Don't Go Breaking My Player Base

Horse Armor! It does nothing for only $5!
These days, it seems like there isn't a game released without at least one piece of Downloadable Content (DLC) becoming available in the first few weeks of its life. In the modern gaming world, DLC has replaced the expansion packs and content patches of old, asking players to shell out slightly smaller sums of money (called of all things, micro-transactions) in order to obtain new maps, items, or characters for their games. From one of the most controversial and earliest pieces of DLC, Oblivion's completely decorative and $5 horse armor to the newest map pack for Halo, Gears of War, or Call of Duty, it's hard to start a single game today without a notification appearing at the main menu reminding you of a new way to spend your money.

For the most part, DLC has become widely accepted by the gaming public, but as DLC has become more and more popular, more and more companies have begun to make use of the DLC system and it is now, I believe, that some of the ugliest cracks are beginning to show.

This morning marked the release of the newest map pack for Gears of War 3, titled "Fenix Rising," a collection of seven new multiplayer maps for use in any of Gears varying game modes. I was looking forward to trying some of the new maps myself, so I logged on, downloaded the new maps, searched for a game to join...and spent the next hour playing all of the original releases maps. Of the seven new maps I purchased, I've yet to see a single one.

I spent $15 to play this map once.
This isn't the first time something like this has occurred. Frustrated, I looked back over other popular titles that I've purchased DLC content for and recognized a similar pattern. I can recall dutifully purchasing each of the Halo: Reach map packs as they've been released, but short of the private firefight games I've played on my own, I can count the number of times I've played a game on any of these new maps with one hand.

The problem isn't that DCL exists but how it's handled. Back in the days before DLC, new content came from one of three sources: free content patches, expansion packs, or player produced content (also free). In each case, there was a clear reason to obtain the material. Patches were required to play the game online and would make your game run better anyway, so players had every reason to install them. Player produced content (AKA Mods) often ran right alongside your copy of the game, and the most common ones were easy to find and install (and again, they were free). Expansion packs on the other hand cost money, but their player base stood alone from the basic player base. If you purchased an expansion, you played your own games separate from the vanilla player base, finding games with those who had the expansion and therefore shared your content. Since expansion were usually large deals with loads of content for a good price, players could usually count on a large player base for an expansion. After all, who owned Starcraft but not its expansion Brood War?
$15 dollars for a balance patch. Guess how often I see it?

DLC doesn't work like this. Instead, DLC has now become in effect a product patch that you have to pay money for. What has resulted is a system that breaks the player base a little further each time a new piece of DLC is released, with diminishing rewards for the player each time a new DLC pack comes out. You see, game studios want to have their cake and eat it too. None of them want to alienate their player base by requiring them to buy DLC in order to keep playing, so they let the players who opt out of any and all DLC continue to play. Meanwhile, those who pay for the DLC can only play on the DLC maps with other players who have purchased the DLC. In the matchmaking system of most modern games, this weights the odds against those who purchase DLC, as they will need to be matched with an entire group of players who have purchased the DLC in order to actually use it. As long as one player in a group of sixteen hasn't shelled out for the new content, none of the other fifteen can use it.

Worse is that this problem stacks with each successive map pack. Say you have a player base of a thousand people for your new game. In the early days of your game, each of these thousand people can play with one another, no questions asked. Then you release your first new DLC, with four new maps to compound the original titles eight. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to pay the asked for $10 on top of the original game, so only six-hundred of your players buy the first DLC pack. The multiplayer game type is ten-on-ten, but everyone is feeling alright because the odds that all twenty people will be from that six-hundred are pretty good.

A month goes by and you release a second DLC pack, this one with new weapons. Again, it's $10, and this time only four hundred people bought it. Unfortunately, only three hundred of them owned the first DLC pack, so now you have one-hundred people who only have the weapon pack, three-hundred people who own the weapon pack and the map pack, three-hundred people who own only the map pack, and two-hundred people who own neither. Suddenly the odds of finding nineteen other people with the same content as you have dropped quite a bit, since as long as one person doesn't own content that the rest of the group does, no one can use it.

$7 will get you this for online play in GT5, provided everyone else buys it as well
A few weeks later, you drop your third piece of DLC, another new map pack. Only two-hundred people buy it this time. Ninety of them own both the prior packs. Sixty of them own only the weapon pack, thirty the other map pack, and twenty of them only own this map pack. One-hundred and eighty people still own none of the extra content, and just one of them in a game means no one else does either.

Are you beginning to see how this spirals out of control? With each successive DLC pack that you release, the odds of a player being able to use any of them drops lower and lower. Unfortunately, this exact scenario is being played out in game after game out on the market right now, with my experiences with Gear's newest map pack only the tip of the iceberg. We're all paying for DLC that we may never use.

Unfortunately at this point there isn't a good solution to the problem. Game studios have backed themselves into a corner, and the player base has gone along with them. Studios don't want the player who didn't pay to be able to play content they didn't pay for, even if one player is all who didn't pay for it. Additionally, many of the gamers don't want that one to play either, because how fair would it be to the individuals who paid for the content if others received it for free? The solution of going back to the old expansion pack model, where extra content came in a huge bundle at half the cost of the original game could work, but game studios don't want to do that because lets face it, they make far more money off of small DLC packs then an expansion.

Odds are you'll see this map playing MW3 a lot more then the later ones
The problem is also getting worse. This years newest Call of Duty milk machine is going to be releasing new DLC content every month from January to September, giving players a whole new batch of stuff to fork over cash for. Three pieces of DLC were enough to wreck your chances of using most of it in our example above. What are the odds that a player who purchases the September content will actually be able to use any of it considering the eight other separate packs of DLC content in line before it?

The more DLC I see, the more I play, the more it begins to look as if this new trend among games cannot last forever. Eventually, something will have to give. I'm tired of paying money for maps I'll never play because the matchmaking system panders to the most basic vanilla player. I'm tired of not being able to use content that I paid for because one player on the other team doesn't have the map. But at the same time, that player would be just as upset if the game didn't let him play unless he continued to hand out cash donations to it's makers for extra content he didn't want to purchase.

Some developers throw a small bone with DLC only playlists, but even these fail to solve the problem, serving only to divide the player base into increasingly small (and therefore laggy) factions of player. Simply put, there is no current solution to this broken system, and until someone realizes that these constant flows of 'cheap' easy to produce DLC packs are damaging their game, the problem will continue to persist. Everyone wants to have their cake in this scenario, and eat it. The thing is, the problem will only truly be solved when studios and players decide that giving the cake to someone else is the better option.

Until then, I'm going to go play another game against bots on these new maps I've bought.

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