The advent of downloadable content will surely be a significant legacy of this console generation. Rare is the game released today that doesn’t offer some form of additional content, paid for or otherwise, to be downloaded post-launch. DLC is here to stay, but what do we – as gamers and as an industry – really want from it?
From Horse Armor to The Lost And Damned, DLC has come a long way in a short space of time. As consoles went online, publishers recognised the opportunity to sell additional content to their most loyal consumers. For the publisher, DLC is a new revenue stream.
Further, publishers want us to buy DLC for reasons above and beyond the extra cash they receive from each download. They see DLC as a way to combat the used game market. They use DLC as a carrot to encourage us to keep our games instead of trading them in.
Releasing new content post-launch is also a great marketing window to attract new customers. In this sense, the DLC doesn’t even need to be paid-for content to bring in more money. You only have to look at the massive spikes in sales of Team Fortress 2 whenever there is a class update to see how successful Valve’s approach to free DLC has been.
Smaller titles benefit too. Sega’s Valkyria Chronicles returned to the PS3 top ten six months after launch thanks to the release of its DLC pack. Suddenly, Valkyria Chronicles was in the news again and, as a result, new players were attracted to the game and new sales were made.
For the gamer, DLC provides the opportunity to get more out of the games they’ve purchased or spend more time in a world they enjoy. Whether it’s in new maps, modes, quests and missions, or simply just an extra layer of customisation, almost all DLC gives us more of the game we own.
DLC provides us with an extension to the experience we would otherwise not have been able to enjoy. Previously, if we wanted more of a particular game, we'd have to wait years for a sequel. Now we can find our favourite games refreshed within weeks or months.
However, there have been missteps along the way. Letting players purchase cheats or simply buy their way to success leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Paying for essentially a key to unlock content already on the disc is unacceptable. Overcharging for cosmetic or trivial in-game items isn’t ideal, but ultimately it’s the player’s choice whether to pay or not.
While the majority of gamers are pleased to be able to get more out of our games, we’re also understandably wary of being taken for a ride. Prevalent is the notion that publishers hold back content that could have been included on the retail disc then charge us for it post-launch. And as DLC becomes more ingrained in the industry, more part and parcel of the development process, the harder it is for a publisher to defend itself against that accusation.
It’s a tricky issue and strikes right at the heart of how DLC is defined. Capcom copped criticism for the way it handled the Resident Evil 5 multiplayer DLC. Some gamers felt it should have been included on the disc; some even complained (wrongly as it turned out) that the content was already on the disc.
“You’re selling an incomplete game!” they cried.
But Capcom never promised a multiplayer mode. In fact, they never even mentioned it as a possibility until after the game had launched. Like most DLC, Resident Evil 5’s multiplayer mode was developed along a separate production schedule and within its own budget. Without the ability to release it as DLC, we would never have been able to play it.
Games are never complete. Ask any developer and you’ll hear the same response: “We could have added this or improved that.” Business reality dictates that games need to hit deadlines and meet financial requirements. Features and content are always cut throughout development. But I don’t think any publisher is cynical enough to deliberately withhold content to sell as DLC at later date.
Sometimes though, an already tricky issue becomes even more complicated. Eidos, for example, cut content from Tomb Raider Underworld in order to ensure the game hit its intended release date. The company had an obligation to shareholders to get the game out before Christmas and so they did. When it came to the subsequent DLC, they were able to salvage some of that work (some rough, unfinished levels or unused art assets, perhaps).
But what if Eidos had chosen to delay the game in order to follow through on that original vision? What if Capcom had devoted more money and resources to squeezing the multiplayer mode into the shipped version of Resident Evil 5? What if, to bring in a more extreme example, Valve had waited until now to release Team Fortress 2 with all the extra content they’ve been able to add since release?
Unfortunately there are no easy answers to those questions. Publishers and developers are still grappling with the best way to offer DLC: the type of content, the timing of its release, and just how much it should cost are all issues with which the industry continues to wrestle. But some games seem to be showing the way.
Bethesda have more experience than most in dealing with DLC and have clearly learned much from their initial foray into the field. Where Oblivion’s Horse Armor was frankly ridiculous, the immense Shivering Isles expansion perhaps taught an even more important lesson. It was too big, too late. Shivering Isles cost a lot of money to make and, while it may have justified its high price tag, the fact it took so long to come out undoubtedly meant there were fewer active Oblivion players able to take advantage of it than Bethesda may have hoped.
With Fallout 3, Bethesda has applied that experience to excellent effect. Announcing the first three DLC packs several months before the game’s launch reassured consumers that Fallout 3 was worth hanging onto. Releasing them so quickly – and announcing a further two packs – has meant that gamers are still going to be playing Fallout 3 a year after it originally came out, with new purchases spiking at each DLC release.
Another game taking the right approach to DLC may come as a surprise. Ubisoft’s Wheelman is hardly the greatest nor the most popular title, but its first batch of DLC offers something I’d like to see more of: a demo. You can sample one of its new mission types for free, then pay to download a pack full of them. We have demos for full games, so why not for the DLC we’re expected to pay for? Especially when said DLC introduces a new way of playing the game that we may not actually enjoy.
Of course, there are plenty of other titles doing DLC the right way, too. Rock Band, Burnout Paradise, and Halo 3, to name just three, have forged their own paths and reaped the benefit in terms of consistent sales, community support and general word-of-mouth excitement.
We all want more of our favourite games. We all want to experience more of something we’ve enjoyed. When a game gets DLC right, gamers respond with enthusiasm. When a game gets it wrong, we’re equally quick to let our views be heard.
What do you like or dislike most about DLC? Who does it the best or the worst? And, since it’s here to stay, what new approaches to DLC would you like to see in the future, in both this console generation and the next?