Today’s Single Player DLC Doesn’t Stand a Chance

The endless value potential of downloadable content (DLC) was one of the most promising features for this generation of video games. Games were finally able to take advantage of online connectivity, but it’s a well stated consensus that the overall quality level of DLC this generation has been quite underwhelming. While the multiplayer side of DLC has found a clearer identity and audience with its map packs and additional game modes, single player DLC is completely unpredictable. What do gamers want from single player DLC? What should gamers realistically expect from it? What are game companies capable of producing? Each of these questions has a multitude of answers that rarely align and have led to the current problem where it is hard to take single player DLC seriously as content worth playing or purchasing.

Fallout 3

On second thought, Broken Steel is an apt description.

Downloadable content should be, by its very nature, supplemental content. I think it is a fair expectation for gamers to have a complete experience with their game without ever having to play DLC. Additional content can only exist in one of three areas: before the game’s story starts, during the game’s story or after the game’s story ends. That fact leads to a lot of the initial negative backlash DLC can receive even before it is played. Questions of where the DLC fits in and how essential it the the original game start to arise. Make the content too integral and gamers feel cheated, make the content too divergent and gamers will question how it is even related to their game, or change something in the story and the integrity of the original is altered. On the surface, it is a no win situation.

Starting at the ending

While the most natural place to add content to a game would be to just continue the story from where the game left off, this has not worked out well for anyone involved in a game with a true conclusion. While it is too early to judge the already controversial Mass Effect 3 “ending clarifying” DLC, the game that set the stage for the idea of “temporary conclusion” should bear most of our ire here. Fallout 3 at one time had a very definitive ending, like it or not. However, Bethesda was faced with a troubling decision once its initial “side-story DLC” for the game failed to grab gamers. The 3rd DLC pack for Fallout 3Broken Steel, effectively changed the ending to Fallout 3, and that precedent is haunting DLC to this day.

Prince of Persia

I'm not falling for that one, Prince.

Changing, adding or expanding the ending to a game will always be controversial to fans. Fallout 3 wasn’t the only offender and in comparison it was much less egregious than Prince of Persia’s Epilogue DLC which locked away the true ending of the game until its paid release. I’ve also looked questioningly at the Alan Wake DLC for the same reasons. While Alan Wake was broken up into episodes the entire way through the game and the original ending stood on its own, adding two new episodes to the end does raise some fair questions as to whether or not the content was intended to be in the core game. Gamers do not want to feel taken advantage of or that they aren’t getting the complete game after they’ve paid for it.

Regardless of where DLC fits into a game, the larger question related to gamer expectations is how long are gamers willing to wait for DLC to be released? If pre-planned or pre-developed DLC is thrown out entirely, the length of time between a game’s release and the DLC’s release can increase exponentially. DLC that comes out a month or so after a games release has to be planned ahead of time and would have to start its development immediately after the full game is complete if not sooner to meet the release date. That doesn’t allow room for any feedback from players and therefore is subject to the cries of “it should have been included originally.” The alternative and potential solution for this is to have DLC released much later a ‘la Rockstar with its GTA IV episodes. Waiting too long to release DLC risks the waning interest of gamers or even having gamers move on entirely. To solve this game companies have come up with the Season Pass system of releasing a few pre-planned DLC packs soon after the game’s release in addition to one or two DLC packs that come out much later and can potentially be based off of player’s feedback to the original game.

The Wasteland Case Study

While Fallout 3 did not have a season pass and featured the questionable game ending changing DLC by the time the 5th and final DLC add-on was released, Fallout 3 had experienced the full gamut of reactions from gamers to its downloadable content. The first two packs were generally panned and fell into the “too divergent and unrelated from the main story” category. This may have led to the more substantial releases of Broken Steel and Point Lookout. Regardless of the change to the ending, the content of the packs themselves were rewarding, interesting and a new high point for the game itself with Broken Steel adding directly to the core story and Point Lookout being an extensive side mission. The final piece of DLC, Mothership Zeta, was also a side mission and while decent, many gamers were hit with Fallout 3 fatigue by the time it was released a full 10 months after the original game’s release date.

2 out of 5 doesn’t sound like a winning record, however, would Broken Steel and Point Lookout have turned out so well if the first 2 packs hadn’t stumbled out of the gate? Would gamers have been better served or willing to play more Fallout 3 if they had to wait 6-12 months for a higher quality DLC experience? My guess is that most developers are still trying to answer those questions. Bethesda will get to try again here soon with its next DLC rollout with Skyrim.

Half-Life Blue Shift

Barney was on to something, but it wasn't DLC.

I would classify Fallout 3’s DLC as supplemental and thus fitting my basic definition, but the final pieces of DLC I’d like to explore challenge this definition. Rockstar’s GTA IV episodes (The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony) in addition to Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare are good enough to stand apart from the great core games they are based upon. These are some of the most critically acclaimed DLC available. The answer I don’t have is if these episodes really qualify as to what gamer’s should realistically expect or want out of DLC? These episodes could arguably have been released standalone in retail as expansions to the game (some were later) in the same vein as the great Half-Life expansions, Opposing Force and Blue Shift (not to mention Half-Life 2’s episodes).

It’s not all DLC

My solution requires a shift in perspective by both gamers and game developers. Not every game can or should support episodic expansions, but true DLC should not be expected to match that type of add-on. DLC should remain truly supplemental and in smaller bites, but it should also be priced and promoted as such. Publishers have a funny way of promoting every bit of DLC as must-have or seemingly more important than the original game itself. Fallout 3 and Borderlands both rubbed me the wrong way as the quality of the DLC was good enough but I was still disappointed compared to how it was promoted to me. Each piece of DLC seemed like it was going to be the last or only DLC available if I wanted more from that game, and none of them stood on their own in any way comparable to the expansions mentioned earlier.

Personally, I want a combination of two options. First, keep DLC small, frequent, supplemental and focused on one particular game element that I enjoyed from the original. These should be side stories that flesh out the game’s universe, characters, or gameplay. Give me several options so that based on what I liked from the original game, I know I’ll find a few packs that I really like and I won’t feel cheated when the others aren’t really for me. Next, if your game warrants it, build up to a major expansion or additional episode(s) 12-18 months after the original game’s release. This episode should be able to stand completely on its own, but not be sold at the full price. I’d even argue that the quality of content should be somewhere between a Rockstar episode offering and an Assassin’s Creed psuedo-sequel. None of us needed 3 full priced Assassin’s Creed II games in 3 years. However, 3 smaller and more focused episodes of Assassin’s Creed II fairly priced and each with supportive DLC stories could have me stabbing dudes all year every year Finally, and most importantly, reveal your DLC plans to your consumers ahead of time as they’ve been screwed over more than they’ve have been helped by surprise DLC. With this approach gamers should be able to get a longer life out of their favorite games and a have higher level of satisfaction with DLC.

Assassin's Creed II

We should have treated you better, Ezio.

What gamers are looking for today out of DLC is completely unreasonable and what game companies are offering today is completely out of touch with consumers. The ability to deliver digital content of all shapes and sizes makes it difficult to meet and control expectations, but it is time for both sides to compromise. Call downloadable content what it is, it is bonus content for the obsessed fans. Those fans will already buy anything, but treat your wider more conscientious fans with more respect and give them better, deeper content for the game they already love. These gamers are willing to wait for quality content when it is truly worth it.


Giant Bomb (images)