DLC: The Expansion Cop Out.

I remember a long time ago saving up all my pocket money and splurging on the very first expansion I can remember, Warcraft 2: Beyond the Dark Portal. At the time I didn’t understand that it wasn’t a stand alone game but since I had borrowed the original Warcraft 2 from a friend it didn’t matter. It would seem this was the start of a beautiful relationship with Blizzard as they developed a great reputation for developing a solid game and then releasing an expansion pack some time after breathing life into the game once again. Few others seemed to replicate their success with this as many game companies wouldn’t bother releasing such expansions instead focusing their efforts more on the sequel or new IP they were developing.

Valve began experimenting with the idea of episodic content with the release of Half Life 2: Episode 1. It was a novel idea at the time as it reduced the amount of time between major game releases which had the benefit of keeping more people engaged with your product for longer. Additionally development costs were far less than they would usually be for a full expansion or new game with the added benefit of being able to update things like engine code or additional graphics settings between releases, taking some of the edge off games which aren’t renowned for aging well. To be honest I resisted the whole episodic movement for a very long time until Valve released all the episodes along with Team Fortress 2, but saw the benefit to them after I played them. They wouldn’t stand alone as a full game but I definitely got almost the same level of satisfaction from them, despite their relatively short play time.

Upon the Internet reaching a critical mass of users and freely available bandwidth publishers began to look at digital distribution methods more seriously. Steam had proven to be a roaring success and the barrier to delivering additional content to users dropped significantly. Seeing the benefit of episodic content but unwilling to sacrifice a potential sequel (which is an unfortunate truth of all games these days) developers and publishers saw the opportunity to expand a game within itself. Couple this with the buzz that surrounded the business model of micro-transactions (something that can be bought for a very small amount of cash, akin to raiding your change jar) and we saw the birth of Downloadable Content¹ as we know it today.

And to be honest, I can’t say I’m all too pleased with the bastard child the games industry has spawned.

Back in the days of expansion packs you were guaranteed a couple things. The first was that the original game had enjoyed at least marginal success and the developers would be wiser for the experience. As such the expansions tended to be more polished than their originals and, should the developers been wise enough to listen to the gaming community, more tailored to those who would play them. A great example of this was Diablo’s expansion Hellfire, which had a spell to teleport you to the nearest exit. In a game where you can only power-walk everywhere this spell was a godsend and made the original much more playable.

Secondly it gave the developers an opportunity to continue the story in either the same direction as a sequel would or explore alternative story paths. In essence you were guaranteed at least some narrative continuancy and whilst this raised the barrier of entry to new players of the game expansions were never really aimed at them. Realistically anyone who heard of a game for the first time when an expansion was released for it probably wouldn’t of played the original in the first place. Still if they did take the plunge they would at least end up buying the original to (especially when most expansions required the original to play).

I was happy with the medium struck with the episodic content idea as for the most part you got all the goodness of an expansion without the wait. The MMORPG genre survives because of this development model as can be seen with the giant of this field, World of Warcraft. Content patches are released almost quarterly with expansions coming out roughly every 2 years or so. Blizzard’s ability to churn out new content like this relentlessly is arguably why they have had so much success with World of Warcraft and aptly demonstrates how the episodic model can be used to not only keep regular users coming back, but also attract new ones to the fray.

Downloadable content however has the aspirations of episodic content with the benefits of none. When I bought Dragon Age: Origins I was treated to some free DLC as part of buying the game whilst also being slapped in the face by a person at camp offering me a great adventure if I gave him my credit card. It was pretty easy for me to ignore that part of the game completely as I had more than enough to do in the 35 hours that Dragon Age sucked away from me. The recent release of the Return to Ostagar DLC gives a couple hours more playtime onto a game that boasts over 100 hours of game play already. For someone like me who’s already finished the game there’s little incentive to go back just to experience a measly couple hours of story that won’t fit in with where my character is in my head, so I simply won’t bother.

This to me is the problem with any DLC. For the most part they are simply an additional part of the core game that’s a fantastic way to add more playtime to a full playthrough but are otherwise meaningless additions to a challenge already conquered. I was over the moon when I heard that Mass Effect was releasing some DLC but after playing through the game twice logging almost 80 hours of game time going back to spend an hour or so exploring the new planet felt extremely hollow. Sure I can appreciate them setting the scene for Mass Effect 2 but really all the DLC amounted to was a quick grab for cash and a little press.

