Wednesday, April 4, 2012

#15: DLC: How it is Being Handled and How it Should Be Handled

Downloadable Content(DLC) has become increasingly commonplace in the modern gaming industry. Most of the biggest gaming releases utilize it to some extent. Done well, DLC can bring new life to a game, extending its shelf life and keeping players engaged for longer than they normally would be. Done poorly, DLC can anger consumers and make them feel ripped off. Today, I am going to analyze some of the current trends of DLC and detail the pros and cons of each.

One type of DLC that has been brought to the spotlight recent is Day 1 DLC. As the name suggests, Day 1 DLC is content released for a game either on the day it is released or extremely close to it. There are several reasons why developers do this. For one, the time a developer finishes a game is not the same time that it gets released. When a game is finished, it “goes gold.” During this phase which lasts for a month or two, the game is sent to all the major parties involved (the game publisher, Sony if the game is a PS3 release, Microsoft if the game is an Xbox 360 release, etc.) to be tested. Before the advent of DLC, the developers would often begin production of the next project or cash in on all the vacation days they no doubt saved up. Nowadays, these developers are allowed to work on small DLC projects. Often times these projects were started earlier and intended to be part of the main game, but had to be scrapped for various logistical reasons. The other main reason this type of DLC is so prevalent is simply due to the consumer base. It has been shown that DLC for a game sells less and less well the farther away it is released from the game's initial release, so it makes sense to release it early. While this sounds good in theory, this has the potential for abuse. Companies can, and sometimes will, release content that feels like it should have been a part of the main game. Consumers can tell the difference between content that is a extra and is not necessary in the grand scheme of things compared to content that is ripped from the game and sold later as paid DLC. This generates a lot of bad PR and negative publicity for a company. As I have stated before, PR is very important. People will be more open to giving companies money if they do not feel like they are continuously being screwed over.

On the other hand, that is nothing compared on On-Disk DLC. Again as the name suggests, On-Disc DLC is content that is already on the game disc, but cannot be accessed normally. Instead, the developer releases a code to unlock it later as “DLC”. I am going to be completely honest here, I hate this form of DLC with a passion. There is no reason for this kind of content except for corporate greed. This is not so much of a business concern as much as it is a consumer rights issue. The consumer bought the disc, which contains the game. They own, and are entitled to, every piece of content on that disc. At this point, the developer/publisher no longer has any legal say in what they do with this content. (Within fair rights laws. As in, they are allowed to let people borrow/rent that content, but they cannot copy it. That would be piracy, which is a whole separate topic.) On-Disc DLC is the antithesis to this because this allows developers to wall off content that the consumer rightfully owns. Admittedly, this becomes more hazy once digital distribution gets involved, but the point is no less valid.

A very good, and very recent, example of both these trends is the “From Ashes” DLC in Mass Effect 3. For the unaware, “From Ashes” was accidentally leaked to the world a few weeks before the release of Mass Effect 3 via the Xbox Live Marketplace. The content is an extra mission and an extra character for the cost of $10 and was going to be released the same day the game would be. This was met with outcry because of the nature of the character. It can be argued that this particular character, a Prothean named Javik, is important to the lore of Mass Effect, considering that he was part of a race that wasa believed to be extinct in game and was responsible for many of the major plot points in the series. The outrage continued even moreso after it was revealed that Javik and all of his voice clips were already in the main game and a simple numbers tweak in the game code (PC only) would allow players to use him. This was particularly egrigious after statements from Project Lead Casey Hudson said that they would never take something from the game and release it later as DLC. Bioware did everything wrong with Javik. He was already on the disc, he was released day one, and he was overpriced at $10 for one character. This was a perfect storm that many Bioware fans saw as a betrayal. Things only got worse later, but that is a whole different conversation.

