This was originally published at The Edge SUSU on November 19th 2014.
Up there with the other great questions that have fascinated people the world over, alongside the likes of, “What is the meaning of life?”, “What happens to us when we die?” and “Why exactly do people keep letting M. Night Shyamalan make movies?”, is the query that has become increasing pertinent for gamers, “Exactly what is the point of DLC?” Ignoring the obvious financial incentive, let’s pretend for a minute that it’s always all about art. Because video games are art.
Taking a more optimistic/naïve approach, we could suppose DLC’s purpose to be to retrospectively expand upon a game, in a way that doesn’t constitute a full on follow up. It should be fulfilling, offering new content whilst expanding upon what’s already there. New gameplay mechanics, new story or character arcs, whatever. Mostly though it should be all about value for money. It most certainly should not be about a new paint job or some fucking horse armour. Yeah. Horse armour. That happened. And we all stood by and let it.
Let’s take a gander at some DLC that was done right then. The perfect case study for delivering worthwhile add-ons, Rockstar Games do more than just lazily pump out new content for a quick buck. Take for instance Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare, a carefully thought out package that really does feels like effort and affection was put into it, coming complete with new outfits, weapons, musical score, missions, enemies, gameplay gimmicks, a new multiplayer mode and even a frickin’ Unicorn! And all for just 800 MS points (on the 360 that is) which roughly equates to £6.80.
To contextualize that, Street Fighter III charged $3 for some measly colour packs, ie: the ability to make a character’s costume blue instead of red. All of this is in line with the usual Capcom policy of punishing their fans at every turn for… whatever it is that we did. If you want further evidence of this you need only look at the abysmal DLC available for Resident Evil 5. Because if any game screams “competitive versus mode” it’s one that began life as a slowly paced, single player, survival horror (not that you can tell anymore).
What about DLC that continues after the game’s original ending? Or content that fills in gaps in the game’s preexisting narrative? These can obviously be quite apologetic, responding to criticisms of the initial title, reconciling previously unsatisfactory elements, providing much needed closure and so on. It can be done well, ala Fallout 3’s Broken Steel, or it can feel tacked on and obligatory like in Mass Effect 3 or Alan Wake. The latter’s The Signal add-on, felt less like an optional expansion and more like a necessary component of the story, without which the game would not be complete. Those who didn’t get it ended up missing out on answers, solid resolutions and the full experience of the game. It also didn’t help, admittedly, that in the end, the answers were still as fuzzy as ever and that the whole thing was submerged in sub-par level design.
Right, let’s get around to addressing the elephant in the room, premium DLC that’s already on the disc. Or lying, as it used to be called. There’s really not much left to say on this subject that hasn’t already been said, it’s a horse that was flogged to death long ago. The problem is pretty much here to stay, bleak though that realization may be, it might be easier to just accept it now. The same thing extends to day one DLC. We all know that it’s inexcusable, even if sometimes it does seem to warrant the asking price. For instance, Dragon Age Origins’ Stone Prisoner DLC, comes with a hefty price tag of £10. Granted it was free for those who didn’t opt for a second hand copy of the game, but that’s not the point. Anyone who has played DOA with the additional content knows that The Stone Prisoner seems like an integral part of the game, that can totally change up the way you play and even alter the course of certain narrative events. It’s great. It really is. But we shouldn’t have to pay more for it when it was ready from the first day of release.
But let’s not linger on the negatives. There has been a lot of good stuff added post-facto to games. Remember when Valve tried that crossover experiment with Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2? The Sacrifice. That was innovative. That was new. That was not $45 for a set of weapon skins for Gears of War 3.
Burnout Paradise similarly treated its fanbase with a comparable level of respect, with its regular updates that added so much substantial and literally game-changing content. All for free! Motorcycles, changing time of day and weather patterns, new challenges. All valuable enough to be paid for. All offered up for free instead. The game did however, start to stumble once it introduced premium DLC in the form of vastly superior and overpowered cars for those willing to shell out a little extra. Which brings us to one other point: Don’t ruin the balance of online play by giving an advantage to players who pay for extra benefits. That’s not cool.
So perhaps we should try not to dwell on the bad, and focus more on the opportunities DLC opens up for gaming. Such as the possibility to constantly build upon a game and to keep people coming back for more. If it’s done right, people will happily pay to keep the magic going and going. And there are lots of examples of this, GTA IV got it right, Borderlands did too. Don’t let a few bad apples spoil it. DLC can be a brilliant and rewarding way to keep a game alive… or to charge extortionate prices for tacky shit… like horse armour… Horse Armour! Fucking Horse Armour! …. Okay I have totally forgotten whatever positive message I was supposed to be delivering.