A few weeks ago when I ran my piece on things that are killing gaming, one area that I did wish to discuss, but did not due to it's more complex nature, was the now booming market of downloadable content, or DLC. DLC has actually been around for quite a long time, although what we now call DLC was more commonly called a patch or an update and was exclusively for PC based games only, for a very simple reason: Consoles didn't get online. In the mid to late 90s of gaming, it was common practice for game developers to release numerous free updates for their various releases, rewarding players with dozens of new maps, weapons and sometimes entirely new game-types and single player campaigns over the course of the games life. All in all, it was a pretty sick deal for gamers. You buy a game and periodically you would sometimes get free stuff. It also made sense because with most PC games, user-made modifications were the order of the day, and if the developers didn't, the fans usually would.
Around the turn of the millennium, gaming consoles finally picked up enough power to make the move into the online market full-force. At first the use of online connectivity to manipulate games followed the PC gaming side of things. Games could be patched, changes could be made, and new material could be added. However, at some point someone on the console side asked the question of why they were simply giving players this content for free. From there the gaming industry as a majority began to change it's stance on DLC. Where once bonus content was simply a bonus that came as a free perk, it instead has moved to being a primarily paid for extra. So is this bad, or is it good? Well, it's a little of both. Paid for DLC has pros and cons, just as free DLC did. While it's pretty much impossible to see a downside to free DLC (unless you're waiting on a sequel), there are some downsides to paid for DLC. But then again, there are a lot of pros that can be seen. So what we're going to look at today is how paid for DLC is both good and bad, based on how it's handled.
We'll start with the good, because quite honestly, paid DLC can and does have many high points, if the developers in question know what to do with it. One of the biggest pros to paid for DLC is that it can give the developers a chance to produce better downloadable content then they would otherwise be able to in their respective market.
Take consoles for example. More then any other area of gaming right now, home consoles are caught in the "make it if it makes money" business, especially the publishers. As a result of that, developers often feel the heat and financial squeeze of being tasked with developing a massive game on a tight budget. Paid DLC gives them a little breathing room, as rather then spend millions developing an entirely new game, they can extend the work they have already done to add new content to the game. Since the content is digital, publishing costs are saved, and the developers can raise a little extra income on the side. It even gives them something to work on while the game is going gold (a term referring to the game getting into publishers hands for publishing). Lately, more and more developers have used this as a chance to sneak cut content into games after the game reaches its deadlines. Others have used it to great effect long after the games launch or as part of a special event.
A great example of a company taking the initiative with both options is Capcom and their handling of Resident Evil 5. Prior to the games release in the US, the development team had almost six months in which they were waiting for the American release. Rather then sit around and watch the numbers, the team decided to experiment with multiplayer content for RE5, and produced the Versus expansion, which for $5 gave players several online competitive multiplayer modes to play through. When many fans felt that the content was sparse and lacking, Capcom stepped up it's game for the next DLC pack, timing it to be released alongside the "Gold Edition" of the game. Rather then a few multiplayer modes, for a total of $14, players recieved 2 additional campaign chapters (averaging 1-3 hours each) as well as 8 new characters for the popular Mercenaries mode, new enemies to face, new character costumes, and new bonus materials. They also could purchase them all separately or as one set.
Capcom's handling of DLC in that case was very intelligent and well done. It was high quality content, affordable, and worth every penny.
But what about free DLC content? Other companies have also proven that free DLC can be extremely profitable if used correctly, although you still won't find it anywhere but on a computer, at least, not that I've seen. Anyhow, companies such as Valve have shown that despite what many console publishers would think, free high quality DLC can generate quite a bit of revenue if you're clever. In Valve's case, they simple tried dropping the price of one of their popular titles to half while releasing the new free DLC. As a cherry on top, they made the game free to play for a weekend.
Sales exploded. So much so that it's pretty much a surefire bet that every time a bit of free DLC comes the game will drop in price, and as a result Team Fortress 2, now approaching its third birthday, is still selling strong, in part thanks to it's constant supply of free DLC continuing to attract players (as well as the generally insane fun that comes with it by default).
In both Valve's case and the aforementioned Capcom, both paid and free DLC have been good for both parties, extending the life of the titles in question with minimal cost to both the developers and players. If DLC were like this all of the time, no gamer would have reason to be skeptical.
Unfortunately, there is still plenty of reasons to question every bit of DLC that flows towards us. For every one Capcom and Valve, there are dozens of other companies just looking to make a cheap buck off of sucker players. A large portion of DLC these days is either overpriced content (3 maps for $10-$15 or a new character skin for $3), crummy content ($5 unlocks of all bonus content or, here's an infamous one, $5 for in game cash) or both. While companies like Valve, Epic, and Capcom, among a few others, work hard to give gamers the best value for their buck, a large portion of developers seem to just view it as a way to print money. Most unfortunately, it's often hard to tell at first glance whether or not most DLC content is worth it or not, leaving many with the gamble to buy or not buy.
The ugly part is that with all that crap out there, it still continues to sell like under-priced Ice Cream in a fat camp. Those unlocks, overpriced skins and in-game cash DLC packs? They sell. Incredibly well. The ugly is that even though a portion of gamers know better, too many simply don't care (especially the devoted fanboys or the casuals) enough to look at the details of the situation and instead buy, buy, and buy DLC, whatever the cost, whatever the content.
First case in point: the Stimulus package for Modern Warfare 2, which raised the price on map packs from $10 to $15, for five maps, two of which were simply hold-overs from the previous Modern Warfare game. Sure enough, it was a huge hit, showing developers everywhere that gamers were willing to shell out $5 more then they had previously thought.
An even worse example was the fan outrage over Super Street Fighter IV. When Capcom announced that SSFIV was going to be a disc release for $40, fans screamed their anger. Forums flooded with fans asking (or demanding) for DLC content for Street Fighter IV, not another game they would have to buy. Many mocked Capcom, declaring them greedy and unscrupulous for choosing to sell another $40 game over some "cheap DLC content." The problem was, the math didn't work out. If anyone had actually sat down and worked the math, they would have realized that at the average prices charged for extra content, the combined DLC cost for all of the new features in SSFIV would have been over $120. Capcom wasn't playing greedy, they were playing nice. However, even when some pointed this out to those who wanted DLC, some shot back that they would rather pay the extra money and not have to go to the store. Now, I obviously can't speak for everyone, but I myself was grateful that Capcom wasn't doing a DLC release, and in the process, saving me a hundred bucks.
The Fast Coming Future
So where does this leave us, the players, in respect to what the future holds? Well, once again it places the power squarely in our hands. More then most other facets of the gaming industry, DLC is something that lives and dies by virtue of it's purchases. If no one buys it, it'll cease to exist. Likewise, if devs see one item really selling, they'll continue in that track.
Of course, we can all help this by encouraging better purchasing of DLC, and that's something that could be helped if we had DLC reviews. After all, it would make complete sense for sites that already review games to begin reviewing DLC content as well. Perhaps we should start requesting DLC reviews from our favorite sites in order to educate more new gamers as to what is and isn't a good purchase?
Regardless of whether or not it changes, stays the same, or even becomes a new feature entirely, DLC is here to stay and as gamers, we need to recognize what's both good and bad, and what we can do about it.