Home > dlc, newschool > We need to talk about DLC

We need to talk about DLC

Personal opinions follow. Feel free to loudly disagree with them.

A recent comment (cheers to Liam Brokas) on this post has really got me thinking about my relationship with DLC, which in turn saw it change from ‘largely indifferent’ to ‘annoyed enough to write a post about it’. What with the recent furore around Mass Effect 3‘s day one scandal, this seems as good a time as any to weigh into the whole debate will some ill-considered opinions. So here they are.

Personally, I’m yet to see much DLC that I think credibly fills the gap left behind by the expansion packs that it usurped. Leaving aside for one second the numerous examples of DLC that appears to have actively been designed as either a cheap money grab (horse armour), or an expensive, high gloss money grab (From Ashes), I’m not convinced that small, episodic chunks of additional content are how I want to spend my cash, or play my games. Don’t get me wrong, the current DLC situation is still better than the ‘micro-transactions’ alternative that funds a lot of free to play games, but lets face it, as soon as you can look at your revenue model for a game and aptly describe it with, “hey, at least its not as sleazy as Zynga’s” you need to own up to the fact that the games market is no longer based on the quid-pro-quo relationship it once was.

Mass Effect 3

Few alien-human universe saving teams have been so loved, or so reviled, based on the distribution method of their adventures.

DLC has very effectively supplanted the expansion pack of old – there are still some examples of it, but they’ve largely gone the way of other beloved childhood treasures that died too soon. As the name suggests, they used to be all about expanding the game experience. There have been some examples of disappointing exceptions, but by and large you were getting something that had been cohesively designed to add to the game world in multiple ways, be it new characters, new maps, new monsters etc. Importantly, they were generally large and involved enough to be worth the investment, because in order to justify the $50 asking price, and – more importantly, lure people back to the game months after most people had finished it – the developers had to do something of significance. Diablo 2’s Lord of Destruction added a whole new world area with its own quests, bosses, monsters and importantly, story (such as it was). Expansions over the years to the Dawn of War franchise added new single player campaigns and new playable races. Even Red Dead Redemptions Zombie Nightmare (despite not understanding what made the first game great), and Dead Island’s Ryder White (ditto) attempted to add an experience that changed the dynamic of the original games, expanded the lore, and gave new goals to be achieved.

That last part on goals is especially important, and its why I think the cycle between release and DLC is getting shorter. Personally, once I’ve played through a game, finished it and moved on, I’m not going to be lured back by the promise of one or two more missions that don’t really relate to the story, a few new weapons/cars/npc’s to play with, or 90 odd minutes of extra ‘content’. The more people who are still embroiled in the hype of your game’s release when the DLC drops, the more people will buy it, meaning if you do it early enough it doesn’t need to be large and standalone – it doesn’t really need to be anything more than a few missions and a character swept off the main game’s cutting room floor, with the addition of a price tag.

To get fans to re-engage with your game in spite of the ever-more-crammed schedule of AAA releases each year is difficult and risky. You need something that expands the original game, rather than just extending it. However fun it might be to play, a lot of DLC falls into this ‘extension’ camp. Personally, I think you could make compelling arguments against the Mass Effect Series, Dragon Age series and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, with many more waiting in the wings for a more diligent researcher to discover.

On the subject of timing, as a general rule I’m not wild about DLC arriving while I’m still playing the game for the first time. Cleverer people than me have kicked Mass Effect 3‘s day one DLC from one end of the internet to the other already so I won’t rehash it here, except to say that DLC that I’m hearing about before I even have the game gives me the same feeling I got once or twice as a kid at Christmas. The one when you got something you’re really excited about and have been looking forward to, and then your friends started telling you about how much cooler it would be if it had all the latest accessories, upgrades etc. Suddenly this thing you loved a moment ago has been cheapened by the promise of how much better it could be, if you only spent a little more money. (Full disclosure: I did buy From Ashes, the scandal causing minute-one DLC that I’m currently complaining about. My angst about DLC and related reliving of traumatic childhood memories is likely at least partially motivated by this fact.)

