The Psychology of DLC (And Why it Sells so Well)


Today I learned how developers make 1% of a game worth more than 99% of a game: fear. I grew up with some of the best video games of the entire century. Johto and Kanto region Pokemon, Super Smash Bros Melee, and so much more. Back when I was a child, once you bought a game, you had the whole game. No add ons, downloadable content (DLCs), additional discs (except a few: I’m looking at you, Golden Sun). Back in the day, there was one product, you paid for it, and you got the whole thing.

What changed? Money. In my childhood, if you bought a game, you paid 100% of the price for 100% of a game. In the last decade, game developers figured out the secret winning formula to getting people to pay 200% of the price for 105% of the game.

Let me take you to another thought process for a second.

Why do we go out with our friends if we want to stay inside?

Why are we quick to jump on a fad, viral idea, or new product once it becomes popularized?

Why do people flock to a new restaurant in town?

Answer: For the most part, they don’t want to miss out on something that’s happening. FOMO.

The psychology works like this. Game developers will finish a game, and then make 2-3 extra “chapters” of the game, “map packs”, or additional customization features. These additional features cost next to nothing to make, since the framework of the game had already been built prior. In fact, for extra story missions, the hardest part is getting a writer.

The buyer will look at these new features (usually priced between 10-20$ USD) and say to himself – “Geez, if I don’t have this DLC, I’m not getting a complete game or gaming experience!” This irrational thought is so strong that I’m willing to bet the following:

If just the base game is purchased, customer satisfaction with a 20 hour long game WITH DLC would be lower than a 15 hour game WITH NO DLC. 

The customer wants to feel whole, and the customer wants to feel like he/she is getting the full experience. Add additional content to that table and they will no longer feel whole.

The most popular phrase with this centuries-old sales technique I can think of is: “You don’t want to miss out on this once in a lifetime opportunity”. However, this phrase also plays on the concept of urgency as well as FOMO.

Additionally, there are elements of upselling and sunk cost here. It’s easier for the customer to buy the 20$ package if he/she has already spent 60$ on the product. The customer already has the 60$ base game if he/she is consider DLC, so there are two options:

  1. Get upsold on 10-20$ DLC packages to get the “whole” game and feel “complete”.
  2. Feel perpetually “incomplete” during the entire life cycle of the game (especially strong effect in games with a community such as for Call of Duty map packs)

Many times, these DLCs will be used to take the game to a whole “new” level. A very simple example of how this is done is follows: Let’s say we are talking about an open-world roleplaying game. The maximum level in this game is 20 and the strongest weapon in the game has 100 power. In a new DLC update, they could potentially make the maximum level 30, and make a NEW weapon with 150 power (hint hint, it’s been done before). Really, all they did was move some numbers in the code around which probably took a few minutes! Ha!

Popular phrases on the up sell are:

  • Experience (GAME WORLD/GAME NAME) like you’ve never experienced it before
  • A whole new JOURNEY in the world of (GAMEWORLD)

Now I’m not knocking DLCs at all – I get it. Gaming companies have to maximize revenues! Plus, operation Anchorage for Fallout 3 was one of my favorite DLCs of all time (lightning katana and gauss cannon, anybody?)

All I’m saying is selling products using fear of missing out may be a valuable strategy to consider for anybody out there considering online product sales. I hope this post helped you.



Author: Wayne

Aspiring overachiever.

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