is the first example we've seen get released into the wild, with people buying credit (and that's a critical part of the equation) to spend on items ranging from wallpapers to customize their consoles; to add on maps and extra items for games.
Some of the stuff, like the Oblivion horse armor for example, has received a mixed reception from gamers. However, they have been spending their credit, and Call of Duty publisher Activison has reported that they have sold almost $1 million in expansion maps for CoD 2, the most played multiplayer game on Xbox Live.
That's a serious amount of ongoing revenue intake, but the really surprising thing is that people have also been spending their credits to purchase things that, in the past, PR and marketing people would pay you to take. Things like wallpapers, to "customize" your desktop, can only be provided through the Xbox Live Marketplace and so it is a sellers market. Microsoft and Co. can literally sell you anything they want at any price, as there is no alternative - and people have been literally buying promotional materials which, marketing struggles to give away otherwise. How is it that consumers are so willing to pay for this stuff? Well, when you spend "1000 credits" as opposed to "$12.50", as one does in the Xbox Live Marketplace, which is based on a credit system, it makes the medicine go down a bit easier.
Of course, a stingy person might point out that in games like Day of Defeat: Source and Red Orchestra we're getting bonus materials just as good as the Call of Duty 2 map packs for free. Indeed, there was a time (once upon a better time...) when we got all map packs and expansions for free. EA tried selling smaller expansions for PC games, like the Battlefield 2 booster packs, and the exercise has largely been a failure - trying to find more than about a half a dozen good servers for Euro Force or Armoured Fury, the two booster packs for BF2 to date, is an exercise in futility.
It seems that this sort of success story for publishers will only work in the highly managed, "sellers market", of something like the Xbox Live Marketplace or Sony's upcoming answer on the PlayStation 3. If you try to peddle this stuff to people on the PC they usually won't bite. If I don't like your content distribution system then I can go and find another one, and with the availability of modification tools and map editors - which have been instrumental in the ongoing success of many games since the earliest days of modern video gaming - there's always going to be plenty of free, top quality, expansions for games available.
If you release an add-on for a multiplayer game then, no matter how cool the content, it will only be enjoyable if a lot of people play it. There's no point in making the expansion and not selling it, and so the better option is to simply give it away for free, as we've seen with games on Steam - at least in the latter case you have leverage for reaching new audiences, keeping existing ones happy and expanded room for in-game advertising. A lot of people will splutter and complain, if we drop money for a full priced game and get ads into the bargain - but release a free expansion and pepper it with ads and who is going to really care?
So, console people I'm afraid that you're screwed and condemned to paying for promotional materials. Those on the PC can notch up a point (if you happen to be keeping score) in the PCs vs Consoles debate, for the freedom of the platform will help maintain the freedom of the content.
This is an adaptation of an article which originally appeared in the TwitchGuru Blog. Check it out!