Which is not to say that there isn’t any true expansion content out there. Some of Fallout 3’s DLC basically qualifies as expansion packs, especially the stellar Point Lookout. Whatever my expressed feelings about Alan Wake’s American Nightmare were, I’m glad they didn’t opt instead for the safe route and just tape a bunch of additional ‘quests’ onto the existing Alan Wake, and I wouldn’t have bought and played it if they had.

American Nightmare

Pictured: Six times more expensive than horse armour, and not very good. Still at least six times better an idea than horse armour was.

I did have a DLC ‘strategy’ for a while, where I would fastidiously ignore any DLC that came out, play and enjoy the game, and then months later when I was ready to replay with fresh eyes (or it was a slow month for releases), I’d pick up all the DLC together. I was quite convinced for a while this would provide the truly expansive, adventure continuing experience I was looking for. The theory was that if you bolted enough disjointed pieces of extra content together, they’d form an unholy-yet-awesome frankensteinien expansion, every bit as good as the proper ones of old. (Protip: they don’t). They’re pitched as single, play-hour extending pieces of content. To pick on Mass Effect again, while its DLC mission is a great one, in the context of the entire game, what does it really add? Does what it added to the story stand alone and universe stand alone, or is it forgotten in amongst the slew of similar, later quests? A friend of mine recently noted ‘I didn’t realise it was the DLC until after I’d completed it.’ In this context, is it expanding the game, or just extending it?

This all leads me back to my original point – from what I’ve seen so far, DLC isn’t an adequate replacement for proper expansion packs, even if you wait until enough of them come along to get the equivalent number of hours entertainment. At the end of the day, what you get with an expansion pack is (usually) a cohesive, multi-faceted add-on that is often capable of standing alone as a representative of the game or series it belongs to. However fun they might be in the short term, From Ashes and its ilk don’t fit that mould. Even without its wallet-eroding, face-slapping arrival on the same day as the ‘full’ game (although I’m not sure I can credibly use that term any more), its not an encouraging sign of the future direction of DLC.

I realise this post has an element of whiny #firstworldproblems about it, but honestly, I don’t think DLC is living up to its potential. For those of you who’ve been on the DLC wagon since the beginning, how do you feel about it? Do you long for a return to the good old days of $50 expansion packs that you looked forward to almost as much as the game itself, or do you think smaller, more frequent parcels of new content are a better bet?

  1. Liam Brokas
    March 15, 2012 at 10:43 pm

    Way to drop the blame on me, mate! 😉 Raising flame shields.
    Seriously though, DLC can bite my hairy white arse. So far, I’ve seen very little DLC that doesn’t unbalance a game by providing wildly OP weapons and armour for your first few hours (RPG’s specifically), only to be discarded never to be used again once they’ve served their purpose and you’ve found better weapons/armour. Given they usually charge a significant price for this insignificant content (Tactical Enhancement Pack for DX:HR for instance) which really should have been in the game already, they never truly pay for themselves.
    This is not true for all DLC, but most of it fits under this category. And while EA/BioWare have copped the biggest share of flak for it, another company has slid under the radar for even more flagrant abuses of DLC and content. Capcom. (http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/bt/aj/as/34538-wtf-capcom-angry-rant)
    In the end, regardless of what we think of DLC, the only way we’re going to see a change in this behaviour is to vote with our wallets, Stop paying fit. Don’t play it, don’t go anywhere near it. And don’t pirate it, because this only strengthens the problem, as DLC has been called a form of DRM and antipiracy measures. The more pirates, the worse the DLC and DRM problem could get. This hurts legitimate gamers, while pirates laugh and avoid all problems.
    For many of us, how much are we willing to stick our principles? Are we willing to miss out on a game we’ve looked forward to for years because they’ve done down the despicable route? For instance, ME3. The game has been given accolades it (IMO) doesn’t deserve, and has been pre-emptively called ‘the most spectacular game ever made’ (GoodGame, ABC Australia) despite the massive outcry across the globe about its pathetic ending/s and the terrible DLC debacle. But it hasn’t stopped people buying it, and as soon as you put down money for it, you’ve satisfied the producers and developers and they will do it again, because you said they could. You gave them laissez-faire to continue this course of action. We as consumers are terrible at sticking up for our rights, and this is yet another example of that. So long as they wave ‘the shiny sparkly thing’ in front of our face, we will giggle inanely and swallow whatever they do to us, because we ‘must see how it ends’. Even if you don’t buy the DLC, simply purchasing the game (which has much of the DLC content on the disc BTW) validates their choices.
    Erm…ahem…anyway, my anarchistic, smash-the-system rant aside, you’re right. DLC should be considered on the basis of how much it costs, what it adds to the game, and whether that addition is worth that cost. Also, I do believe that you should take the companies track record into account when considering purchasing any game and/or content, and if their practises are not in the best interest of the consumer then you should weigh up what the decision to buy could do in the future.

