By John Walker on July 23rd, 2012 at 1:00 pm.
As gamers, we do have a habit of accompanying our thrown bathwater with the baby, the taps, the bath itself, various bottles of shampoo, and all the shower fittings. And in the angered fuss about all manner of issues regarding our being “milked” by game releases, the phrase “DLC” seems to have become a dirty one. And that’s just plain silly. With rumours circulating that Ubisoft are planning a season pass for Assassin’s Creed III DLC, and even a new dedicated dev team to produce it, some are tending toward the negative. No, this is a good thing.
Day one DLC is extremely problematic. The debate still rages, with customers feeling like they’re being sold an incomplete game, expecting to fork out another fiver to add in the rest of the content available on the day the game comes out. Developers and publishers often argue that this is content created after the main game was completed, an opportunity to keep the team in employment, and to expand the game further. And to make matters more confusing, there’s merit to both sides.
Game development ends artificially early these days, thanks to an enforced console step called certification. Generally known as “cert”, this is a month-long process in which the completed game is sent to the console overlords to ensure it’s approved for their plastic box. It’s a peculiarity, and the legitimacy of it is another debate (but bear in mind a huge part of it is ensuring the game is in a suitable condition for you to enjoy). But it does mean that developers are forced into a month-long thumb-twiddle, as they wait for their finished game to be approved for release. Oftentimes this period can be used for polishing the PC version of a game, because of course there’s no evil dictator controlling what’s released on a PC. Or perhaps working on bug fixes for the console version so there can be a day 0 update. But another way to fill this gap can be getting your team to start working on new content for the game, stuff that might even be ready for release by the time the game is out.
But then the skeptical would ask, “Really, a month? You conceived of, scripted, built, animated, recorded and polished a new level in a month, did you?” And then perhaps suggest that the DLC had been in the works during the build time of the main game. And then the developer would say, “Yes, sure, but we couldn’t have gotten it finished in time, and needed that month to finish it.” And then something throws a punch, and it all gets ugly.
From the consumer’s side, it’s hard not to sympathise with the argument. While a great deal of day one DLC might actually just be perfunctory poop, it’s still hard to shake the sense that you’re playing an incomplete version of the game if you don’t buy it too. And you have to wonder, if the game is available now, and this DLC is available now, why can’t it be included in the purchase of the game? Whatever dark arts may go on behind the scenes for developers and publishers, frankly the gamer doesn’t care. If you’re rushing home from the shops with your copy of Stabby Man IV, and the first thing you discover is that there’s a new level available with a special new toecap for your character’s boot, you are abundantly aware that your game has a hole in it, and it’s going to cost you £3.49 to fill it. Every reason, every damned good justification for its being created, becomes one hundred per cent irrelevant to that player, because he just forked out £35 for a game with a hole in it.
But that’s day one DLC. That’s where a healthy discussion lies, and no matter how innocent its existence may be (and let’s be realistic – it’s obviously sometimes a cynical exercise in fleecing people for more money), it’s problematic. But from day two, we need to remember that DLC can be brill.
In the very olden days, before our PCs were glued onto an internet, patches and updates and achievements and downloadable content were the dreams of mad wizards. You’d have to know of something as arcane as bulletin boards if you wanted to get even close to be able to alter a purchased game, but you know that there was hope on the horizon. There was the glory of the Expansion Pack.
These, normally released three to six months after the initial release of the game, would contain a raft of new levels, missions, characters, nations, quests, tracks or spells, that when installed alongside the main game caused the original to blossom into a new experience. Perhaps another 50 hours of adventures would be added to your heroic quest, or a dozen new planes and airports would be available to fly/fly into. Your battlefield may now include France, and all the accompanying pâtisseries, or there may be a whole new reason to protect the lives of suicidal pixels. These tended to be substantial additions, and were generally pretty expensive too. Where the main game would have cost £35, you’d likely be paying £15 to £20 for the new content, and have big expectations of it.
Obviously such expansions still exist – think Total War games. And of course there are also the gloriously named EXPANDALONES!, always to be shouted. But now, and for flipping ages, there is DLC.
