When this generation began, I had really high hopes for the idea of downloadable content, or DLC for short. Cheaper expansions for fighting games, as opposed to just churning out 5 additional versions at $60 a pop. Additional level packs for games that already felt complete, a bonus. The ability to put in various ideas that would have, in the past, just ended up on the cutting room floor and be lost to time. DLC seemed like it could have improved the industry at its core, allowing for better experiences. I was optimistic about the good DLC could do for the industry as a whole.
As is normally the case when I’m optimistic, I was dead wrong. I could not have been more wrong. Gaming continues to slide its way into dystopia. DLC is used for little else than cashgrabs and squeezing as much money out of the consumers as humanly possible. This generation we saw the cost of games return to the $60 we saw during the days of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. Yes, yes, I know, inflation means that $60 goes less far than it did in the 90s and that game prices back in those days weren’t as standardized as they are today, as carts with larger amounts of memory yielded higher prices. Shut up. That doesn’t mean people didn’t flip their shit when the $10 price rise was announced at the beginning of the last generation and at least back in the Genesis/SNES days, there wasn’t the additional leech of DLC further draining one’s pockets. Yes, somehow the addition of DLC has actually made games even MORE expensive than they were back in the 90’s, and depending on the game, the full cost of the game might even dwarf those of the earliest Nintendo 64 games ($70-$80) or in some cases, even the mighty NeoGeo AES (a whopping $100 per game!). This is ridiculous. I understand that games cost far more now than ever to make, though that’s mainly because most developers focus less on streamlining technology and more on gaudy photo-realistic graphics that nowadays fall well-within the realm of the uncanny valley (you go, Creepy Old Man Head). But hey, that aside’s a topic for another day. This article is going to focus more on things companies should avoid and attempt (but mostly avoid) when it comes to the usage of downloadable content. Maybe if companies heed the words of their customers, DLC can truly reach its full potential: being used to improve games, rather than just bleeding consumers dry.
Rule the first: DON’T do on-disc DLC. It’s hard to forget Capcom’s whole debacle with Street Fighter x Tekken and for good reason. In SFxT, 12 complete characters were found just by searching a disc that was obtained before the street date. Upon the discovery of these assets, Capcom claimed it was done in order to avoid compatibility issues regarding the future release of the DLC characters, as was the case with Mortal Kombat 9. This wasn’t the first time Capcom pulled stuff like this: both versions of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (DLC characters Shuma-Gorath and Jill Valentine), all versions of Street Fighter 4 (alternate costumes), Dead Rising 2 and Off the Record (alternate outfits and, in OtR’s case, cheat codes). It wasn’t the last either, but the games in question were well into development by the time the controversy began. My point is SFxT caused enough backlash to cause even Christian Svennson, the face of Capcom USA, to state outright that they would be reconsidering using such business practices in the future. So far, it looks like even the seemingly oblivious Capcom of Japan managed to get the message. Furthermore, DON’T take assets that were originally intended to be on-disc DLC and sell them as “true DLC”. Admittedly, this is much harder to prove that the aforementioned on-disc DLC, but it’s scummy all the same.
Rule the second: DON’T make overpowered assets (i.e. weapons, characters) into paid DLC. Frankly, I think it’s wrong to make overpowered assets as DLC period. But charging for said power-ups is just another way of incorporating a favorite corporate tactic: “pay to win”. While “pay to win” is significantly more common in free-to-play games (like Farmville), it’s slowly begun to creep its way into AAA $60 retail titles as well and while it can be somewhat justified in the case of the former, the same cannot be said for the latter. It’s arguably even scummier than on-disc DLC. Of course, there’s an easy way around that: just add the ability to unlock these new weapons, characters or whatever via in-game “achievements”, like beating the game on the highest difficulty level or something. …of course, nowadays, it’s not entirely unheard of for developers to charge extra for said highest difficulty level.
Next we come to the last major rule: DON’T do “true” retailer exclusive DLC. That is to say, don’t do DLC that is only accessible if you preorder a certain game from a certain retailer. Now I’m not saying that allowing for preorder bonuses from ordering from a specific retailer is wrong in and of itself: exclusivity for a limited time is perfectly fine in my opinion. It’s just when the DLC is not made available for general consumption on the system in question’s online store that I get annoyed. It hardly seems fair to anyone who either bought the game well after the game’s release. Furthermore, it doesn’t make any sense to me, as it removes a potential avenue for future revenue regarding older games, which seems a bit counter-productive, considering most publishers these days seem to exist for the sole purpose of draining every last penny from their customers’ bank accounts. Making certain pieces of DLC exclusively preorder bonuses also tends to bother fans in general: I’ve got a friend who still curses to this day the fact that he was unable to get all the DLC characters in Disgaea 4 for the PS3, due to his choice of retailer. Of course, he also complained that he was unable to get the Casino Night DLC for Sonic Generations, which was a pretty pointless piece of DLC in the first place.
