Downloadable content (DLC) is a controversial topic. It comes in many forms and has become a regular occurrence. In theory it’s a great thing; in practice it is often terrible. For your reading pleasure I have provided you with a breakdown of some of the forms and my opinion on them. Are any inherently bad? What are the rules for good DLC and why does it so often fail? Read on...
Day One DLC
People despise day one DLC, the new piece of content that releases on the same day as the game. The impetus behind the hate here is the idea that the content should have been in the game, it was ready the same day the game was ready so why isn’t in there? Not only that, you expect the consumer to shell out full price for your game and an extra ten to fifteen dollars to get the full experience? There are a lot of compelling reasons to instantly dismiss day one DLC as inherently bad, but it’s worth looking into the realities behind it.
The first thing to take into account is that games are finished a long time before they are released. A lot of things have to happen in that time and the creators are left with nothing more to do. The game has been finalised and is in the process of being put out there so that people can buy it on the scheduled release date. This period of time between finalisation and release is the reason for the day one patch and the reason for most pieces of day one DLC.
In this time the developer can play their game and work out it shipped with some issues, or just be aware that they couldn’t do all they needed to do before it shipped. This is why day one patches appear, making a perfectly stable game is kind of impossible after all. Having to download a bunch of content on the first day sucks, but it provides necessary fixes and doesn’t always mean that the developer put out an unworthy product (though it can do sometimes).
Another thing you can do in this time is start work on a new game, or start work on DLC for the current product. If you want to make a small piece of DLC, to keep people playing your game for longer and to enrich their experience, there is the chance you might get this done before the game releases. Therefore you may end up putting out content on day one.
This being the case, day one DLC isn’t content missing from the game. The problem people have is due to a strange entitlement issue, where they think that paying their $60 dollars should allow them to have access to everything the developer puts out to do with their new game. This just isn’t the case, as long as the game feels feature complete or just worth the price of admission, not getting every piece of content available for your game straight away isn’t wrong. You have a product worth your money and you get the chance to get more of that product if you really enjoy it; content that adds value to your game and is priced appropriately. Therefore day one DLC isn’t inherently wrong.
Of course this is a perfect world example. A lot of things have to fall into place for day one DLC not to feel a bit off-putting, and it is somewhat misguided. The reason it is misguided is because people will always react poorly to it, seeing it as being an attempt to rip them off. It isn’t necessarily this way, but I would say putting out DLC on day one is a bad move. People are bound to react negatively and it makes sense to extend your product further down the line when people may have stopped playing. The problems people have with it may be misguided, but the reaction it causes makes it a bad move for developers.
Expansions are something people generally like, mostly due to it being an old tradition. We are familiar with this form as it pre-dates digital distribution. The idea behind an expansion is giving the player a significant amount of new content that expands on the original game, giving them a whole new campaign or way of playing the game. Developers properly extend your playtime and give you great reasons to return to beloved games. This format isn’t as common as it once was, but Blizzard, Firaxis and Bioware (with Awakening) have shown that expansions can still carry the same appeal.
Of course an expansion can be bad, but its distance from the main game and differences from it make it palatable as a concept. This is not something cut from the main game, this is something brand new and it’s nice having brand new content for games you love.
Story Based DLC
Story based DLC is an interesting one due to its mixed results. The idea behind this is a mini expansion, not enough content to justify a boxed release, but a few more hours of story content that fits into your game or follows on from it. The smaller amount of content compared to a conventional expansion means that they can come out with a degree of regularity also. This ensures that a game has continued support, keeping you playing it and stopping you from trading it in. However this can be an issue. Story based DLC can feel like a cash grab, resulting in mediocre and poor pieces of DLC that seem to be merely money motivated.