  2. March 15, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    Lol. No blame here.I was looking back at my original response to your comment, and realised it didn’t really gel with my current feelings on DLC, so you may have catalysed this post, but I’m definitely not pointing fingers 😉

    I can see your point, although I don’t think I agree that the only way to achieve a change is to not by the game itself (not buying the DLC, I’m starting to agree with) – I’d very much like to encourage more games like the Mass Effect series, because I think they really have been a standout in recent years, and a blend of storytelling and action that no other games have really matched. Also, I’m a massive fan of space operas, done properly. Makes a nice change from the same old ‘swords and sorcery’ rgp’s that are otherwise rampant.

    DX:HR is a great example – I’ve not seen anything worth paying for. Although the original game would have been better with this content included, I can also see the development cost/benefit on the production side of putting this stuff in – I bought the vanilla game without it, and I don’t think they would have increased sales by including it at the outset. The question is whether or not they should have released it as is, or maybe bundled it into something that could really have added to the original game (maybe nowish) and drawn fans back in. That I might have paid for.

    I can’t comment on ME3’s ending as I haven’t gotten to it yet, although I suspect its not as awful as has been made out (the people I know personally who’ve finished haven’t had a problem, so all I’ve seen is an outcry on the internet, and lets face it, that alone should not be a barometer for the quality of anything, given recent examples of angsty fanboy behaviour that shame us all).

    I would agree that not buying the DLC would be a good thing – I’m not comfortable with the idea of extension content racking up an extra $50-60, just for me to feel like I’ve experienced the ‘full’ game. Coming from my history of indifference to DLC though, I’m not sure I’m representative of most people out there. Hoping I can get some responses from DLC fans, to hear that side of the story.

    • Liam Brokas
      March 16, 2012 at 12:43 am

      Again, I would have to say to be wary of supporting the series too much. I will never discount company shareholders doing whatever they can get away with to cheat consumers out of their money. And with DLC (again, with most already on the damned disc to start with [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ri0vrJ-y2zM] making the paid DLC basically paying for what you already own) it’s even worse. I loved the first Mass Effect for all its apparent flaws, and I enjoyed the storyline overall while despising the action focus in Mass Effect 2. I agree we need more space operas, but not at the expense of consumer fairness. Businesses have to be run, but we allow them to stay in business, and they have to do what we want, not the other way around. The only way to get them to understand is to avoid any and every game that uses these kinds of tactics and not reward them by paying for it, and by extension any franchise that is tied to it. There’s wanting something, but maintaining principles. The companies will always try to push these ideas and concepts forward, it’s in their best interests. But we as consumers have as much right to push back, and tell them it’s not on. But we need to back up our anger with action. Sad as it is, this is capitalism at its best and worst, and we as consumers need to use the evil for our own uses, rather than simply bending over and taking it ourselves out of fear.
      For companies not abusing DLC and actually working out a balanced solution, support them as much as possible. In that sense, DLC is a good thing and should be supported. It’s our right to pick and choose, lets use it.
      [All opinions expressed by me are not necessarily the views of anyone at all, and the owner/s of places where my comments are posted should not be held responsible for them. :D]

