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.