By Marshall Garvey
“Microtransaction” seems more and more like a dirty word in gaming these days. All too frequently, the headlines are dominated by the latest news of companies swindling consumers, or releasing incomplete games that will lazily be patched in with overpriced DLC later on. We’ve discussed some of the worst recent cases in some of our indie developers interviews, like Three Flip Studios and Byte Me Games. To chronicle the greatest offenses, failures and hilarities in the annals of DLC, I present our newest article series, Microtransaction Mishaps. For our first entry, we’re going back to the beginning…quite literally.
It was the year 2006. The Arctic Monkeys were being hyped as the next Beatles on MySpace. George W. Bush was President. The housing bubble was soaring. The Cubs still hadn’t won the World Series since 1908. To say the least, it was a much different time. Indeed, the world of gaming as it was then seems especially distant from today’s vantage point. But it was in this year a newfangled thing called downloadable content (or DLC, just so ya know) was introduced.
The biggest game of the year by far was the hotly anticipated fourth Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion. With beautiful graphics and a sprawling world of fantasy adventure to soak in, it was a perfect game to supplement with bonus content. Bethesda rolled out 10 add-ons for it from April 2006 all the way until October 2007. This lineup included some brilliant content, with 2007’s Shivering Isles expansion my personal pick for the greatest DLC ever made.
Now, any time an ambitious new idea is being implemented for the first time, there are bound to be gaping flaws right from the start. If anything, it’s almost a necessity in order to learn what works, as well as what doesn’t. Bethesda learned this quickly on April 3, 2006 when they unveiled their first add-on, Horse Armor. For $2.50 on Xbox Live, gamers could deck out any horse their character owned with shining, ornate plates of armor.
Except…it didn’t really add much. While the armor did increase the horse’s health bar, it didn’t protect it from taking damage. Maybe if the option was entirely free, it wouldn’t have drawn much ire. But many players didn’t think $2.50 was a fair price for what amounted to little more than decoration for an optional component of the game. The backlash was swift, leading Bethesda to issue a statement literally the day after release stating they were readying other DLC to determine what players wanted and didn’t.
Yet in the decade-plus since gamers scoffed at pimping out their equestrians, Bethesda has arguably had the last laugh. For one, despite the backlash, the DLC actually made a ton of money at the time. Not to mention, other games since have had similar decorative items for sale, most notably Team Fortress 2 and its seemingly endless gallery of silly hats and outfits. (Granted, TF2 has been free to play since 2011, which makes paying for apparel and other bonuses more justifiable.)
Regardless, Horse Armor remains one of the greatest punchlines in the annals of gaming. Above all, it served as an early lesson for developers who assumed they could throw out anything and expect players to just buy it uncritically. A lesson that unfortunately still hasn’t been learned across the industry.