  3. March 16, 2012 at 5:58 am

    DLC is such a mixed bag for me. I have really enjoyed a few, but others just didn’t do much for me. Some handled well, others horribly. I do love standalone downloadable games though. Stuff like Castle Crashers and Outland. Those are great. Add-on content kind of a crapshoot. I don’t think I have run into Day 1 DLC in the games I have played. Maybe I just ignored it.

  4. March 17, 2012 at 11:17 am

    I was completely against DLC until I played the ones for “Fallout: New Vegas”. After that, I became convinced that, done right, it is awesome. I eagerly anticipated “Old World Blues” and “Lonesome Road” as much as I did the core game.

    That said, that is the only instance I can think where the DLC has been worthwhile for me.

  5. March 17, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    @liam – you make an interesting case, although I don’t know if boycotting the franchise sends the message that its the DLC model the public don’t like (sure, if disappointing sales of a franchise were tied to strong community outcry and reasoned debate, it might) – there’s a risk if an entire franchise tanks that we just get fewer games in the same mould, which is not really what I want to encourage from the industry.

    Taking your point to the extreme, you’d really need to boycott an entire developer, rather than just a franchise (unless the DLC is made and sold in distinctly different ways between series) otherwise the message is just ‘make more games like x, and less games like y’. While I won’t be going this far, I am coming around to the point of not buying any more DLC that uses this model, regardless of which company it comes from.

    The flip side, of course, is that we need to be ready to reward devs that do release new content thats fairly priced and actually adds a lot of value to the game (presuming its not released at the same time) – although there’s not a lot of info around yet, I’ll be very interested to see what Bethesda does with Skyrim. Have read a few off the cuff remarks from Todd Howard that suggest they might be looking at larger expansion pack style add ons. Even if its only at the same level as what they did with the Fallout series, I’d be interested. To @mysterious man’s point, although I haven’t played them (yet) I heard all good things about New Vegas’s additional content, so they have a history of reasonable action on this front.

    @Matthew – thats part of whats so frustrating about episodic content, for me. It often seems like individual dlc items for a game have been worked on by different teams (and to different standards of quality) than the main game, and don’t have an overarching sense of purpose, beyond ‘make more money’. The rise of XBLA and to a lesser extent, PSN have been a positive thing overall, and I suspect it lowers the barrier to entry for indie devs and small companies, which is an awesome thing for people like us. You do have the related problem that with more players in the market, you have the related problem of actually distinguishing your game from the masses of others, but I’d say thats a better problem to have than having great game ideas, but distribution costs stopping them getting made. (not that its all console action – obligatory plug for the still brilliant Minecraft)

    I haven’t played Castle Crashers or Outland, but I’ll give them a look, on your recommendation 🙂

  6. March 17, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    I agree with you that expansion packs are generally much more focused. The one nice thing about DLC though is that I think it offers games that otherwise would have never got an expansion pack a chance at one. For example, Enslaved’s DLC is awesome. The game never would have got an expansion pack in the pre-DLC days.

    DLC can be great when done right though. You mentioned Alan Wake, that actually did have DLC. “The Signal” and “The Writer”. The Writer is especially awesome, and they introduced some new flashlight gameplay mechanics that work really well.

    My main problem with DLC is that it is so damn hit or miss. It’s not uncommon for a great game to come out with some awful DLC.

    The main solution to this problem, in my eyes, would be more day 1 reviews of DLC. Seriously, reviewers work like crazy to get their reviews out day 1 or before day 1, even though most people are able to figure out if they will like a game via the trailers and gameplay they’ve seen. Obviously we’ve seen tons of cases over the years of people whining about reviews of games they haven’t even played,

    DLC though, is a total mixed bag. Why aren’t we getting more day 1 DLC reviews? I think they would be 10x more useful than day 1 retail game release reviews due to the hit or miss nature of DLC.