I wish I could site examples were DLC works but frankly there are none. These bite sized bits of gaming sound like a great idea (and they’re music to publisher’s ears) but unless you’re playing the game from start to finish realistically there’s little value in them. It takes quite a lot to pull me back into a game that I’ve completed and it has to be for a damned good reason. DLC so far hasn’t been it and never will be until I start seeing episodic quality releases.

In the end the birth of DLC is yet another one of those signs of a maturing game industry that would’ve been hard to avoid. Publishers are always looking for new revenue streams and if we want to see game developers producing games such things are here to stay. I’m sure one day there will be an exception that breaks the rule for me but right now, DLC is that annoying toddler in the corner screaming loudly for attention when there’s many interesting adults I’d rather be talking to.

Hopefully one day though, that toddler will grow up.

3 Comments

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  1. You are right about DLC, but only in the context of single-player RPG’s produced by EA/Bioware. These tend to have a well defined start and finishing point for your character and thus as you say, releasing a small and possibly irrelevant side mission well after most have completed the game isn’t a great use of resources and certainly not something I would put my money into.

    Where DLC has worked well though is in the context of multiplayer games. While most of the addon’s for TF2 you know and love are free on the PC, Valve has been charging Microsoft points for the majority on the 360 for some time. Interestingly it was Microsoft that forced Valve to charge where Valve had planned them to be free releases (see http://www.shacknews.com/onearticle.x/54351 ).

    Other examples of successful DLC releases include the episodes for GTA4 (The Ballad of Gay Tony and The Lost and Damned) which were released as separate downloadable episodes for the Xbox 360 version. Hell, I even put down my cold hard cash for the latter episode and had a blast with it (and I know Chris purchased and played through both). For $20 I got an entirely new story arc with a new set of characters, significantly different gameplay and even some crossover with the Niko’s story to spice things up as well. Money well spent if you ask me.

    Even in the realm of RPG’s there has been some successful releases; namely the DLC for Fallout 3 produced by Bethesda. I bought and played through 2 of these little episodes and both added enough to the story to make them worth my purchase.

    Thus I believe you have set your focus to narrowly to DLC released by EA/Bioware. Other companies such as Valve, Rockstar and arguably Bethesda have and continue to produce quality and (in my opinion) value for money Downloadable Content.

  2. Frankly I think the name “Downloadable Content” is outdated anyway, it won’t be long before everyone is downloading all their software. Steam is already making leaps and bounds in that direction and you can now purchase full games on xbox live & i assume on ps network. The only restricting factor is our aussie download limits, but even that isnt an issue when your ISP partners with the content provider (eg steam+internode)

    As for the quality of the DLC, I think that some developers do it better than others. GTA was a prime example of excellent DLC, there was about 6-8 hours in each expansion with a completely new story arch and new characters.

    I agree with you that there is the potential to milk gamers using DLC. Why would a publisher release a complete game when they could package content as DLC and sell it later? It’s a shitty trend that I dont think gamers will buy into in the long term.

    It’s also worth mentioning that a lot of DLC is free and is simply designed to nurture a fan base to bridge the gap between sequels, I dont really have a problem with that if the original product doesn’t suffer.

  3. (Just a quick note that I have no objection to content delivery through the Internet, just the crap that’s pushed as “DLC” which are basically micro-additions to games)

    TF2 is probably the best example of how DLC can (and should) work, but the majority of companies just aren’t willing to dedicate resources like Valve are to give us customers something for free. Had the majority of DLC been available for nothing I probably wouldn’t have anything to complain about, but we really only have one example of a company willing to invest that heavily in their current customers. Surprising considering how damned successful they’ve been.

    The GTA IV DLCs would fall under my definition of episodic content more than DLC (I had another paragraph explaining my stance on this but took it out). The sandbox style games lend themselves to the DLC model much more effectively since the game really never ends. The same could be said for Fallout 3, they were much closer to an episodic release (especially the one that let you continue on once you’d finished the main story) rather than the pithy offerings we have with DLC these days.

    I didn’t want to harp on games that did DLC badly but another example is Borderlands. The game itself is sandbox-y but should you show up to the DLCs with a group of varying levels you’re almost guaranteed to get quest problems. That’s not so much the fault of the DLC but the game structure itself. Still, it seems pointless to revisit a game in that fashion when the best parts of it would be playing it with friends.

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