James makes me really miss the cartridge-based console era before downloadable content existed. I think there's something to be said for buying a game once and knowing it's a complete experience.
Two fiscal strategies have become popular over the last couple of years for PC games: Either you give out the game for free and monetize through updates and micro-transactions, or you sell the game before it’s out and allow people access to increasingly more polished and complete beta builds. Everyone’s favorite little indie game turned viral hit Minecraft brought the latter strategy into the limelight, but this model has since been adopted by several other projects (such as Klei Entertainment’s Don’t Starve).
The privilege of buying in early and often at a reduced cost is the same way by which many Kickstarter projects find their funding. While Minecraft did not raise money through Kickstarter, the primary developer at the time, Markus Persson(Notch) opted to use a similar strategy that many who operate through Kickstarter now use. For a reduced cost, he allowed customers access to the latest (and sometimes unstable) builds of the project. As the builds got larger and the game itself moved from an alpha to a beta, the buy-in price increased, and the momentum of popularity continued to reach critical levels until the game finally had its day-one launch.
Since its release day, Minecraft updates have not slowed down — the Mojang team releases several monthly “snapshots,” each offering small parts of a larger update that drops later on. While Minecraft is still fondly spoken of, sells well, and becomes an exponentially deeper game with each new version, there is something less exciting about these updates; perhaps it is the idea that the game was “finished” on its original launch date. This may be an unfair assertion, but to consider the game unfinished because it is still rolling out content is to challenge the idea of what a finished product is; yet almost all modern games are in some sense released iteratively, and as such, are “unfinished” upon release. If this is so, then when is a game truly complete? And furthermore, why are the post-release additions to Minecraft so underwhelming for me personally compared to their alpha and beta counterparts?
Consider this: A game is released. After launch, there is no downloadable content, no patches. The game is released one time in its complete form; it’s that simple. The game is finished.
Consider now that a game is released, and post-game content launches that offers either a more definitive end (think Asura’s Wrath or Mass Effect 3) or in the case of a multiplayer title, a rebalance or addition to the game which brings forth new strategies or gameplay (think Team Fortress 2’s weapon releases). In both of these instances, the final product, the released “finished” game, is edited and changed. This is a big deal, and the bigger the game is, the more impactful this change can be. When an epic trilogy like Mass Effect is able to change its ending post-release, it makes one wonder if Tolkien or Lucas could have gotten away with manipulating the final moments of their trilogies after hearing the response of their audience. It seems unreal, almost uncomfortable, to consider that the “canon” of this world could be manipulated after it has already been published, shot, or developed.
If iterative releases are capable of manipulating storylines, how can we trust the final release to be canon? How can we trust the end is truly ultimate?
Now, this isn’t to say that all post-launch content is guilty of opening this can of worms. A more popular variant of downloadable content is one that adds additional content without manipulating the main story or the mechanics of the game itself. This includes side missions or map packs for a multiplayer game. From a canonical perspective these are more likely to enrich the world as opposed to manipulating it.
So how does Minecraft fit into all of this? Well, pre-release there is the notion that some features may be changed or removed before the game’s final release. While there is no real story or canon to Minecraft, one may consider that the features that make it into the release on day one are the definitive (or vanilla) features of the game — or in other words, these features are the canon of this particular game or universe.
Buying into a game before its release and following it as it is shaped from its gooey primordial alpha state into a solid definitive release is exciting because you’re able to see features form before it is even certain they will be in the final product. For example, when Minecraft was in beta and Notch was doing new releases every Friday, you could dive back into your undeveloped worlds to suddenly find new ores such as redstone. As time passed, you would hear of people doing stranger things with it, until eventually you’d come across something like this 16-bit computer built inside Minecraft. When the game finally released, this would be within the capabilities of all the users: no mods, or additional content required; but, as an early adopter you get to see it in all its rougher states, you’d get to see it when it was “subject to change,” when it was uncertain that it’d make it into the final package.
The irony here is that these between pre-release content updates and post release, there is no real difference aside from the declaration of ”finished and released” by the developer of a supposedly complete product. That is to say, if we can buy into a beta and play any content at all, it is in a sense “released,” and this may be (or with a more pessimistic view, simply is) a clever marketing strategy to drum up hype while allowing early backers immediate access with the promise for more. Yet, this is exactly what draws me to the beta buy-in: the promise for more. I realize that a developer is completely capable of cutting a project short, and the day it happens to me, (where I have bought in early and failed to see the project come to fruition) may be the day I feel less passionately about participating in these betas. Additionally, the early buy-in (in the case of Minecraft and more recently Don’t Starve) often comes with additional bonuses such as a reduced price or extra copies. The reduced price is especially captivating because it feels more like an investment — the day you buy-in, the game may be small but the promise for additional updates gives increasing value to the initial purchase.
I’d like to hold on to the notion that when a game is released it is complete on day one. I’d like to believe that I do not have to download a patch, buy additional content, or sign up for a service to access the final ending. Unfortunately, this becomes further from reality with each year, and as such, it becomes more difficult to determine what the final “true” release of a game will bring.
Whereas pre-release content additions via buying into betas and the like is exciting because it feels as though it is building towards a proper definitive end, post-game content that chooses to address issues or manipulate canon feels cheap by comparison, especially if it is paid DLC. When the next generation of gamers grow up, they likely they will do so in a world where games are rarely complete when they first become playable. Most games if not all will in some sense be iterative, and even those that are not will probably exist in some trilogy, most likely one where even the final chapter is not the end.