DLC: Delight or despair?
This week saw the launch of the last great piece of DLC before the next generation kicks off with BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea, available on Xbox Live since Tuesday. As such, we thought it was high time to look at what goodies XBL has brought us over the years, whilst bearing in mind the pitfalls of developers offering content after a game’s launch.
Now, the initial premise is very appealing, if you have the money: a developer offers you more stuff for your game after a few months or even years, drawing you back in to get more out of it, usually at a premium but sometimes free. Probably hundreds of games have done it this generation, everything from top-tier blockbusters like Halo, Gears of War and Call of Duty to indie titles like The Impossible Game. Ordinarily, they consist of new levels/tracks for multiplayer, giving you a new area with which to duke it out with enemies, a fresh environment for yours eyes to enjoy. Bungie also liked to throw in some extra toys with its Forge map editor and included screen effects such as ‘Old Timey’ or ‘Pen and Ink’ with Halo 3’s Legendary Map Pack.
One massively popular DLC system that didn’t revolve around shooters worked brilliantly (at the time) for the music rhythm genre. Songs were essentially the genre’s version of levels, and selling them as DLC proved an excellent idea: Rock Band alone has sold more than 130 million songs as DLC. While this was clearly very popular, saturation of the genre with 8 main titles in five years including ports, spinoffs, mobile and handheld games too, not to mention the expensive controllers with every console title, which led the genre to near extinction in 2011, when the last Guitar Hero launched. Only Ubisoft’s Rocksmith remains, with little recognition in comparison. Still, its DLC roster features 164 songs at the time of writing.
This discrete structure for DLC could be considered problematic for sprawling, open-world games, but they function like any other mission or quest in an isolated area: happen across (or seek out) the trigger and then venture to the entrance. Bethesda did an incredible job with DLC this generation with its Elder Scrolls and Fallout series, with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion expansion, The Shivering Isles amongst the coolest-designed content ever. Ruled by the mad demigod Sheogorath, the isles are split in two, with the deliriously colourful and jovial region of Mania to the north, and the dank, grim swamps of Dementia south. The main plot of the content centres around an event known as the Greymarch in which the demigod of order, Jyggalag, attempts to destroy the realm. With its unique style and brilliant writing, The Shivering Isles is one of the best received pieces of DLC on the 360.
Of course, in any opportunity for more money, the consumer’s enthusiasm can be abused. Bethesda was also on this side of the fence closer to Oblivion’s launch, offering armour for the player’s horse. Looking at the Marketplace at the time of writing, the content costs £1.69 and is more expensive than a playable area such as The Wizard’s Tower. Perhaps it would have been worth it if the armour had actually done something. It’s a big perhaps. But no; the entire purpose of this premium content is to make your steed shinier, a purely aesthetic upgrade with absolutely no functional benefits. It’s not even objectively worthwhile, because you might prefer a natural look for your horse, or something different from what the content offers. It’s this sort of obvious money-grubbing that has gamers wary to fork out for content that is worth their cash.
However, while aesthetic upgrades could be considered more of a cash-grab than functional content, sometimes a developer’s handling of the playable content can be equally opportunist. For example, Capcom announced, before launch, that an entire game mode would be a premium add-on after the release of Resident Evil 5, with the game’s Versus mode going live roughly a month after release, and presently on sale for £3.39. While it’s hardly an essential piece of the traditional Resident Evil puzzle, the fact remains that it launched, at a price, a mere month after the game and was an entirely new game mode that had presumably seen months of polish beforehand, a brazen act in the eyes of many fans.
These days, hefty expansions are expected for practically every major release, and some developers have even begun using this multiple content system to implement another, commonly known as the ‘season pass’, a tiny download at a large price granting consumers discounts to all the content it covers. Recent games to use this feature include Halo 4, BioShock Infinite, Assassin’s Creed IV and Batman: Arkham Origins. The last of these is particularly noteworthy: the content covered by the discount includes a number of challenge maps, more story-based content and two skin packs, each consisting of six skins for the player to don. One of these skins is unlockable by completing the game, which means that you are paying for access to something, something purely aesthetic, you wouldn’t even need to pay extra for if you just played the game to completion. While it’s a thankfully small amount for the content, any larger would likely have raised considerable ire amongst the press and fans alike.
Downloadable content can be a double-edged sword; whether a genuine effort to breathe new life into a game and explore a different facet, or a cynical cash grab to milk the enthusiastic or foolhardy (not mutually exclusive), perhaps without even offering them an objective bonus. EA even began the trend of the online pass, a one-use code that gave players access to online features of a game, but then restricted access for any other player profiles, requiring the purchase of another pass before opening the door again. The good news is, EA has decided against using them in future, apparently simply because ‘people didn’t like it’, quoth VP of Corporate Communications, Jeff Brown. At least somebody’s taking notice. However, as long as people continue to pay money or download free content, developers will continue to produce post-launch downloadable content. It can only be hoped that it’s all worth it.