How DLC Actually Helps Games

How DLC Actually Helps Games

Reading the comments on my current survey about how publishers have violated gamers' trust, it is clear that business practices around downloadable content have left a bad taste in many gamers' mouths.

"On-disc or day 1 DLC is just greedy." wrote one gamer, expressing a popular opinion that DLC is part of the nickel and diming infecting modern gaming.

"I paid for a $US60 game, I expect all features to be available at launch. I shouldn't have to spend another $US30 on top of that to ensure a complete gaming experience," wrote another gamer. The viewpoint that "modern DLC feels tiny and short at the best of times and often too expensive for so little" captures many gamers' frustration with DLC.

"DLC has a bad reputation, because it deserves the bad reputation it has," agreed Brad Wardell, CEO of PC software and gaming company Stardock in a lengthy discussion we had on the role of DLC at his studios.

Given the 8 confusing flavours of purchase available for recent AAA release Evolve, it's hard to disagree with him.

Although these are valid opinions and publishers have given plenty of reasons for you to dislike or distrust DLC, I think you should love DLC even if you don't buy it. In a number of substantial ways, DLC results in better games than you would get in a world without it.

In my last piece I revealed that 51% of gamers have bought DLC and 25% have bought a season pass in recent months. Now I want to explain how the immense popularity of DLC makes games better.

As Wardell puts it "DLC is probably, more than any other single factor, improving the quality of life of working at a game studio." This increased quality of life for us game developers directly improves the quality of the games we are able to make for you.

Wardell has seen that, for his peers, "before DLC took off, you laid off lots of people" upon launching a game. "You really had no choice."

Most AAA game teams follow the same growth pattern. During the early phase of development, a small leadership team works together to establish the core vision for the game. When the game moves from pre-production to full development, the team explodes in size as tens to hundreds of programmers, artists, designers, producers and quality assurance people are hired to bring that vision to life. Once the game is complete, paying that team's salary is an enormous cost to the developer. Only a small group of leaders is needed to establish the vision for the next game. A huge round of layoffs is common once a game goes gold. In the worst instances, developers have lost their jobs at the party celebrating a game's completion.

Although Stardock has had remarkably few layoffs in its 20 year history, Wardell has seen that, for his peers, "before DLC took off, you laid off lots of people" upon launching a game. "You really had no choice."

However, in the world where DLC supporting a game for a year or more after launch is the norm, post-release layoffs are reduced. Instead of getting pink slips, those massive teams of developers who created all the game's content stay employed crafting DLC. While the game's leadership team is busy working on the sequel (or a new game), the company is able to keep developers employed and generating additional revenue.

So why should you care if me and my developer friends are able to stay employed? Because it directly translates to better games for you.

Wardell has experienced firsthand how DLC has played a pivotal role for Stardock in recent years. Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes, released in 2013, "is where it really took off." Although the strategy game performed well at launch, Wardell noted that "there was so much more we felt we could do with it.

"In the old days there was just nothing we could do. We could either make a Fallen Enchantress 2, which, while the game did well, it didn't do well enough to justify that — especially since the choice was either between working on Fallen Enchantress or working on Galactic Civilizations 3, it was a no brainer. The team was going to work on GalCiv 3."

How DLC Actually Helps Games

Above: Galactic Civilizations 3

"So, what we came up with was: if we could release DLC that would generate enough money...we could do free updates to the game itself. Because users on the forums would constantly list off things they wanted in the base game, and we were happy to put those in but those engineering hours have to be paid for. And so we funded that through DLC."

Eighteen months since launch, Legendary Heroes' base game is still receiving substantial, free updates for all players. Version 1.8 was released in November and "it was not a non-trivial update, it was not like 'hey, we fixed a little bug here.' It was big improvements throughout the game that made the game better from a feature perspective. But it was paid for by this thing called the Battlegrounds DLC."

Game development is a team sport. DLC sales can improve job security and keeps talented people working together. The strength of any game team is dependent not only on the talents of its individual members but how well those members work together. The simple act of allowing a team to continue working together with shared tools and processes instead of spreading out to other studios once a game is completed will improve team cohesion and ultimately, game quality. Additionally, developers who do not live under the anxiety that they will be axed as soon as a project they have devoted years to is released will be happier, less distracted and work harder.

Just like the gaming audience, game developers are rarely 100% satisfied with the games we ship. "People don't realise we love what we create,' says Wardell. "I always feel like a bit of our souls end up in these games. I'm not very spiritual but some part of me is left inside that game… and it pains me when I have to move on.

"But now I don't really have to move on" thanks to DLC, Wardell explained. "It allows me to create a much more stable environment for our developers. Because, if I have too many scripters, now I have a plethora of games and I can say 'you know what, why don't you make DLC for this game?' And I don't have to worry about laying someone off. And [that DLC] will make the fans happy."

Additionally, by freeing a team from the traditional hire-and-fire cycle of game development, DLC increases the amount of energy and focus spent on any game's development. As a game producer I can tell you first hand that hiring is extremely time consuming, especially for a game team's leads and senior members. An incredible amount of time is spent writing job postings, reviewing resumes, performing phone screens and interviewing prospective candidates. The less time a lead programmer needs to spend screening prospective candidates, the more time they can spend making sure a game runs smoothly. The less time an art director spends reviewing portfolios, the more time they can spend creating a unique look and feel for the world.