Those are the three major rules I’ve come up with, but that isn’t to say that there aren’t other things publishers should avoid when it comes to dealing with DLC. For example, DON’T charge so much for the ability to implement older assets in future titles, looking at you, Namco Bandai with your damn Tekken Tunes in Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and the older soundtracks being in Soul Calibur IV and V. If anything, they should just be included on the disc in the first place, but if you can’t fit it on the disc, don’t charge so much for the entire package: make it roughly $1 for an entire game’s soundtrack or old skins or old maps or whatever. On that note, DON’T make things that would’ve been unlockables in the olden days into paid DLC. Also, DON’T break immersion when it comes to adding additional bonus areas to games: for example, in Darksiders II, the DLC bonus dungeon required you to access it from the main menu, rather than having it appear in-game. Of course, this doesn’t apply to cases with episodic add-on content, like Undead Nightmare in Red Dead Redemption.
Now onto some more positive notes, after all this wouldn’t be much of an article if I didn’t provide any advice to publishers with regards to DLC practices that customers might actually enjoy. For example: DO mix free and paid DLC updates. Now I am aware that in many cases, publishers aren’t ENTIRELY at fault for the fact that it seems like all significant DLC is paid, while free DLC is limited to necessary gamefix patches and that these limitations are somewhat due to certain…other parties at work (*coughhacksnortMicrosoftcough*). Hopefully, future generations won’t be limited by such things, but for the time being, at the very least, making certain pieces of existing DLC free for a limited time (for those who already own the game, at least) might act as a way to garner a bit of good will amongst the consumer base, though this might be even more difficult, just due to the closed nature of most online storefronts. Granted, Valve’s Steam platform has gone beyond the call of duty in this case, by even making entire games free for an entire weekend in order to drum up interest. Free trials have the added benefit of getting consumers who might not have otherwise bothered with your game to try it out, and that could lead to more sales down the line, especially on older titles.
Speaking of older titles, DO release DLC down the line to revive an established game, with entirely new content. Case in point, Nintendo’s upcoming Super Luigi U is a full-on expansion pack for New Super Mario Bros. U that is as long as the original game, and it’s a DLC add-on. Besides, nowadays consoles seem to be moving more and more towards PCs in terms of hardware architechure, so why not revive one of the great ideas of PC games: the expansion pack? As an added benefit, companies could use expansion DLC as a way to keep the original dev teams of their respective games working and allow for a greater understanding on the sales of said game, rather than just basing the future of a game on its day 1 sales and immediately either starting work on a sequel or just straight up ditching the franchise for the next 5-7 years. Expansion packs just sound more reasonable to me, in the long run.
Another thing with regards to games that have been on store shelves for awhile, DO release “Game of the Year” or at least editions marked “complete” with all of the DLC content included AND implemented on-disc. Whether they come out the next year or a few more years down the line, this is actually kind of important just due to the fleeting nature of DLC itself. Take for example, the whole spiel with the extra characters in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, when all of those DLC characters and missions were taken down from both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3’s online stores, though they were eventually brought back…for a limited time. Seriously, people are already worried about archiving modern games because bullshit like this. I mean, at least back in even the days of the PS2 and the Gamecube, people never even considered that games might be put up for re-release in the future, but nowadays, it’s so commonplace that this shouldn’t even be an issue. Considering the difficulties that many companies are having with their own re-releases, you’d think that many of them would be openly trying to avoid sabotaging the potential for future re-releases. I guess that’s why many gamers openly opine that games have become far more disposable than ever before, but I suppose that’s a topic better explored another time.
Again, three suggestions with regards to what SHOULD be done with regards to DLC, but what else can be done to regain the trust of gamers? Well, for starters, DO improve bug-testing before going gold. While not strictly DLC related, it does fall into a similar category and a heavy reliance on day-one patches have not helped matters. Also, DO consider doing some cost-effective DLC (like say, extra difficulty settings) for free in order to add some replay. And finally, DO implement backwards-compatibility with regards to DLC. One of the things Rock Band did really well was allow you to access DLC from the first game in the second game. I’d be insanely for the next Street Fighter to allow me to use all of the old costumes I bought in the various SF4 games and SFxT at no added cost.
So there you go, there are some good dos and don’ts with regards to how DLC should be handled. And the timing couldn’t be better, as it seems like publishers are going even further with this sort of thing by implementing a new form of monetization, well, new to consoles anyway: microtransactions. We’ve already seen it happen with Dead Space 3 and chances are we’ll be seeing it a lot more often in the future, at least from EA. This worries me, but hopefully other companies will avoid jumping on the bandwagon and instead try to make DLC more viable and less of a thorn in the sides of gamers.