A continuing look at the different types of DLC. (If you missed our last installment, you can read it here!)
On Disc DLC
The aim so far has been to provide a case for DLC. As a DLC advocate I have had to admit that most DLC is bad, but that there is a lot of promise here. On disc DLC however, is a hard one to defend.
When talking about day one DLC I gave the excuse that the content is made after the game is finished, therefore it is not part of the project and you are not entitled to it. When you buy the game you buy that game, that doesn’t mean you have some right to own everything associated with it on day one. This can be a shame when the game feels lacking and the DLC makes it more complete, but when the game is worth your $60 day one DLC is a nice – though poorly timed – addition to your experience that you can buy if you want.
For the DLC to be on the disc it must have been finalised before the game went gold. With on disc DLC, the content is on the disc with the rest of the game, it just isn’t accessible unless you pay more. You bought a disc which has the content on it, but you can’t access it unless you pay up.
It’s very hard to defend this kind of practice because when you buy a disc you will feel entitled to accessing the content on that disc. Things are hidden behind gameplay walls – you can’t just access everything – but it’s understandable to feel that you shouldn’t have to pay to access content that is on an object you already own. Having the option to pay to unlock the stuff or achieve it through gameplay is more acceptable, but locking it solely behind a pay wall seems wrong.
Of course there is still the defence of, ‘if the game gives you value for money and doesn’t feel like the DLC is a missing part of it, then it is fine’. This holds up pretty well, after all you are of course not entitled to everything the developer makes, But then the question comes of what you actually bought? This gets very complicated, but when you own the disc with the content on it, it feels like you own the content. This may not be actually true, but it doesn’t stop it from feeling that way and that’s why on disc DLC always feels a bit insidious. The other complaint is of course why is it on the disc? This just makes it feel like part of the original game, rather than later content made to spread it out and makes on disc DLC even less appealing.
However on disc DLC can help, I know this sounds odd but hear me out.
Fighting games provide a perfect example of where on disc DLC helps things out. The most recent Mortal Kombat ran into a lot of online issues due to people having different versions of the game. Not everybody will buy the DLC meaning that people playing have the game in varying states. This causes a problem when you fight with a DLC character against somebody who doesn’t have the DLC. Their version of the game doesn’t recognise what is going on and things don’t work. This sucks for all involved.
The way MK tried to get round it was to get players to download compatibility packs, a free piece of DLC that makes your game (in basic terms) aware of the DLC characters and stops it from crashing when you fight them. Of course not everybody picked these up, so there is still a bit of a problem. The most obvious solution to me is to have this update as a patch, but people don’t like being forced to download content to facilitate for DLC they don’t have. Also making it compatible without paying for it seems like the digital form of on disc DLC, my game is set up to have this character now but I can’t play as them without paying. This isn’t an issue to me at all, as it allows the game to be extended over time and stops it from breaking, but certain people disagree. Another way around this problem is to put unlockable characters on the disc as DLC. This means that every copy of the game will be able to work with every other. It fixes the online, but puts you in the position where you have content that you can’t access without paying.
Much like with day one DLC I feel that it’s technically fine, as long as the game is worth it, but even I admit that I feel a bit of resentment when content is on the disc but I have to pay to unlock it. It may be unreasonable of me, but it’s a feeling most consumers will have. It can help online game balance, but a patch would do this better and be more palatable . If you don’t want to play the game online you can ignore the patch, if you want to play the game online you need the patch… Makes sense to me (though I would hope that later content was made later, therefore it couldn’t be on the disc).
New Characters (With a touch of music)
This came up in the last segment without any debate. New characters exist as DLC (mostly a fighting game thing), meaning that the roster can grow down the line. I actually really like this, as it links to my personal taste in fighting games. I like a smaller roster because I get easily overwhelmed – I’m a simpleton. I like knowing everybody pretty well and being able to get to that state relatively quickly. I also find it a lot easier to comment on the balance of a game, or just understand it, with a smaller cast. This makes a lot of sense, there are fewer variables so it’s easier to balance. It also means you can make pretty distinct characters whilst keeping complexity. Balancing a fighting game is really hard, especially with very varied characters, and making the roster smaller makes this more likely and easier for the developer. I also just prefer it, so a win-win in my book.
Moving on from this, I do like having a large cast in the long run and this creates a bit of a catch 22 for me. I’m put in a contradictory position where my wants seem to be unachievable, unless you have some DLC. Adding characters down the line allows the game to fit my needs at first, but then evolve to fit my changed needs later on. It keeps me interested in the game and stops me from being overwhelmed like the simple man I am.