  7. March 17, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    Whoop – you’re right about Alan Wake’s DLC – totally slipped my mind. Despite being a big fan of the game, I didn’t pick up either of those, and the case against was really about whether they were going to be big enough to add something to the experience, rather than just a couple of missions here and there (sounds like The Writer, at least, might have been?).

    On the subject of DLC that otherwise would never have seen the light of day – thats an interesting angle, hadn’t really thought about it like that. I didn’t play enslaved, but its probably not be the only example out there, I’ll have to give that some thought.

    Day 1 DLC reviews would be good – I agree that reviews of the major games don’t really factor into my decision to buy it, and these days I’m actually holding off until after I’m done with the game to go back and read them. Now that consciously against the small episode dlc (as opposed to mostly disinterested) I just complained about, reviews are going to be really handy in steering me towards the ones that are done right.

    Also, there’s a whole blog post in that ‘gamer angst about reviews’ comment – I really don’t think any other consumer group has the kind of backlash against the review system that we do (I remember vividly when Halo 3 came out seeing a bunch of people in a forum screaming about a major gaming site that ‘only’ gave it 9.75/10, and how they were obviously all biased hacks. Really opened my eyes.)

  8. Liam Brokas
    March 17, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    I can kinda see that argument. I guess I’ve just been burned far too many times by game companies and see their strategies in a pessimistic light a little too much. I agree that a blanket boycott of a franchise could possibly go badly, but I came at it from a particular viewpoint. In the case of ME3, given that content in From Ashes is clearly and proven to be on the disc, the purchase of the DLC is likely nothing more than a section of code that activates the locked content. This is a cash grab, nothing more, and its despicable. THAT is the practise that needs to be shut down, and I don’t see a way to do it other than to tell EA/BioWare that we will not take it by refusing to purchase the base game and loudly proclaiming why. If everyone took a similar stance, and explained their rationale clearly and calmly, rather than ‘BioWare suxxorz!!!1!1’ I don’t doubt it would get through. If the game does not meet expected sales quotas, then dedicated departments (of which we KNOW they have) would scour the web for why. If they find our reasoning and it’s in large enough numbers, then the best outcome is to acknowledge it, and fix it.
    Now granted this is an extreme response, and doesn’t (and indeed shouldn’t) apply to all games. But in terms of EA/Bioware, I don’t see another way. They are clearly scamming consumers, and while that may seem harsh, believe me when I say I love much of what BioWare has achieved in the past and their story creation. Most all games from their partnership with EA have been very much top quality, and excellent experiences. But in my mind that does not excuse them from exploiting customer loyalty to make a profit. It doesn’t make me happy to be such a doomsayer, but when actions such as this are very clearly pro-profit and anti-consumer, I have to speak.
    I’m not advocating gross and blanket boycotts of games just because they make bad DLC decisions either. I’m simply asking that we consumers consider games and DLC on a case by case basis, and decided if what we’re paying for is worth our money for what we’re getting, and more importantly if purchasing the DLC is rewarding the company for a potentially bad practice. Houses like Bethesda have made great DLC choices in general, they acknowledged that Horse Armor was a serious cock up and we forgave them. But only after we made damned sure they understood just how badly they cocked up and beat them down severely for it. That’s what we need to do for every screw up game makers do, and we shouldnt let our love for their products get in the way of our right to ‘discipline’ these companies. DLC is an area that needs sharp focus by gamers into what we will allow them to get away with.
    I lament the fact I will never play Mass Effect 3. I truly do want to see the trilogy I created in the first two games come to an end. But I will not put my desire to do so aside and allow EA/BioWare to get away with these terrible decisions. If that means I miss out, then so be it. I stand on principle. I’m not saying those who do buy and play are lesser than me, but I will say that if you dislike these decisions in any way but still buy and play, you’re only propogating the problem. It’s your choice, but you cannot have your cake and eat it too.

