Sunday, March 11, 2012

Day One DLC: Why I'm Skeptical

A lot of people are getting irritated with "day one DLC" becoming a norm among AAA releases. The general idea is that you pay $60 for a game, and then they ask you to pay an extra $10 to get the "full experience," seemingly raising the cost to an outrageous $70. Some people feel like they're being cheated out of content that should have been included in the full game at no extra cost, and other people are just concerned about developers and publishers abusing their customers' trust with a fiendish scheme to pinch more money from your wallet.

I can't voice my opinion one way or the other, because I don't think I've ever bought a game on release day. This stuff doesn't affect me, personally, but I am wary of it. At the same time, I'm not sure I fully agree with some of the comments a former BioWare employee made in defense of day one DLC. As Christina Norman puts it, "There's no point in releasing DLC a year after your game has come out when most people have already sold your game back to GameStop three times."

That statement makes sense from a developer's standpoint, but I don't think it addresses the concerns of paying customers, while also justifying their DLC practices by almost (and very subtly) blaming retailers and their customers. It just feels more like an excuse to me, rather than a legitimate justification, and leaves me just as skeptical as I was before. More of my rambling thoughts on DLC after the jump.

Generally speaking, I have no problems with day one DLC, because no one's forcing me to buy it. If I don't want to pay the extra $10, then it's as simple as not buying the DLC. As long as it's not something critically game-changing, or if it doesn't add anything significant that I'm going to regret not having as part of the "full experience," then I have no problems not getting it. Which basically means the DLC has to be completely superfluous so that I feel no desire to buy it.

For the most part, developers have stuck to this rule, with day one DLC just being extra little goodies for the start of the game that don't really affect anything else. But I can easily picture some stereotypically greedy, evil corporate guy sitting around wondering "How can we get more people to buy day one DLC? If people are skeptical about it, then perhaps we should do something to make it really enticing, so maybe we should design something that everyone would want for a better gaming experience."

This line of reasoning might lead developers to come up with some truly great and fantastic content as part of day one DLC, that you might feel absolutely compelled to buy in order to get the full game experience. Any developer with even a slight conscience would still make sure it's not absolutely essential, because they'd be burned at the stake by consumers if their game required you to buy DLC to complete it, but even optional content can become almost mandatory and inflate the cost of the game for the consumer.

Imagine the original Portal. Now imagine that the full game was just the test chambers, and that if you wanted GLaDOS in it, you'd have to pay an extra $5 or $10. You could argue that the puzzles are fun enough on their own and that you don't need GLaDOS around to really enjoy the game, but her voice overs add so much to the experience that you'd be crazy not to have her around. Players would say "you really need to get the GLaDOS DLC to make the game truly excellent," and then everyone would be compelled to buy it.

And let's face it, video game developers are running a business. I'm sure a lot of them are passionate about what they do, but at the end of the day, most developers are motivated by sales. Publishers are even more interested in the money aspect. So I don't doubt that if there's some way for them to get customers to willingly part with more money, they'd be all for it, and so maybe we're in the right for being a little critical of day one DLC. Because if we're not critical of it now, what's to stop producers from really abusing it down the road?

I can remember an earlier time in gaming history, when you could pay extra money to get extra content for your game. They were called expansion packs, and they usually came out 6-18 months after the game was released. And people bought them, because there was a lot of new content that made it worth coming back to the original game. Developers would release a game, and then shortly thereafter announce plans for an expansion pack, and people would then hold onto their games instead of selling them, because they were interested in the expansion.

So if you're concerned about people not wanting to buy your DLC 12 months down the road after they've already finished the game, then maybe a solution would be to make downloadable content that's actually worth coming back to, that would motivate people to keep their original game, instead of just churning the DLC out faster. If you make the DLC bigger, better, and more substantial, people will be willing to wait for it, you can charge more for it, and people won't feel like they're getting ripped off.

As it stands, most DLC packs are either superfluous additions that don't really matter (like the Explosive Mission Pack for Deus Ex: Inhuman Revulsion), or just consist of a tiny slice of extra game content in a new area that you can complete in just a few hours (like the Zombie Island of Dr. Ned for Borderlands). For the most part, these kinds of DLC are only enticing while you're still playing the game, and even then, only if you're absolutely craving more game content. As much as I enjoyed playing Fallout: New Vegas, I'm just not that interested in coming back to play random, extraneous scenarios in its DLC packs.

Maybe I would've been more interested in the New Vegas DLC if some of them had been out when I was playing the game for the first time, so maybe Ms Norman is right when she says developers need to get the DLC out as quickly as possible if they want people to actually buy them. Or maybe that just goes to show that the bite-sized, extraneous design of DLC packs has the inherent problem of an incredibly short shelf-life that's only valuable while the game is still relatively new, and maybe you should be rethinking how you design DLC instead of just trying to shove it down our throats faster. 

I'm not sure exactly what point I meant to make in this article, so I hope something productive came out of that rambling. 


  1. Ideally Day one DLC is created with the time left over after the different branches are finished working on the main game. At some point months before release the content developers are completely done working on the main game, then latter the Content creators, programmers/artists, should be done except for the occasional bug reports. Ideally the bug testers are even finished with the game at least a week before launch.

    This allows a little time left over to add a little content. And makes it very economical to do so. So it does not need to be a bad thing in my opinion. But they always do overcharge for some very inconsequential DLC. And these mini DLCs just seem so much lamer then the huge expansion packs that developers used to put out.

    Magicka for example is currently being sold for $10, with $33 of DLC (with only a tiny proportion of this being extra missions); The quadrupling of the price does not really get you all that much.

  2. I guess the concern I have with day one DLC (or any early DLC, for that matter) is their general potential to fall into one of two categories: 1) completely superfluous or extraneous that has no significant impact on the game experience, or 2) almost essential for universally enhancing the game experience.

    In option 1, you get content that most people aren't going to buy, thus wasting time the developer could've put into more substantial content, even if the DLC is profitable just off of the people who did buy it. In option 2, you get interesting game content that's worth having, but a consequence of it is to artificially inflate the cost of the game on release, even though it was, in fact, produced in the interim between finishing the game and launching it.

    So I guess I would rather developers start working on more substantial content (akin to classic expansion packs) when they've finished the main game development, instead of churning out smaller DLC packs. I'm almost certain the current style of DLC production is more economic / efficient / profitable for producers, but I find four separate "bite-sized" content packs far less enticing than a single, grand expansion. So I kind of wish developers would skip over day one DLC and all of these other inconsequential DLCs, and just start working on more traditional expansion packs that actually add something of significant value to the game.

  3. Nice article. I miss the expentions packs...