Game Industry Misbehaving Series: Failings of DLC
Downloadable content (DLC) is something special. It was introduced with the seventh generation consoles (Wii, Xbox 360, and PS3). DLC can extend the life of a game or bring new experiences within the game. It can also bring new maps, new weapons, new areas, new characters, and new stories. DLC is great when used correctly, but sometimes companies use it to make as much money as possible out of gamers. This wasn't the original purpose of DLC, nor should it be the main purpose now. Companies should use DLC to help players get the most out of the games they've purchased. I want to talk about where DLC fails in the ways it's used, as well as the pros and cons of certain types of DLC.
Different Types of DLC
Before I start, I want to briefly touch on the different types of DLC that exist, and my definitions of them:
- DLC - This is DLC that you simply purchase and use. It's not included in any pre-order, Season Pass, or through a particular store deal. Developers may announce the DLC before the game is out, but until the game's released the DLC cannot be purchased.
- Pre-order DLC - This is DLC which you get for pre-ordering the game.
- Platform-Exclusive DLC - This is DLC which you can only get on a specific platform, and is often used as an incentive to purchase the game on that specific platform.
- Store-Exclusive DLC - This is DLC which you can only get if you purchase a game in a specific store, and is often used as incentive to do so.
- Season Pass - This is when you pre-purchase a specific amount of DLC, often for a discounted price on each DLC separately. For example a game has 4 DLC packs at $5, that's $20 in total. The Season Pass would sell for $15, so 1 DLC would be free.
- On-Disk DLC - This is DLC which is already included with the game, either on the physical copy or alongside the download files. Games with included DLC are usually more expensive than their basic versions.
- Free DLC - This is any DLC released for free, as long as you have an internet connection you can download it. Extra content given in updates counts as Free DLC.
DLC Quest is a commentary on the state of DLC in games now. Find it on Steam.
So with each type of DLC cleared up, let's get to explaining why they are good or bad.
There is nothing inherently bad with just selling DLC for a game. But there is an issue when 20 or 30 DLC packs get released for a game. Take Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row 4 as examples. The former has 20 DLC packs and the latter has 26 DLC packs. When is too much just too much? Most of these packs are just weapons or clothes, so why are players being asked to pay a fair amount of money for them? Weapons and clothing should either be free, or included in a larger DLC pack with a new area, or a have new type of gameplay mechanic attached to them.
Sure, some of the Saints Row DLCs had a few new storylines, which did extend the life of the games at a fair price. These are well-done DLC packs. However, they are not among the best. That honor goes to the GTA IV DLC. "The Lost and Damned" (TLaD) and "The Ballad of Gay Tony" (TBoGT) did not change the setting of the game, but they added new gameplay elements. The bike club system in TLaD gave players the ability to call in other bikers to help them out. TBoGT added a parachute and a higher flight ceiling so that players could fly higher. Both of these pieces of content also added slightly new aesthetics: TLaD added some film grain, for a more gritty feel, and TBoGT added higher contrast, due to it being based around night club owners. They also added new vehicles and weapons, like bikes, helicopters, and new shotguns, rifles, pistols, and explosive ammo. That's a whole lot of content to pack into two DLCs, and it's how DLC should be done.
This pack included both TLaD and TBoGT. It became available after both DLCs had released.
I don't think I can say anything good about pre-order DLC, except the obvious point that it makes people want to pre-order the game for the extra content, so the company fares better in sales. I'm sure you are wondering what is wrong with pre-order DLC. Let's take a look at Alien: Isolation. To be more exact, the "Crew Expendable" and "Last Survivor" DLC packs. In these packs, you play as Ellen Ripley, Dallas or Parker. This begs the question: if the game was so heavily influenced by the Alien franchise, which has each one of those characters in it, why are they made peripheral as pre-order DLC, which would exclude them from the games of players who can't or choose not to pre-order? Why should players be charged extra for content that is important to the franchise? That just makes no sense to me; it feels as though it's going against what the principle of the game is - to recreate the feeling of dread and powerlessness against an unstopple alien, and to relive the universe and story of the movie franchise. But what if the game had been terrible? Then this DLC with extra characters would have been nothing more than a lure to trap players into buying a bad game. And that doesn't do honor to the Alien series. These should have either been free or sold later down the line. (I am not against selling DLC after a game is released.)
DLC pricing and strategy is usually all done by the publisher. Of course not all games have separate publishers, but for the ones that do, it's often the publisher who controls the pricing models. In the case of Alien: Isolation, Creative Assembly developed it, and Sega published it, meaning Sega called the shots on the pre-order DLC. Please direct all annoyance toward Sega for this one. Developers could perhaps put more pressure on publishers to reconsider the way they use DLC, but doing so could cause backlash from the publisher that would jeopardize the game's success.
