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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

DLC: The good, the bad and the ugly

DLC has become a permanent part of the gaming industry, and with good reason – it means wins all round. The developer and publisher win because they have additional revenue streams open to them, and they don’t rely on one single release to earn back the investment they make into a game.

The consumer meanwhile wins because DLC can keep the initial costs down. The modern game (especially blockbusters like Call of Duty or Red Dead Redemption) is extremely expensive to make, so to keep the retail price for these games down, publishers needed to find a new way to deliver the experience. A slightly smaller initial package, then supported by DLC, is a wise move – fans will be willing to invest the extra money to experience the game in full while people who are less committed don’t feel like they’ve been overcharged for a game they’re not that invested in.

But DLC is a relatively new concept, and there are some noticeable mistakes being made, where the DLC being offered is just not worth the asking price.

Below is our top 3 likes and dislikes when it comes to DLC – the former we would like to see a whole lot more of in the future. The latter… not so much.

What we want more of

Extra game chapters

When you get deeply involved in a game’s world and characters (especially when it comes to RPGs or open-world games like Red Dead Redemption), it’s nice to be able to revisit the world with additional side-stories, or prequels/ sequels a couple of months down the track.

Dragon Age: Awakening is a good example. We wouldn’t necessarily want the original Dragon Age: Origins to run for any longer than it did, but being able to tie up some of the loose ends left at the end of the game, without it being a complete sequel in itself was a nice extra investment in a world we had already become very involved with.

Games such as Final Fantasy IV: The After Years and Costume Quest are also good examples. As budget-priced downloads, the initial investment is small, and if that is enough for people, then great. The additional DLC scenarios are nice additions for people that more of that experience, eventually fleshing the game out to become more-or-less full priced, but also then offering as much content as a full-priced game.

Only buy when you feel like playing more... on demand gaming is a good idea

Extra Characters
Fighting games have started to use this to great effect – additional characters to purchase and download, in turn adding additional levels of gameplay and extending the lifespan of a game. If you don’t care for the character? No need to download him/ her!

We also like the idea that this trend could extend the time between new releases. If a publisher can continue earning a revenue stream through new character DLC on a game, it might put less pressure on the developers to quickly turn around a new sequel, ultimately leading to better quality, better paced new releases.

From the publisher's point of view, this has got to be the easiest way to make some money on the side. Give people the option to pay for stuff they would have taken a long time to unlock over the course of playing the game. No extra work required by the developers or publisher!

But it's a win for the player, too. Not everyone is necessarily a completionist, or has a whole lot of time to dedicate to a single game. If the fee to unlock some of the good stuff at the end of the game is reasonable, then it's a fair purchase to save a lot of time and energy.

The best part is that it also doesn't put the player with the money at an advantage when it comes to online. A good example of this is Magic The Gathering: Duals of the Planeswalkers. You can unlock extra cards to play with one at a time by beating opponents - a very long process indeed given the number of cards in the game. Or you can pay to unlock the whole deck at once. That's not going to give you the best deck in the game, but it will give those of us with only a few hours a week (if not less) half a chance when it comes to taking on the very competitive online community.

Great game, this. Even if you don't have a whole lot of time

What we want to stop

Map packs at premium prices

Rather than give us additional single player scenarios, or other such genuine value-adds, Activision’s DLC strategy with its flagship Call of Duty franchise is extra multiplayer maps, at a premium price. It evidently works, because people keep paying for them, but given the CoD games do generally have a reasonable variety of multiplayer maps already, the premium price point seems exorbitant.

If the entry price point was a touch lower, and other (more interesting) DLC was also made available then extra maps would be great… but really, as it stands these multiplayer maps don’t offer much more to the game than a costume change does, and this is disappointing for a franchise with such potential.

Day One DLC
DLC should be an extra, released down the track for real fans of the original game to get more out of their purchase. Day one DLC smacks of cynicism, and rarely is the content stuff that shouldn’t be in the original game release. Dragon Age: Origins, which got things so right with Awakening, is also at fault for doing this. “Warders Keep,” a day one DLC, was little more than a single quest that was locked away from people who didn’t pay. It wasn’t a huge thing to miss out on, but at the same time, it was disappointing to know that people were paying full price for the retail release, and then expected to pay more on top of that for an extra quest or else they would miss out on some basic skills and loot.

If this kind of strategy does take on, then we’ll eventually reach a point where full-priced, retail games are deliberately sliced in two to essentially force people to buy the “DLC.” No one wants it to go that far.

Dragon Age's DLC policy is very hit-and-miss. Hopefully it's fixed for the sequel

Overpowered stuff that people can bring into multiplayer
This is the big one. Developers and publishers want to be careful that when it comes to some DLC, such as extra weapons, special abilities, bonuses and so on, that what people can pay to download doesn't outclass what's already in the game.

The reason is simple - for the people that enjoy the game online, but don't wish to download the DLC for whatever reason, coming up against someone with the DLC enhancements makes for an unbalanced game. Unbalanced games are discouraging to play for the point on the short end, and soon enough they'll go look elsewhere for something "fairer."

In the single player game, the more DLC can overpower things, the better, but for the sake of the health of the online community, developers and publishers should think carefully before unleashing the same content in multiplayer.

DLC: The good, the bad and the ugly
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