Another benefit is to do with the inherent complexity of a good fighting game. The developer will have an understanding of how they think the game works, and its balance, but they can’t know what will happen when a million people are allowed to play it their way. Though the game hasn’t changed, it will evolve as the player base discovers things. Some things the developer just won’t have planned for and the understanding of the product changes. This is why you get balance changes down the road, but it’s also why a new character can be a great addition.
With a better understanding of how your game is actually played you can make really good characters that suit the game. You’ve had time to get used to everything and to be comfortable with it, you’ve also had time to relax and work without the entire pressure of putting out a working game. Your concern now is just the character and how they balance against everybody else, the focus is clearer and you can do a better job.
New characters work really well as DLC for fighting games, in terms of continuing interest in a product and keeping it relevant. They are actually a better model than what we have seen. Super Street Fighter IV is my favourite fighting game of the last generation (and rivals SF2 as my favourite), but continued new games are a poor model. They seem exploitative and make it feel like you keep buying the same game. Super was actually a great step up due to the other additions outside of a roster, but beyond that point it is better to treat a game as a platform and enrich it with DLC.
This theory holds true with rhythm games also. Guitar Hero sequalised itself out of existence and took a sub-genre down with it. Though Rock Band admitedly used sequels a lot, it better embraced the idea of the game as a platform and capitalised on this with Rock Band 3. The sequels helped them to put the core game where they wanted it to be, to the extent that Rock Band 3 was just an excellent game and the pinnacle of the plastic instrument sub-genre. The approach then is to use that game as a platform for DLC, it comes with some songs, but instead of making you buy new games to get new songs you can just download new ones from a vast store. Harmonix ran into a lot of licensing issues that they later elucidated on and eventually had to stop updating the store, but for a while Rock Band 3 was doing it perfectly. You had your base game and it worked as a service to allow you to play more music due to the store. You could play the music you wanted and only what you wanted. You were spending more, but it was worth it and it was a better deal than continued sequels. The perfect move for the genre.
This kind of approach could work for a fighting game, make a really good base game then add characters later if you want it to keep going and maintain relevance. It could also help out with sports games, use DLC to update rosters to your well made base rather than put out a new game each year. Pace the new games out so you can make real improvements and fill the space with DLC content to keep the games as up to date as the audience demands. It’s a move that will never happen because it only works out in the long term, whereas the current model works financially and gives great in the short term. Still… A man can dream. Other genres could adopt this approach also, for games where the core is the appeal but you want updated content around it (racing games for example) this could work excellently. The key is (and this is hard), make an excellent base game and then flesh it out (content wise) with DLC.
With the advent of DLC last generation, maps got a tiny bit controversial. Centralised and organised (though not necessarily well organised) download stores on your gaming platforms made it very easy to sell you new content for your game. Everything is in the same place and can’t be missed. Before this point maps were free. Maybe you would buy a large map pack on disc down the road, but maps weren’t seen as being paid add-ons. Sometimes I miss the old days. However, from now on we will take the ‘maps used to be free’ complaint as read. They aren’t anymore and though free stuff is better, a lot of work goes into them and paying for them makes sense.
So are DLC maps a good thing? Surely I’ve already answered this point, don’t they just fit into the model I just spoke about with character DLC? Well… No. I don’t view new maps in the same way as I view new characters or songs. If your approach is to make one base game and enrich it with maps down the line, be my guest, but for many competitive games that isn’t the point. Here I am focusing mostly on shooters. You want new spins on things with sequels, you don’t just want the same game forever with new maps. At least I don’t.
The standard DLC defence holds up for maps, you get new content for your game down the road which keeps it fresh and keeps you invested. New ways to play the game you love, all is good. I think that holds up here, however I am going to take another approach and try to undermine maps. I’ve had enough of making a case for DLC, this time we will see if maps can be problematic.
I’m playing devil’s advocate here so don’t take what I say too seriously, but new maps can do bad things to a games community. By adding a variable that not everybody will have you splinter the player base and make the base game less appealing. If you have the new maps that’s great, if you don’t you are stuck with less players on maps that people have moved away from. This can also go very badly when the split means there aren’t enough players for each set. Also some games introduce so many new maps that it gets overwhelming and too splintered. So there can be a problem. This is also problematic if you jump into a game late and have to pony up a lot of money to keep up with it. A way around this is to do what some developers did and just make your maps free after a point. This may annoy the original purchasers, but if you leave enough time it should be enough to heal those wounds.
Splintering can be an issue, but ultimately it’s nice to see the game move on, you just need to make sure you are not doing too much too soon. New maps only really work when there is a need for them rather than just making more money, this is where some developers slip up and is why map packs can have a poor impact.
We’re nearing the end now, but there are still a few things I would like to look into… We’re saving a very special one for the next instalment…