The pre-order advert for Alien: Isolation.
Platform- and Store-Exclusive DLC
Let's explore both these types at once, because they have the same issues. These issues boil down to the fact the content is already in the game, so why are only specific people allowed to have it? To me, it feels a little bit like bribery - a company or store offering extra content that will make more money for a publisher, for which they receive extra revenue from extra sales. Which just sounds a bit shady. It's a beneficial relationship for both companies involved, but is it really beneficial to players?
I will talk about Platform Exclusive DLC primarily, because dicussing worldwide platforms is more relatable than discussing regional store chains, but the ideas are shared between both types. Let's take Watch Dogs as an example. On all the PS3 and PS4, it received 30 minutes extra gameplay. Doesn't sound like a lot, and it apparently didn't add a lot to the game, but that's not the point. The point is that this content was made. Time, resources, and effort were put into creating that content, yet an entire section of the fan base was excluded from having access to it, simply because of their console choice. That's wrong, and it drives me away from ever purchasing any Ubisoft games on any Sony platforms. However, timed, exclusive content is also a thing Call of Duty does too, as its DLC is released around a month earlier on Xbox than on other systems. And for what? Some maps?
There is nothing I can see that's good about this, so I'll cut myself off here before I rant on about it. My last comments on this are that if someone has created the content, every single person who buys the game should have access to it. No matter how, where, or on what they purchased the game. Timed exclusive content isn't as bad, but I still don't understand why it exists.
The advert for the Watch Dogs Sony exclusive content.
The Season Pass
When is the last time you wholeheartedly trusted an AAA publisher or developer to deliver top-quality content? Do you completely trust EA, Ubisoft, Capcom or any other AAA publisher or developer? By purchasing a Season Pass you are putting your trust into that company, and what do you get back from it? Nothing, for a while. You are trusting that they will give content which is worth the money that you put into it. You are trusting that the company will deliver high quality content, and 9 times out of 10 you will be let down.
I don't have much more to say about Season Passes - they're really a matter of personal trust. I do not trust AAA to deliver high quality content post-launch, especially when many cannot even deliver with the base game. Battlefield 4, Assassins Creed: Unity and even Watch Dogs are a testament to that, among many others. Duke Nukem Forever, anyone? How about Aliens: Colonial Marines?
This is the advert for the Assassins Creed: Unity Season Pass, the Gold Edition of the game has it included.
Yes there is a good thing about on-disk DLC.
Let's go ahead and get that good out the way. Putting the DLC on the disk can help people with slower internet connections. Instead of having to download 100MB, 500MB or even 2GB for content, you only need to download 50KB for an unlock file. It's also (usually) available to all players who want it, and often saves the time and money spent purchasing/downloading the DLC at full price later on (since game/DLC bundles are usually somewhat discounted).
Now the bad. Even though the DLC is on-disk, it still does not excuse the fact the developer/publisher is charging you for content which was already created during standard developement time. It's still the result of companies trying to cpaitalize as much as possible on players who want to get the most out of their games.
When a developer has finished a game, and the public theoretically could play it, the game gets put on a disk. This is the point at which a game has gone gold. (This is often around a month or so before the game's release date.) It ensures shipment of boxes goes smoothly. Any missed game bugs beyond this point are fixed in last-minute patches, often put out on the day of or day after release.
Do you know what this tells me? That the on-disk DLC was created during standard developement time. (Time which could have been spent on fixing those base-game bugs rather than making extra content for extra money.) It did not take any extra time, or effort to complete. It's always been an intended part of the game, even if it's not essential. So why is it suddenly being charged for? One of the most notable examples of this is Street Fighter x Tekken, but it's not the only one.
The logo for Street Fighter x Tekken.
I have spent enough time criticizing DLC. At the beginning of this article, I said it was great, and I still think that. Free DLC is the only type of DLC which has no downsides, unless you have slow internet. Monolith, the developer of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, constantly releases new content for free with game updates. (The most recent is being able to play as Lithariel, more information on that here.)
Free DLC is the way to go for any DLC, aside from massive new story lines, like in TLaTD or TBoGT or the World of Warcraft expansions. Big things which takes a lot of time are ok to charge for, because sometimes they're almost as big as the original game itself. (The DLCs for Skyrim added nearly 400 extra hours of gameplay, 350 of which came solely from Dawnguard. That's almost as much time as Skyrim itself.)
16 free DLCs for The Witcher 3. We know what 4 of the DLCs are, the other 12 we don't yet. Who's betting on one of them being an Enhanced Edition?
We should push the AAA publishers to think about how they sell their DLC, and if they should sell them at all. We should push them into caring about us, and the only way to do that is to keep your money away from the bad stuff. The only ones who have the power for change is you. The gamers.
This time Vader does not need you for evil, but good. And the force for change lies within you.