I’m not unrealistic, obviously. I’m aware that there’s a great deal of crap being touted as DLC, the slightest content adding bugger all for a few quid. But that doesn’t represent it all, and when it’s worthwhile, it’s something special. Because it’s more game of a game you like. And that’s what we’ve got to remember.
If you find that you enjoy Assassin’s Creed III, and by all reports you likely will, then what better thing than to know that soon there will be more of it to play? While there’s obviously an issue with the game, that the daft number of alternate versions, each containing a lucky dip of extra levels and novelty in-game content, and thus the concern that these elements might later be released as pay-for DLC, that doesn’t mean it’s in any way a bad thing that the company plans to continue producing content for the game. If the rumours are true, and right now the evidence is a little spurious, Ubisoft will be forming a new team dedicated just to creating DLC for AssCreed III. And that’s even better news. It means there’s a greater likelihood of focused, dedicated content, not distracting the core team. It means that when you buy Assassin’s Creed III, you know you’ve – dare I say “investing”? – in a game that will keep extending itself after you’ve finished.
There’s a whole other aspect to this. If you were to think back to the path DLC has taken, you might remember a phase when it tended to be free. It was extra content given to gamers, who’d given their chunk of cash for the original game. Paying for it, then, can still seem galling to some. But, er, capitalism. And crucially, when you’re free from the day one issues, you can’t sensibly complain that you’re missing out if you don’t want to pay.
But I think there’s a strong argument for publishers and developers to feign altruism and give some DLC away for free. It certainly engenders a very positive relationship with gamers, and you need look no further than Valve to see that at one far extreme. That you only ever paid once for Team Fortress 2 (hats aside), and the utterly transformed version you see now has all been free additions. While I’m certain some will bristle, wishing for an older, purer TF2, there is no question that the extraordinary after-sales (and for once that’s a literal phrase) additions have created incredibly good relations with their customers, built a vast community, and made people far more likely to take notice the next time Valve tries to sell them something.
I don’t want to wander too far down the path of “games as a service” notion, because frankly it gives me the willies. I like to pretend I exist in a world which offers “games as a game”, because I like playing games, but it’s silly to ignore the incredible (and incredibly profitable) potential of giving things to customers for free. But I also can see no really sensible argument for not charging for DLC too. If I’ve especially loved a game, and after two months I’ve played it as much as I’m ever likely to, offering me the chance to play some brand new content for it for a few quid is going to be something I’ll gratefully receive.
One final note on all this. I think there definitely is potential for post-release DLC to cause harm, but it’s really only to the reputation of your game. (And understand that I’m talking only about DLC, and not blurring lines into the creepy world of micro-payments and other such insidious wallet-emptiers.) Saints Row: The Third, for instance, is one of the best games released in years. Its spectacle, combined with a fantastically solid game, and genuinely great script and performances, makes it something that embraces its status as a game more than any other AAA release I can think of. But that starts to become slightly tarnished when you look at the DLC that’s appeared since. Credit to THQ/Volition for having created quite so much of it, and for so long, but sadly none of it significantly enhances the game. Ignoring the frippery of the £1 aesthetic packs, additions like Genkibowl VII at £5 end up leaving you with a final memory that’s not at the peak. Genkibowl was an interesting one, because it was fine. Far, far too brief, but all competent and reasonable fun. But not the mad high that the game ended on. That’s a tough one – that’s saying, your DLC has to be better than your game. I realise that’s problematic, and probably unlikely. But it’s worth bearing in mind when people are producing it – if it doesn’t compare to the original, well, it’s going to suffer.
We mustn’t let “DLC” become a bad initialism in our hearts. It’s more game for games we want more game for. That’s the catchy phrase I want everyone to remember. Perhaps by another initialism, “MGFGWWMGF”. It’s something we should be encouraging, within reason. I think, no matter how good the intent, that day one DLC is never going to win popularity, and even if a developer is genuinely keeping people in employment by creating it, they should just have the sense to wait a fortnight before releasing it. But let’s not go mad. DLC is great.