Downloadable content (or DLC) has been at the forefront of gaming this generation and has often caused serious issues for gamers who believe that the system is exploiting them for extra money. The issue is a relatively new one for gamers so many questions have yet to be answered definitively and the “etiquette” surrounding DLC has not been fully established.
In response to all the controversy surrounding DLC and the vague concepts of what is acceptable and what is not, I have decided to write this opinion piece to offer my two cents on what the place of DLC is in gaming and what needs to be changed in the future.
Downloadable content is extra content for existing games that expands the experience beyond what was originally included in the product. Console DLC has been around since the Sega Dreamcast but the 7th generation consoles were the first to really spread DLC and make it pretty much the standard for popular games.
Map packs for shooter games, additional quests for RPGs, new players for sports games, and more are all offered after the release of the vanilla game to extend gamers’ interest in the title. This idea in theory seems to be a win/win for both the gamers (who get more content for their favorite games) and the developers/publishers (who get longer shelf lives for their popular games) but there have been several DLC practices that have upset many gamers and caused a bit of a backlash. Here are some examples of problematic DLC practices.
Day One DLC
Day one DLC is an almost universally hated idea in the video game world where a publisher offers more content (at a cost) on the same day that the retail game is released. The From Ashes DLC pack for Mass Effect 3 is a good example of Day one DLC. This practice is hated by so many because allegations that the DLC was created for the game and then chopped out to be sold for more run rampant. The logic of “if it is available on release day, it should be in the game” is a popular argument for many gamers.
Day one DLC not only opens up the company to allegations of “content cutting” but it also seems to run counter to the idea of DLC. DLC adds more content to an already-established game and makes people play it longer and buy it longer after the release. If the game’s extra content comes out on the same day, that doesn’t extend the shelf life or the experience much (you won’t replay it to experience the DLC, it’ll all be part of the first play through).
On Disc DLC
Another controversial DLC practice that is popular is on disc DLC. This practice sees the developer putting DLC onto the real disc but locking it and then selling “content codes” to unlock what is already on the disc. For example, many DLC characters for Street Fighter X Tekken were on the retail disc but were locked and inaccessible to gamers until they paid for the code.
The practice seems to make sense in that it makes the process of getting the DLC to the gamer easier (it’s already on the disc and doesn’t require a major download) but people still get upset that they paid for a disc but can’t access everything on it. This also brings back the argument against day one DLC that if the content is available at launch, it should be in the game.
Microtransactions are small payments (made with real world money) to obtain an in-game good (like a new character, a higher level, etc). This practice is basically how free-to-play games make their money and it has garnered a lot of criticism because people who pay more can basically pay to win the game. Gamers who don’t want to pay for extra upgrades, items, characters, etc end up with the short end of the stick in gameplay and it can kill the experience.
Not all microtransactions are harmful to the gameplay experience but many do affect the gameplay and this has been a cause of concern for gamers. With EA announcing that it is going to be putting microtransactions into future games, the dilemma may get even more serious down the road.
Now that we’ve taken a look at some common problems with DLC, let’s take a closer look at what DLC should ideally be for gamers. Extra content is meant to extend the shelf life of a game for the developer and to give gamers more content for their favorite games to keep them interested. Things like map packs for shooters and more challenges/players for sports games are usually done pretty well and follow the general idea of DLC.
However, once any kind of story gets mixed into the DLC, problems begin to crop up. DLC should extend the experience of a game beyond what was actually in the game but should not overlap major plot points. For example, in Arkham City there is a DLC pack based around Catwoman’s exploits during the main events of the game. You are given a choice at the end of the DLC to walk away from Arkham City or to save Batman but if you don’t have the DLC, Catwoman simply saves Batman anyway.
That is a good example of a DLC that fleshes out some of the rest of the universe of the game without chopping out key components from the story mode of the game. Seeing Catwoman save Batman without seeing exactly how she got there is not a terrible tragedy for those who don’t have the DLC but it helps give more gameplay time to those who do have the DLC.