By keeping developers employed inside a company, DLC helps maintain a leadership team's focus over the course of a game's development.

Wardell and I agree that, "for consumers, even though some companies have abused DLC, overall it's the best thing that has happened for game development." By improving job security, keeping game teams together and reducing the amount of time, energy and money spent on hiring, DLC helps make your games better.

In addition to these more intangible benefits, by reducing the amount of hiring a team must do, DLC increases the amount of money from a budget that is spent directly on a game's development. In addition to being time consuming, hiring is extremely costly. Recruiters are employed or staffing firms are contracted. Bonus programs are put in place to reward employees for recruiting their friends. Job postings are paid for. The significant costs of recruiting talented game developers are "something that most people are completely oblivious to," says Wardell. Recruiters, for example, charge "20 to 30 per cent of [a hire's] salary" as payment for services. Each person a game team must hire diverts money from the budget that could otherwise be spent on a game's development.

Wardell and I agree that "for consumers, even though some companies have abused DLC, overall it's the best thing that has happened for game development." You may dislike the modern business practices around developing, promoting and selling DLC. However there are many undeniably positive benefits created by its popularity. By improving job security, keeping game teams together and reducing the amount of time, energy and money spent on hiring, DLC helps make your games better.

DLC is just one of the many elements of modern gaming that contribute to gamers' loss of trust with game publishers. To let your voice be heard please take my short survey on how game publishers have violated your trust. I look forward to sharing the results in my next article.

Ethan Levy is an 12 year veteran game designer and producer who has contributed to over 50 shipped games across every genre and platform. He has worked at companies including Pandemic Studios, EA, BioWare and Playfirst. In 2012, Levy founded FamousAspect to serve as a game monetisation consultant with a focus on free-to-play games for PC, console, mobile, tablet and web.


    I think the problem with DLC at the moment is that games developers are releasing games at a lower quality than in the past, with the expectation that the game will be improved through patching and DLC. However, they are still charging the same price for the game as they have historically, as well as charging for DLC.

    Sure, DLC might be making things easier for developers and resulting in better games... but we are paying 50-100% more than we previously have for those games when you include all the DLC.

      Also DLC might result in better games, but in terms of the above comment, it's better games eventually and at additional cost. Especially in terms of AAA games, developers seem to be letting it slide on quality to get games out and then just assuming everyone will be okay with downloading gigs of patches to fix the game. If that's how they're playing it, people aren't going to be hugely interested in dropping the cash on future DLC because of how distasteful the game has been to them to start with.

        As a counterpoint to that (and I kind of agree with you btw)...

        AAA games continue to increase in cost of development.
        Every generation change has seen an increase in cost of development... but we haven't seen a price increase. In Australia we've seen a reduction.

        There seems to be a magic threshold of US$60 that cannot be gone past.

        So to offset the rising cost we have seen an increase in things like Micro-transactions, DLC, Pre-order Bonuses, Co-Marketing, Co-Development, Season Passes, and publishers using their own engines over off the shelf middle-ware (Frostbite over Unreal for example).

        Publishers will continue to test new funding models because the cost of development has become so unsustainable.
        This is one of the reasons why we're see so many sequels and remakes.

    This is something we pretty much already knew- DLC is a good thing IN THEORY, but like so many good things, it's being abused by short-sighted and greedy developers for quick profits.

    I don't mind paying for DLC if it's actual content. Paying for skins, extra weapons, instant unlocks and stuff like that is just wasting money. When a company puts out something that is close to an Expansion pack with an additional story, extra missions, etc; then I'll drop money for it.

    But the greedier companies in the industry are creating DLC's bad reputation. when you have something like 20+ skins, 4 characters, 2 monsters, a game mode and so on behind a pay wall in a game where you'd otherwise have a way to unlock them during gameplay (like we used to before DLC became what it is today) then people aren't going to pay and will feel ripped off when they are paying full price for a game that makes you feel that you are missing out on the full experience because you didn't throw down that extra $30-$40.

    2K Games is the current leader in making people pay full price for a game, then placing the rest of the game behind many different styles of pay walls.

    I use WWE 2K15 is a prime example.
    I bought the Hulk Hogan Collectors Edition: $130
    I bought the Season Pass thinking it would cover everything: $35
    I'm still missing out on the WCW, NXT and moves packs: $34

    So in order to get everything that they had planned for the release I'm shelling out close to $200. Even last year with WWE 2K14 you had everything for $150.

    My point is, DLC is a great idea when handled correctly and not done to gouge the consumer. Saints Row The Third was great, small bit size stories for $10 a pop and they were optional or you paid $30 and got everything; stories and bonus materials such as weapons and costumes. But now, companies are catching on that they can take parts out of the game, charge you for it all later and you'll pay for it.

    This is what's currently wrong with DLC.

      Huge +1. I wonder how long these tiny bits of DLC take to make. They offer so little.

