Three letters that are likely to strike dread or anger (or both) into the heart of cost-conscious gamers everywhere. At this point in the history of gaming, DLC is ubiquitous. DLC season passes are often sold as part of pre-order bundles, and successful triple-A games that don’t have lengthy DLC pipelines announced at the same time as the main announcement are few and far between. The Season Pass is a marketing tool, incentive, and sometimes a cautionary tale.
The early days of DLC were probably the darkest and most cynical. The earliest example of DLC that many can remember is the infamous Horse Armour, made available by Bethesda in their open world RPG The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The DLC was expensive for what it was, and performed absolutely no function in game. However, things rapidly took a turn for the cynical. Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed 2 famously featured two ‘missing’ memory sequences in the middle of the game that were then sold as DLC – much to the annoyance of gamers. A lot of them (including yours truly) never played those chapters – stubbornly refusing to pay extra money to unlock content that had blatantly been withheld from the core product in order to be sold on at extra cost later. Capcom also found themselves attracting the attention of the internet in the worst possible way, with gamers claiming that DLC for both Resident Evil 5 and Street Figher X Tekken already existed on the disc containing the ‘standard’ version of the game – with the ‘Downloadable’ part of the DLC actually being code that merely unlocked content that was already on the disc. Content that, from the perspective of many gamers, they’d already paid for.
I think it’s this period that a lot of gamers still think of when they’re confronted with the term ‘DLC’ – they see it as being asked to pay for content that “should” form a part of the “main” game. The very same “main” game that they may just have paid upwards of £50 for. We’ll get to that.
There’s another side to DLC these days though, and this is the microtransaction angle. If it’s a free to play game, most of us understand that microtransactions are LITERALLY the bread and butter of the developer. No microtransactions, no game – most of us get it. When it comes to microtransactions in full price/triple A games though, how gamers respond depends to no small extent on one of two things:
Firstly, is it possible to enjoy the game without the content? This is the question we’re forced to ask ourselves when trying to decide whether to purchase DLC like map packs for first person shooters, or characters in fighting games. To some extent, we ask it about narrative content in single player games too.
Secondly, does the content give us a gameplay advantage? This is probably the more interesting of the two questions – because whether a positive or negative answer to the question results in a positive or negative response to the content depends greatly on the gamer asking it. Some people will quite happily pay for DLC that gives them an advantage… while a lot of players of the SAME GAME will a) avoid the DLC and b) will loudly criticise it publicly for that exact reason.
The most recent example a game attracting criticism because of the second point is probably Destiny – where microtransactions were ostensibly used to fund ‘live events’. For a while, it seemed that the microtransactions might offer players the opportunity to buy weapons and armour – and the player base reacted to the rumours negatively. As it turned out, the items purchased via these microtransactions were cosmetic – but Destiny by its very nature attracted a lot of gamers who wanted to collect every possible item and who felt obliged to spend a small fortune on these items as a result. Add in the fact that you were paying for a chance to obtain the item you wanted (because the content of the packs was determined at random), and you can understand people’s point.
Going back to the first point though is, for some, an even more pressing concern and the source of a lot of frustration. Buying a game on day one and becoming deeply involved with the multiplayer is a situation that is likely to change as soon as the first content pack lands – particularly if you are one of those that chooses not to buy it for whatever reason. This kind of release divides communities, often to the detriment of the player base as a whole. If you are one of the people that purchases the map pack then that content is yours to enjoy – but if even a small proportion of the game’s install base opt NOT to buy it, the pool of players that you can play with on those maps has been inescapably reduced. An excellent recent example of the impact this kind of DLC can have is Titanfall, released by Respawn in 2014. Take up of map packs effectively split the community down the middle – and eventually large swathes of the community moved on to other things. It’s a lesson that Respawn appear to have learned from – all map pack DLC for Titanfall 2 is being released for free. 343 Industries, custodians of Halo have also adopted the same approach for DLC for Halo 5. Releasing content for these games for free is a conscious effort on the part of the developer and publisher to keep the community intact.
For all the negativity that tends to orbit around the subject of DLC, it does have a positive side – how many of us have played and loved a game only to finish it? In that situation, how many of us have then purchased DLC to extend that experience? I know I have. The first game that landed in that category for me was Bethesda Game Studios’ post-apocalyptic epic RPG Fallout 3. I finished the main game after about 80 hours, and went into town hunting for a disc with the DLC on it in the time it took me to find my sneakers and car keys after the credits had finished rolling. Another game that leaps to mind is Enslaved: Odyssey to the West – a game that featured exceptional single player DLC. More recently, Forza Horizon 3 has offered DLC that expands upon the core game in new and interesting ways – and which has sold very well.