  9. March 18, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    I agree with most of what you’re saying – there does need to be some kind of sales effect combined with a clearly explained rationale from the community in order for any actual change to be likely. The issue with boycotting games at the EA level (if we did it as a mass audience) is that it also has mass consequences on the developers who do their publishing through EA, who may have little control about the DLC strategy in use (I have no evidence to back that up, btw, but I suspect that business relationship has specific agreements in place about how additional content is going to be structured, priced etc).

    Its possible that the long term consequences of that are that mid/large developers become reluctant to enter into that relationship with EA, but I suspect they often don’t have as much choice in the matter as they’d like, depending on who their owned by.

    I suspect that there is a way to have our cake and eat it too, here – if game sales of say, Mass Effect are through the roof, and DLC sales are through the floor, the sales model for DLC will change. Simple as that. While I agree that means a boycott of that kind of DLC, I really do think thats a quicker and easier message to get across than boycotting an entire publisher and hoping they get the right message out of it. Yes, they have armies of people devoted to scouring the internet to figure these things out, but honestly, if there was a Mass Effect 4, and its sales numbers sucked, the internet would tell you thats because people didn’t like the end of Mass Effect 3, not because people didn’t like their DLC methods.

    From a pragmatic (or lazy and selfish, if you like) viewpoint – its going to be a hell of a lot easier to convince people not to buy dlc for ME3 than it is to convince them not to buy the game. While you approach is probably the morally correct one (if you don’t like their practices, don’t reward them at all), morally correct viewpoints don’t always get results. Call it weak-willed and so forth if you must, but I really do think just punishing the DLC sales is more likely to achieve the end we want, because its more likely to actually happen.

    A total community wide boycott of EA games would definitely send the message, but is it going to happen? No. Given the amount of angst thats floating around about DLC in general at the moment, and the backlash and damage control in progress over the day 1 for ME3, I think there’s enough feeling there to affect those sales at least.

    Just my two cents, of course.

  10. Liam Brokas
    March 19, 2012 at 11:04 am

    Okay, I don’t want to draw this out too long, but I had to share this.


    Now THAT is an expression of discontent. 😉

    • March 19, 2012 at 2:01 pm

      Brilliant. I saw that, along with some other stuff about this mass effect ending backlash. The guys running #occupybioware in particular are making us all look bad – based on this and some other recent events, i’ve come to the conclusion that the gaming community has an issue with conflating passion with raving insanity.

  11. March 19, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    Brilliant post buddy 🙂 Personally, I never buy DLC only those that come free with preorder exclusives. I just feel as though DLC is cheap and lazy, just done in an effort to get more money from you.
    Look at Call of Duty Elite for example. It asks for you to pay a yearly fee in which you get a select few free maps once in a while. It shocks me why people even do it!
    As for the Mass Effect 3 DLC, i’m still playing through it, but if the ending is as bad as everyone says it is, I’ll have to buy any ‘additional ending DLC’, just to let the series go out with a bang for me.
    I like what you’ve written and you’ve earned yourself a follower my friend 🙂

    • March 19, 2012 at 11:25 pm

      Too kind 🙂

      I haven’t touched on multiplayer DLC here because I don’t really play enough of it to really get a sense of how its pitched – on the one hand, back in my hardcore halo days, I would have gladly paid $10 every 6 months for a bunch of new maps to play on, because to some extent it re-levels the playing field, and offers a lot of new action within a game I would have been playing regularly anyway.

      On the other hand, subscription based content is always dicey, as I’m not really making a distinct choice about whether to pay for the content on its own merits – especially if the sub charge is just ‘pay to play’ and the actual new content is pitched as ‘free’. I can understand that model with free to buy software, but not with a full retail priced game (and lets face it, the vast majority of gamers are buying CoD and BF these days for the multiplayer) that you then have to sign up to monthly payments just to use properly.

      Good addition – we’ve so far managed to miss the MP side of things, so its nice to hear from that part of the world.

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