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We need to talk about DLC

March 15, 2012 14 comments

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?

Waking Nightmare (Part 2)

February 29, 2012 5 comments

Disclaimer: This is not a review as such, but it does talk about various elements of a recently released game. If you’re particularly averse to spoilers, or really looking forward to Alan Wake’s American Nightmare you might want to come back once you’ve played it for yourself.

To be brief (and diplomatic), I am disappointed, although I understood before I wrote Part 1 that I’d have no one but myself (and Remedy) to blame if this happened. I’m also a little bemused, primarily because I’ve spent more time trying to figure out exactly who the target audience for this game is than I have playing the game itself. Of course, its reviewing reasonably well so I understand I may be in the minority here, but to me this felt like Alan Wake with all the interesting elements removed (albeit with the remaining ones polished to a mirror-like sheen). Or, to put it another way, it felt like I was controlling Max Payne as he wandered through a poorly written chapter of the Alan Wake story.

Alan Wake

Essential tools of the writer's trade. Apparently.

Alan was a much more relatable character in the first game. Lost in a dark forest, possibly going mad, desperately trying to rescue his wife – these are understandable challenges and motivations that help me care about him as a character. The fact that he’s a writer and not a cannon-toting superman made combat situations genuinely threatening and uncomfortable, and combined with the slightly clunky movement mechanics to create a convincing feeling of Wake as an everyman out of his depth. A big contributor to this was the relative powerlessness that comes from not knowing where your next flashlight battery is coming from, or if you have enough ammunition to reach the safety of the next floodlight. This ever-present threat, and consequently the tension, is conspicuously missing from American Nightmare, for two reasons:

First, ammunition and resources are ludicrously abundant. In addition to automatically changing all ammo in the level around you to match the guns you’re currently carrying, Remedy introduced cabinets generously scattered throughout the levels that completely refill all your resources. The combination meant I really didn’t need half of the ammo I found, and ultimately was able to use the ‘apocalyptic overkill’ strategy for most combat situations without fear of what was around the next corner.

Second, the gameplay has been tightened up considerably – Alan is now much smoother to control both in movement and aiming, making it easier to manoeuvre and to switch between targets during firefights. While this is obviously a good thing, when combined with the super-stocked arsenal, it makes Alan feel like a traditional video game hero – slick, overpowered and disappointingly two dimensional. Admittedly, while this results in much less tension in the combat, it does make it a lot more fun, and allows the game to throw more enemies at you early (both in numbers and types), creating a greater variety of action than the first game achieved. Since the first game was successful more so because it was interesting, atmospheric and unusual than because it was ‘fun’, this leads me back to the central question – who is this new instalment aimed at?

Alan Wake

He's running while he decides which of his many super-weapons to use on them.

There is a plot based explanation for the changes, but the game doesn’t quite pull it off. This time around, Alan is trapped within an episode of Night Springs (which he apparently wrote) and is battling to overcome Mr. Scratch, the villainous doppelgänger revealed at the end of the original. Rather than running for his life, afraid and in constant doubt if what is happening is real or imagined – American Nightmare’s Alan feels instead like a confident detective on the trail of a killer, and seems to be the only character who has any idea of whats going on. That Alan seems to understand the rules of this universe, and instinctively knows what to do (well of course I need to find a Kasabian CD and play it in the vicinity of an oil derrick so that a falling satellite will destroy a wormhole – it makes so much sense) doesn’t help to align me with Alan’s plight – instead of being motivated to uncover the mystery in order to help him, I feel like the character I’m playing is holding back story information from the person playing him – sounds novel in theory, but in practice turns out to be undesirable.

The most disappointing decision in this setting revolves around the environments – with a slim justification in the story, there are several areas in the game that are revisited over and over again, with only minor variations in the objectives and dialogue. Given that one of the consistent complaints with the first game was that the reuse of a few settings dulled their effectiveness, the idea of tackling this problem by deliberately repeating it seems a strange one. Its especially risky given the related decision to scale down the plot elements in favour of action, because there’s much less story to create the level of player engagement required to forgive this kind of lazy level design.

