It used to be that you couldn't even mention downloadable content's existence without someone getting upset, or without someone going off on how much of a money-grab scheme it all is. It's an understandable reaction, to some extent — sometimes, a game isn't out yet and already we're talking about the follow-ups? Geez, slow down.
I used to think of DLC in that way — as something that I didn't really want but that I would learn to tolerate. And sure, there's still the occasional questionable DLC that seems to exist solely to squeeze more money out of people, or even flat-out horrible DLC. But after playing The Walking Dead: 400 Days last night, I realised that in the past year or so, DLC stopped being something I dread or, at best, tolerate... DLC transformed into something I look forward to, sometimes more than the next iteration in a game.
Battlefield 4? Meh. The DLC for Battlefield 3? That stuff has dinosaurs and bikes in it, man! You could say it's not just DLC, but any side-content that's not a major iteration in a game — look at what Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon did. It's the sort of over-the-top outrageousness that could probably never be developed as a main entry in the franchise — and yet many might consider what Blood Dragon aims for as more enjoyable than what Far Cry 3 did, thanks to its flippant tone. It's almost like we're more likely to get what we actually want most out of a game in the follow-ups.
Most of what is commendable about the add-on content, though, is a DLC's willingness to push boundaries and experiment — and when many major games feel rather safe, a DLC's push for innovation is welcome. With 400 Days, we have a bite-sized episode that weaves five different stories together. You can play them in any order. No story lasts more than 15 minutes, allowing you to get a wider understanding of the world and the different types of people in it — something which a single-protagonist game can't do nearly as well.
Lee Everett, the protagonist of the first season of The Walking Dead, seems boring when put against characters like the the naive 'other woman', the stoner, the concerned big sister. While we're seeing more games experiment with multiple protagonists, good luck finding a major game that puts you in a role similar to any of the ones I've mentioned. The suits would probably say it wouldn't sell. But the best DLC will take advantage of creative flexibility and totally take the plunge, sometimes letting you play from the viewpoint of unlikely protagonists. That's the point, in a way. DLC is best when it's creative. When a developer finds the most exciting, provocative parts of their game — and then is willing to take the DLC to a place the main game couldn't go, for whatever reason.
Mass Effect is a good example here. Both Mass Effect 2 and 3 have had a series of fantastic DLC content that let us explore interesting side stories and species around the galaxy (like the Protheans), test out new mechanics (vehicles, boss battles), and even gave us the ending we deserved. An ending with fan-service — which is also something DLC is great at providing. You can't know what players will take a liking to until after the game is out. Then, once you know, you can do stuff like release swimsuit DLC. Truly, DLC is a blessing for fan-service.
I don't think I'm alone in how I see DLC now, either. Having a number of notable, amazing DLC in the past helps; I'd be remiss not to mention the critically-acclaimed Minerva's Den for BioShock 2. But just look at how most people talk about The Last of Us, too. Many recognise that it would be nice if there wasn't a follow-up, as it ends perfectly... but that can't stop anyone from musing on where the DLC might take you. We're hungry for it. What if you could play as Marlene and get a closer look at the Fireflies? What if you could play as Tess during the years we never get to see in the game? What if we could play as Tommy? Heck, what if we could play as Ellie? I wouldn't even care what the context is, that'd be awesome. I'd buy it... and honestly? A lot of these sound more interesting than what The Last of Us actually let us play. What were once idle musings on the things we could play can now be a reality thanks to DLC.
There's less risk involved with DLC — it's cheaper and has shorter development time — and so gives developers some leniency to experiment. My only hope is that developers use what they learn in doing so and fold it back into the main games. It'll be grand if I didn't need to pay extra money to experience interesting, experimental stuff, or to play as a woman. For now, I'll take what I can get — bring on the DLC.