While On-Disc and Day 1 DLC are definitely some of the worst current trends in DLC, there are companies out there that do DLC in such an excellent way that I just need to bring attention to them. The first example of DLC done right is from Valve. Valve released DLC for Portal 2 in an extremely intelligent way. The first DLC they released for the game came out only a few weeks after the game came out, but it was not anything major. Valve released different types of hats that can be used in the cooperative campaign to add uniqueness and personality to the two robot characters. Furthermore, these hats were reasonably price at around $0.50 per hat. (Final Fantasy XIII-2, I was looking at you and your $3 costumes as I wrote that last sentence.) I can support this kind of content because it is not vital to the game and it is very reasonably priced. People who do not want it have no reason to buy it (like me) but those who wanted it bought more than enough to compensate for that. The other DLC released for Portal 2 was called “Peer Review.” This content was released well after the game came out and added tons of new puzzles for the cooperative campaign. It was sold for the low, low price of free. It was just to add longevity to the game. This was amazing because companies very rarely do this. It was basically an act of kindness to the consumer base. I do not expect other companies to do things like this, but I feel compelled to point out examples like this in an article about DLC.

The other kind of DLC I can support is the kind of DLC that Bethesda and Obsidian released for the Elder Scrolls and Fallout games. After the legendarily infamous disaster of the Horse Armor DLC (from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion) Bethesda learned their lesson. One of the most well-received DLCs to ever be released was The Shivering Isles from Oblivion. It had a hefty price of $25, but it was well worth it. It added a completely new (and amazing) world to Oblivion that was about one-forth of the size of the original game. It came complete with new side-quests, an interesting main story, tons new spells for mages (There was even a spell to revive dead bodies.), tons of new ingredients for alchemists, tons of new equipment for everybody (including one of my personal favorite weapons in the Elder Scrolls series) and was overall a massive piece of critical and commercially acclaimed content. Bethesda took the reception of The Shivering Isles to heart and made most of the DLC of all future games similarly. This is most evident in the Fallout 3 DLCs. There were five of them, each released at around $10, that all added radically new and different locals to the base game. One of them (Broken Steel) even extended the main story and raised the level cap by 10 levels. Obsidian did something similar in Fallout: New Vegas and its DLC. One of them added tons of new weapons and weapon mods that have a very noticeable impact on the game. The other DLCs each had new worlds. The difference being that while each DLC had its own, self-contained story (like the DLC from Fallout 3), they all referenced characters and locals from other DLCs and tied together in a way I do not think I have seen before. Again, with the exception of the first one (which was cheaper), the other DLCs were about $10. I have to stress why these DLCs were all good. They added something new and refreshing to the game, they are fairly well-priced, and most importantly, none of it was even close to feeling necessary in order to make the most out of the game. It is entirely possible to play through both of the recent Fallout games without even thinking about DLC. It is all side-stuff that is completely unrelated to any of the plots in the main game. There is nothing wrong with adding new and interesting stuff later on. In my opinion, that is the spirit of good DLC. It is supposed to breath new life into games by adding new and interesting stuff.

DLC is a double-edged sword that has become an integral part of modern gaming. Companies have demonstrated both the good and the bad of adapting this new way of extending a game. It is the responsibility of the consumer to keep the corporations honest by seeing through the bad and rewarding those who get DLC right. If you disagree with the way somebody is handling their DLC, then do not buy it. You are only supporting them if you do. This is the essence of capitalism. The consumer rewards companies who do things they like by doing business with them.


Anonymous said...

I understand your point about rewarding companies with smart DLC practices with my money.

(In fact, one point you glossed over when mentioning Bethesda is their tendency to release a compilation with all the DLC included after a game's been out for a year, which is great news for those of us who don't want to have to deal with the various hassles that DLC bring.)

However, while I recognize the answer is'suck it up', there is one aspect of this philosophy that engenders trouble.

Franchises. Specifically, watching as worlds you love get shot down because the group financing it have decided to be greedy jerks.

In essence, they use beloved characters and worlds as hostages- give us the money for the next game, they say, or we'll just shut down this whole division and shelve the IP for good.

They realize that they are at our mercy- so they're trying to engineer a Mexican Standoff situation, where neither party wins if the other pulls the trigger.

It's... awfully revealing about what they think about their franchises, honestly.

(And it ties in with your other points about defraying costs. The bling graphics costing too much? Hold the audience at wallet point to pay for them. Another topic, but it's probably people who have never held a game before that are dictating these stupid and destructive practices. Just because you can implement an idea doesn't mean it should be implemented. Otherwise I'd probable build a fortress out of bacon.)

newdarkcloud said...

I can't believe I forgot to mention the GOTY editions for stuff like Bethesda games. That's how I got the DLC for the Fallout games.