What you put in your DLC is also a bit of a gamble. You may want to carry on the story, but you don’t want to detract from the main game with midi-chlorian style revelations. You also don’t want to put must see content in your DLC as many people may buy your sequel but not the DLC packs you have placed in between. Hide some necessary story beats in these packs and the player becomes confused and out of the loop. Of course, to a certain extent you shouldn’t care about this, if they miss content they miss content. However grand game changing revelations that have a huge impact on your game’s universe and story arc should perhaps not be shoved into mini-expansions.
The main reason for this is that story based DLC at its best gives a distinct experience. Two of the finest pieces of DLC I’ve played are Minerva’s Den for Bioshock 2 and Left Behind for the Last of Us. The brilliance of these is that they use the format to tell a different kind of story that wouldn’t fit in a full priced game. Minerva’s Den just tells a superb story that is separate from the main game, a tale of Rapture so to speak that fleshes out the overall universes but doesn’t take away or impede from the main game. It’s a great approach that allowed the developer to do something different which played to the strength of the format.
Left Behind tells a story we ultimately know the end to, due to revelations in the main game, and is therefore not a necessary part of understanding the Last of Us. The main game stands as complete. What it does do is use this to fill out the world and to give you a different insight into the universe. It also allows Naughty Dog to do something different. Like Minerva’s Den, Left Behind works so well because it’s a piece of DLC. It tells a small focused story and uses brevity to great effect. It does something that wouldn’t work as well if drawn out over a full campaign and is all the better for it. It plays with the mechanics of the main game and subverts them in superb ways to give a unique but familiar experience. It’s also just superb and you should play it. It wouldn’t work as a full expansion due to its length, but its shortness brings focus and intricacy. It’s a perfect example of why story based DLC can be such a great thing.
Though I love these two pieces, my all time favourite piece of DLC is unsurprising. I have written about my love of Dark Souls on this website a few times now, it’s my favourite game and it’s DLC is my favourite DLC. Big surprise. Now, I realise that Artorias of the Abyss has its issues. It is implemented into the game in such a way that it necessitates an FAQ (you could stumble upon it but it’s unlikely). It also can only be accessed at a certain point, which is a bit of a problem in a game where you pass a point of no-return. Basically, Artorias of the Abyss was a textbook example of poorly implemented DLC. However the content was spectacular. It provided a new area, it enriched the lore in really interesting ways, it had my personal favourite boss fight in the whole game and (most importantly) capitalised on the strengths of the game.
This is an issue with so much DLC, they bring hate because they feel unnecessary or are just bad. They provide more of the game you love, but not really, because it doesn’t feel like the game you love. Fallout 3 was often guilty of this; this isn’t the place to espouse my controversial view on that beloved game, but even I admit that Fallout 3 had some great DLC. I loved Point Lookout as it capitalised on the strengths of the main game, a world to explore full of opportunity and side content. Fallout 3 isn’t the strongest game mechanically, its appeal lies in its sandbox nature and Point Lookout carried this on. Installments like the awful Mothership Zeta did not do this. They took out what makes the main game work and made you play it in a way that just doesn’t suit it at all.
This is a large problem with a lot of DLC. Lots of open world games end up with poor DLC purely because a large appeal of open world games is in their open worlds (who knew?). Small linear experiences with these mechanics don’t make for great experiences. This may change with the new generation, but having an impressive open world usually came with caveats. This meant that if you take away the open world there is little appeal. Also if you design your game around this kind of environment, chances are it will not work that great if you take away that environment.
Story based DLC is an interesting one. It can seem like money grabbing and a lot of it is poor. As a DLC advocate I have spent a lot of time admitting that most DLC is bad, but claiming that DLC is still a great thing. I stand by this, purely because DLC as format has a lot of promise and can be so excellent. It is often misused and is therefore bad, but when done properly it can be a sublime addition to your game.
To be Continued
Completely disagree with me? That’s great; tell me why I’m wrong in the comments. Failing that, feel free to sound off with your own opinions on the topic and stay tuned for a round up of more types of DLC coming very soon.