      I think DLC should only be something sizeable such as maps, new game modes or new story content.

        I think dlc like maps, game-modes, mechanics etc does nothing but split the community so you have the people who bought all the dlc playing on the dlc content & the people who didn't playing on the normal game content, at least in multiplayer games, in singleplayer games it'd be preferable to have maps/quests/gamemodes/etc since it's not going to effect anyone else who also bought the game & cosmetics in singleplayer games are dumb for obvious reasons though are preferable in multiplayer games because showing off [however I also take the stance that there should be an option for people to turn off seeing cosmetics if they dont like the concept or whatever, though forced to see cosmetics if they have cosmetics activated]
        Though you could argue expansions are effectively content dlc, expansions are usually equivalent to an entire game itself & you could then argue that any content dlc with enough content is an expansion, not dlc.. though you could also argue that free dlc isnt really dlc since its free, its basically just an update

        tl;dr cosmetics are fine in mutliplayer games, content is not since it splits the community, though content dlc is great for single player games [like skyrim] & expansions are usually an entire game anyway[like a kinda shitty sequel that uses the same everything as the last game]

    DLC is awesome. Honestly, it is. Instead of waiting a year for an expansion pack, or 2-3 years for a sequel, I get more of the thing I like in a month or two. It keeps me playing a game I like for a long time.

    Unfortunately, DLC is being used as a way to make consumers pay more for less. It works like lunch breaks at the office. Nobody times you to the minute and as long as you don't try to take 3 hour lunches, nobody cares if you go a little long. That system is open to a lot of goodwill and leeway until it gets abused. Then the crackdown happens and it sucks for everyone involved.

    At the moment, some game publishers are getting drunk on 3 hour lunchbreaks and coming back to the office to play candy crush. It's uncool and it's fucking it up for us all.

    Buys games full of DLC so that devs have the money to make games full of DLC so that devs have the money to make games full of DLC....

    DLC has a lot of things going for it, but this little piece of circular logic is not one of them.

    this article really should be titled "How DLC actually helps game DEVELOPERS"

    and it's full of non-sequiturs
    if we could release DLC that would generate enough money…we could do free updates to the game itself.that may be true in some rare instances (onya to the developers that actually do this!). but from a business standpoint (even just from a simple logic standpoint), if you can generate additional capital through the production of DLC, the vast majority of companies will obviously not give further DLC away for free, because they have a demonstrated market for that particular game who will purchase DLC if it's released. furthermore, if the company in question is large enough that they are publically listed, the directors actually have a legally binding obligation to maximise profits for shareholders. so if given the choice between giving away free DLC or selling it, they are legally obligated to sell it. giving it away for free could result in legal action against the company and its directors by the shareholders.

    The simple act of allowing a team to continue working together with shared tools and processes instead of spreading out to other studios once a game is completed will improve team cohesion and ultimately, game team cohesion directly corellates to game quality? I really don't see the situation being as simple as that. Don't get me wrong, game developers make games (and i love them for that). So logically what's good for developers should be good for games right? again, it's just not that simple. there are plenty of examples or great games not making money and vice versa.

    overall it comes down to whether games are a commodity or whether they are legitimately an art form. If the latter is true, it's unrealistic (albeit simultaneously unfortunate) for games developers to assume that they should have job security. just ask anyone that works in any vaguely artistic medium (artists, musicians etc) job stability is unfortunately not something that comes with the territory. Only a piddling minority of artists or musicians actually make enough money to support themselves. and besides, perhaps the cut-throat nature of game development engenders performance, where a contented, job-assured developer may become lazy and disinterested? - having your next pay check directly related to the quality of your next game may make a developer think twice about whether to go for something truly original, or whether to just make a carbon copy of something else that's on the market.

    anyway, i reckon people that work on games should demand a percentage of profits from the games they help develop, in the same way that some actors do. that way, post-production lay-off or not, you're going to be making money based on the actual success of the game you've helped make.

    Last edited 20/02/15 3:12 pm

    Is anyone surprised that this is by Ethan Levy? Based on his past articles about how microtransactions are 'the best thing ever for consumers, honest! wink wink', I knew this would be about how developers and publishers getting rich off shady DLC practices is really good for the consumer! wink wink.

    Agreed - DLC was once a thing of beauty in a game. (Omg I was close to the end and now I get some extra content YAY!)

    Now it just feels like they are releasing game engines and trying to drip feed content into them (Destiny)

    Some (in fact more then some...) of the games released since 2012 have become very, very, disgustingly shallow representations of what they were intended to be and as a person who has been passionately gaming for the past 2 decades - it makes you sad a little inside.

    An interesting article but as for this "Additionally, by freeing a team from the traditional hire-and-fire cycle of game development, DLC increases the amount of energy and focus spent on any game’s development. As a game producer I can tell you first hand that hiring is extremely time consuming, especially for a game team’s leads and senior members." WHY JUST NOT FIRE THEM!? Those poor bastards shouldn't get automatically fired at the end of development.

    Get them working on a new game or do something else instead of wasting time hiring new people and forcing people who worked hard for you to look for work.

    Last edited 21/02/15 11:12 pm

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