The issue is exacerbated by the quality of the writing, which oscillates wildly between genuinely clever and absolutely awful. Mr Scratch’s monologues from phantom tv’s are the most engaging part of the game – he’s a genuinely dark, unsettling and well written character, and he provides the major driving force keeping you interested in the story. Sadly, his appearances contrast starkly with Alan’s conversations with all the other npc’s, which are, frankly, awful. A ‘herbal suppository’ joke in the first five minutes of the game throws any pretence of atmosphere out the window, and it never really makes it all the way back. The occasions when it comes close (such as a drawn out encounter with Mr Scratch in an abandoned drive in theatre) are unfortunately bookended by stilted, awkward conversations with other characters that do little to advance the story, but a lot to erode any lingering scraps of immersion.

Ultimately, my major criticism here is more about questionable decisions than questionable writing. I feel like I was right in the middle of the target audience for the first game, and for me, this episode wilfully strips away most of the elements that set the first apart from the crowd, while taking one of the major flaws and deliberately designing it into the experience, without making sure the story and character elements of the game are strong enough to make it work.

Say what you will about the increased action focus to make this episode more appropriate to an ‘XBLA’ audience (why the method of delivery necessitated this focus change I don’t know) – its not the prevalence of action that lets American Nightmare down. Its the fact that it doesn’t even try to aspire to the same standard of writing for the story that it has. While the first was a character based mystery/thriller game with lashings of action, this instalment feels like an action game with a thin layer of substandard Twilight Zone dialogue layered on top. If you’re in it for the action, its polished and quite a lot of fun, but if like me you’re looking for more of what made the original so interesting, you may need to look elsewhere.

Waking Nightmare (Part 1)

February 23, 2012 3 comments

I don’t know a right lot about Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. This is primarily because I stopped reading about it with a feeling of world weary resignation after hearing the early previews describing the deliberate design decision to prioritise action elements over the atmosphere and story experience this time around.

Alan Wake: American Nightmare

Not pictured: a deep analysis of how this encounter changed Alan as a person

I really enjoyed the first Alan Wake. It was flawed (almost every level is five minutes of exploring a new environment, followed by an hour of stumbling around in a dark forest at night, in the rain) but really interesting, and much like this Dear Esther thing, (which, if well written opinions are to be believed, is at once fascinatingly unusual and reasonably well executed), its exactly the kind of thing our beloved industry needs more of to arrest, or at the very least counterbalance those elements of it that are racing each other to genericise every game to the point of ridiculousness. (Yes, it is generally accepted there are only 7 stories, from which all others are derivative, but that doesn’t mean we only need 7 games endlessly reproduced with only the most minor variations.)

Anyway. Alan Wake’s convoluted story, unusual structure and faux-thriller/low level horror theme were a great experiment, and I will be genuinely disappointed if the only published ‘results’ of that experiment are ‘needs more action to sell more units’. What I feel Alan Wake needed was more exploration, and maybe some alternate paths to complete objectives – both making the most of the great atmosphere and taking advantage of the very interesting world that Remedy created (granted, they overused a small section of that world, but that rainy night forest was amazing the first couple of times). Additionally, allowing for more exploration means you have the option of requiring more exploration by further scarcifying (should be a word) resources, especially towards the later stages. The game was a lot tenser in the opening levels, when you really were scrounging for every flashlight battery and revolver round, and relatedly lost its way a bit once I had enough flares and flare gun ammo to Rambo my way through every encounter. What I don’t recall is anyone making an intelligent case for why a lack of action was at the heart (or even in the chest vicinity) of Alan’s problems – I say intelligent, because it is basically an action game – ‘lack of action’ is only a valid descriptor if we use the Gears of War series as a benchmark for our required minimum. (I’m not implying a correlation between intelligence and Gears enjoying, for the record).

So I switched off my attention on American Nightmare. By a quirk of fate (and an excruciatingly slow Sony PS3 repair process) I have developed a tiny window to play something not in my immense existing ‘to do’ pile, and this short expansion will fit that bill nicely. The other, more important motivation here is to hold my own angst up to some scrutiny, and see if its justified – if it turns out this addition is actually a better game for thinning out the story elements and replacing them with more chainsaws, well, I’ll have learned a valuable lesson about leaping to ill informed conclusions.

And if I turn out to be right, and this is one more disappointing step towards genre and series homogeny, well. We’ll have to clear some soapbox space around these parts, and settle in for some serious whining.

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