Additional quests in RPGs are pretty common and some of the best DLC takes ideas that were mentioned in the main game but never fully explored and lets you explore them. Fallout: New Vegas introduced the concept of the other Courier and talked about things like the Brotherhood scribe Father Elijah and the Burned Man but the DLC actually let you meet those characters that were introduced by name only in the main game.
None of the Fallout: New Vegas DLC packs were vital to understanding or completing the main plot of the game so they truly were additional content. Players got to travel to new areas, meet fabled characters, and earn tons of new loot while never stepping on the toes of the main story.
That is the true essence of what DLC should be; extra content that fleshes out the universe and not necessarily the story. Most successful DLC takes place either after the main campaign is over or in a different location (like Fallout 3’s DLC taking place everywhere from the Pitt to Mothership Zeta).
So how do the first part of this article and the second part of this article come together? Well, I believe that the basic essence of what DLC should do for a game is partially undermined by the controversial practices listed above and that is why many gamers are disappointed with the system.
Gamers don’t want to be sold something that doesn’t take to heart the basic tenants of DLC. Gamers will gladly pay to get more maps for their favorite shooter or more side quests and locations for their favorite RPGs but when the system is exploited beyond the original intent, gamers get upset. Day 1 DLC and on disc DLC seem to fly in the face of the idea that DLC can lengthen the amount of time that a game will stay relevant and fresh for gamers. Gamers end up buying all the DLC together within a few days or even weeks of launch (when they would have played the game anyway) and by the time the game gets old, there is nothing new to entice them.
Gamers want to get more value out of games and keeping the single and multiplayer experiences fresh does that. Day one DLC and on disc DLC seem to simply be money making exploitations of gamers as opposed to the win/win scenario I discussed in theory. Things like microtransactions can lead to a whole new batch of problems because of the effect on gameplay.
So what are we to do? Well, companies can just continue to make DLC as they see fit because gamers will buy it but let’s say we are all trying to get along. If companies produce DLC that does the main function of DLC and extends the life of the game, gamers won’t resent paying more for that extra content. DLC can’t be ripped out of the game after the fact, so the story-based DLC needs to take place apart from the main storyline and expand the universe rather than tie it all together. There is some grey area to be had there, but for the most part DLC should only expand on things that are in the universe of the game but not crucial to the story.
Now I know many people will argue the developer/publisher’s side of this debate and I understand why. It is difficult to make a game profitable today with high production costs, ridiculous break-even figures (200,000 units sold for a major game isn’t nearly enough anymore), and the strain to bring in more revenue is daunting. But DLC is supposed to be a long term solution to keeping a game relevant, not a short term fix to production costs and other financial woes.
Successful games can get more content tacked on for years after launch but most games will get DLC spread out for about a year after launch, sometimes less. Mass Effect 3’s final DLC is being released almost a year after the game released and that seems to be a decent amount of time before a completely new installment is considered.
So what did we learn from all this talking? Well, I believe that DLC has a very specific place in gaming and that is to keep games relevant and players playing long after the release of the title. With our short attention span as a culture this is even more important today. Story-based DLC needs to flesh out a universe and not tread on major plot points that could be considered taking something away from the experience. DLC should always add something to an experience and not feel like it took something away to sell later.
Companies need to re-examine business practices like day one DLC and on disc DLC because, whether the reasons are legitimate or not, they drive a wedge between the consumer and the business and controversy (including backlash) is inevitable in that situation.
Finally, things like microtransactions need to be carefully balanced to not hurt the gameplay too much and turn solid multiplayer experiences into “pay to win” games. With a bit of an ideology shift I think DLC can take its rightful place in gaming culture and we can dispense with the controversy that seems to be around every corner.
Those are my thoughts on the topic but what do you all think? Are you OK with practices like day one DLC or microtransactions? Let us know what you think in the comments below.