In spite of the occasional positives though, DLC still has a bad reputation. So, given how much many gamers loathe DLC and how many of them complain loudly about it, why is it so important for developers to deliver it?
Game companies make DLC for a number of reasons. An obvious one is to make money. Any product that can be sold can be used to realise a profit – and a profitable company is one that will continue to exist. As much as many gamers seem to entertain the fantasy that their favourite development studios exist for the sole purpose of entertaining them, basic market economics will win out every single time. Making games is an extremely expensive business – and often tended to centre around a financial model that would best be described economically as ‘boom or bust’. Imagine the scenario – your company spends for months (or years) on salaries for developers, offices and every other business cost you can imagine while slaving away to deliver a product – and during this period income is extremely limited – often coming from investment capital.
That product has an extremely narrow window in which to turn a profit. The history of games is littered with games that were very good but sold very poorly as a result of the period in which they were released and what other games were released against them in the market. In that short period, the company needs to sell enough copies to make enough money to fund the development of their next game, or stay afloat until the next project ships assuming they have the capacity to work on more than one at a time. It’s a colossal amount of pressure for an organisation to operate under – and put into that context it’s easy to understand how so many games companies close following the release of a game that underperforms either critically OR commercially (as the two are often inextricably linked).
DLC therefore performs a critical function – it gives people already playing the game something to look forward to, something to spend their money on, and it keeps them actively involved in the game instead of being distracted by something released by a competitor. It seems obvious that once an audience moves on to another game, it is almost impossible to bring them back. For a development studio, a successful DLC launch will drive an increase in income from a level number of players.
Part of building a game includes the development of a lot of different elements. Games run on engines and require assets. Development of assets is very labour intensive. To explain – every item you see in a game world is an asset. A desk. A gun. A burned-out car. A box. These are all assets. Once developed, it makes sense to use them multiple times – DLC offers this opportunity. On a very basic level, it makes business sense to maximise a return on investment wherever possible.
The last reason though is probably the one that is the least obvious to the average gamer. A common pattern in games development was for a core team to complete a design and then hire a team of developers and a team of QA testers to develop and test to the design. This team would need to be hired and paid, and once core development was completed the company would often ‘strategically contract’ – which is PR terms for make people redundant. The game would ship and sell, and the creative element of the studio would go to work doing the pre-production for the next game.
This hiring and firing mentality, while cost effective in the short term becomes counter-productive in the long term. A solid team of experienced developers, with job security and long-term prospects can produce better games, to tighter budgets and to more predictable deadlines. The production of DLC allows a development studio to maintain the employment of their most talented employees during the periods between projects. Keeping these teams together is what turns some studios into game development powerhouses – turning out games of incredibly high quality that we all enjoy.
The final point to discuss is what is many gamers’ most common criticism of DLC. The one that’s usually voiced in forum comments that state something along the lines of “If they’re developing DLC before the game ships, it should be in the core game and I shouldn’t have to pay extra for it.” That’s right. The Season Pass.
Knowing what a DLC pack will consist of before a game launch doesn’t necessarily mean that development has begun – or more importantly will be finished before the game launches. Games go through a process between the final version of the game being cut and sent off to publishers and actual release. This is the same period that usually results in the production of a day one patch (there’ll be an article on those coming soon enough, too…). DLC that integrates with a core game will need to be planned-out and understood well in advance to ensure that it can actually be developed and shipped in a way that allows it to work and, perhaps even more importantly, doesn’t interfere with the main game’s ability to function. Because it’s mapped out and a release date can be targeted or content is known, it makes sense to make that roadmap visible to potential buyers – especially if it might swing a potential purchaser from a ‘maybe’ to a ‘definitely’ buying decision. So, are there scenarios where DLC is content ‘cut’ from the main game? There definitely were in the past – I like to think (possibly incorrectly, I’ll admit) that it’s less common today.
Ultimately, whether you love or loathe DLC, one thing is abundantly clear: it’s here to stay. Like most industries though, the games industry is one that exists for profit. If it’s a practice you don’t like, the best way to make your voice heard is to boycott it. Don’t buy it. Companies pay far more attention to the numbers at the bottom of their profit and loss accounts than they do to your opinions shared on Reddit or Twitter, or whichever online forums you frequent.
What are your opinions on DLC? Do you buy it or boycott it? Is there any DLC that you can’t imagine the core game existing without? Let us know in the comments below!