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The ‘Portal Principle’ At Work

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By Doug Thompson

A game I own will have “DLC,” or downloadable content, available on April 6. You’ll have to pay to get it. I plan on paying for it, if the price is reasonable. This makes me a sucker to many people.

Of course, many of those people telling me what a sucker I am are on Internet forums about games, which ought to be set aside as wilderness preserves for whiners. They tell me I should get everything a game has to offer in the box when I bought it for $50.

My answer to that is to invoke what I hereby dub “The Portal Principle.”

The definition I offer is: Portal Principle — An electronic game industry term meaning that bonus content offered to an established game franchise allows greater creativity and risk-taking than is normal in a regular, finished commercial release.

“Portal,” as any gamer would know, is a wildly successful offshoot of the “Half-Life” franchise. It was bonus content added to “The Orange Box.” The “box” is best described as the boxed set of Half-Life games, to use a term from the recorded music industry.

Portal was universally praised as wildly creative, inventive and fun. Ben Croshaw of “Zero Punctuation” fame makes a living out of ridiculing games and is the industry’s outstanding satirist. He described Portal as flawless, “absolutely sublime from start to finish, and I will jam forks into my eyes if I ever use those words to describe anything else, ever again.”

Portal was also sold as a separate game since so many people already owned Half-Life games. However, this separate, stand-alone version was released at the same time as the Orange Box at a price less than that for a complete, stand-alone game.

Here’s my point: There would be no Portal without Half-Life. The risk of developing Portal was comparatively minor as it was tied to a solid, accepted product. Similarly, “Kasumi’s Stolen Memory,” which is scheduled for release April 6 for “Mass Effect 2,” wouldn’t be on the way if it wasn’t for ME2. Kasumi appears to be more of the same thing and not the bold, creative departure that Portal was — but the opportunity for experimentation is there.

Look at this through the eyes of the enemy — game company execs. If you’re told you must design a game that is complete and self-contained in one $50 package, what are you going to develop? A sequel to an already successful game is the first thing that comes to mind. If you try developing a new franchise, you’re going to include as much tried-and-true formula gameplay as you can.

This is a recipe for stagnation.

Now suppose you can try new things as bonus content or as downloadable content. The risks of trying something new are greatly lessened. It also encourages customer to stay online, which is the only way to play with downloadable content. This gives you all kinds of info on how they play, when they play and how long they play at any one time — invaluable information when designing the next game in the franchise.

And what about the customers? They don’t have to buy your DLC if they don’t want to. There are some people who bought ME2 who did not like it. They won’t be buying Kasumi. No loss, no foul.

The whole thing reminds me of the time that I posted on an Internet forum that I’d rather a company spare the expense of printing manuals for a game and put the money in the software. I was roundly reviled by people who, from what they described, wanted a full-color catalog with every game they purchased.

With all due respect, these people clearly had no idea how much printing that stuff costs, all for something less useful than a PDF file you can search.

In closing, I admit that DLC is subject to abuse. For instance, the PC gaming industry released incomplete games for years, saving themselves debugging costs by releasing patches after their customers found all the bugs. Companies that do that will fail. For instance, I stopped buying new PC games for a long time, picking them up after the price dropped and the bugs were cleaned up. Those buggy PC helped drive people to consoles.

Customers are not helpless here.

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