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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?

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