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With the current generation of consoles, a defining feature has been hard drives, internet access and thus downloadable content.
This has been a mixed blessing. On one hand it's opened up easy access to classic and retro videogames, on the other hand it also allows publishers to be lazy and greedy, releasing bug-ridden and/or incomplete console games in the knowledge that they can just patch them up post-release or bankrupt their customers by drip-feeding them content through endless micro-transactions.
However, an interesting fringe benefit is the occasional free update. These aren't simply patches, but updates which add additional content to the game without charging the customer any extra. Examples such as Crackdown, which had a free update that added an additional set of vehicles to your garage, or Burnout Paradise which has recently had a free update released adding Motorcycles, which not only means a new set of vehicles but also a new licence class and events to compete in with those vehicles.
Now, these are obviously great for the consumer; you bought a game a few months ago, it's starting to get a bit stale and then hey, here comes some refreshing content to extend the life of the game at no extra expense to you.
But it also seems like a rather clever business model for the developer/publisher as well. At first maybe not - why give something away for free which some people who already own your game will pay for? Seems stupid. But, what about all those people who haven't played your game yet? I mentioned Crackdown and Burnout Paradise because these were two games I bought after the free updates were released. Yes, part of the decision to buy them was because they are well-received games in their own right, but the opportunity to get added value for money makes the purchase a no-brainer. Here's a good game, which is even better than it was on original release. It's like I've bought a Game of the Year edition with added content right out of the box or something.
It also momentarily puts the game back on the front page (I bought Burnout Paradise last month after reading a thread mentioning the added content) so it produces more publicity months after your initial marketing campaign has dried up.
And what's better? Selling the new content for 500 MSPoints to a percentage of existing customers still interested in playing the game and willing to shell out more for it or drumming up renewed interest in the game with a free update and selling off additional old hard-copy stock at full price to new customers?
So free updates. They seem like a win-win situation to me. Existing customers get a 'thank-you for playing' a few months after purchase without feeling like the publisher is trying to bleed them dry by charging for minor updates, new customers feel like they're getting something a bit extra even although they are still paying full price for an older game and the publisher gets to cash in by extending the shelf-life of full-price publications.
So what of free updates? Altruistic goodies or cynical marketing ploys? Worthy additions or pointless wardrobe distractions?