When it comes to downloadable content in gaming, there are many divergent and strong opinions, feelings and points of view on the subject. There is no longer a debate about whether downloadable content (DLC) should exist, at this point, DLC is a reality. Now the question or debate or whatever nomenclature is most applicable becomes what is good and worthwhile DLC and what is simply a clear cash grab by the developer/publisher for gamers’ hard earned cash. The nature of DLC that developers offer is clearly a quandary for an older generation of gamers because the younger generation playing games currently finds DLC simply to be part of playing video games.
The older generations in question are ones that grew up being able to buy a cartridge or disc and could feel content that they purchased the whole game without worrying about a barrage of DLC aimed at them either day of release or a few weeks/months down the line. The majority of this generation also played games on consoles and computers that did not have good means of digital distribution. For computer gamers, Steam and other direct-to-consumer game download services are relatively new, as well as, affordable and fast internet connections that can handle taxing file sizes. On the console side of things, it is only in the last console generation that online gaming and online marketplaces have been fully integrated to the console gaming experience. As with computers, consoles have benefitted from advances in wireless technologies and better internet connections. Thus, for these gamers, DLC is a violation of the social agreement they have with developers, publishers and the “Big Three”.
Then there is the generation of gamers currently growing up within the latest console cycle (PS3, XBOX 360, and Wii) that are familiar with online marketplaces, buying games and apps via these market spaces, playing social games and freemium games. This generation is comfortable paying in-game micro transactions to advance or be better in a game. These young kids buy subscription cards in stores and spend hours playing various pay-to-play online games. For them DLC is not a big deal. DLC is not the end of gaming and an insult to their honor or going to force them to stop playing games. To them, DLC is just the way they play games and enjoy them. An example of how commonplace it is for young gamers to accept DLC, all one has to do is look at the game, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure and most likely its upcoming sequel, Skylanders: Giants.
Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure is video game developed by Toys for Bob and published by Activision. It is a platformer that features co-operative and competitive multiplayer components. The game came about when the developer had the option to update and revamp a Vivendi franchise they chose the Spyro series. The game arrived in North America on October 16, 2011 for XBOX 360, PS3, Wii, PC and 3DS. The game came bundled in a starter pack with three character toys to use (the line-up varied between systems). To use characters in the game, the player has to place the statue on the “portal of power” (a device that takes coded information in the toy and opens it in the game) to unlock the character in the game. Outside of the three characters that came in the starter packs, players could buy 29 other characters (32 total) of 8 element types to use in the game. These extra characters are available in either a single package or a package of three. Respectively, the single pack retails for $9.99 while the three pack retails at $24.99. Making the total cost of the game outside of the initial start pack ($69.99), roughly $300 buying only single packs or $250 buying three packs, making the whole game around $400 if the player were to buy all the characters (not to mention additional levels that come in the three packs). Now to complete the game fully, those who buy the game will need to have one character from each element. Thus, outside of the original 3 characters, a player needs to buy another 5 Skylanders to finish the game. If someone is not a collector or completist then there is no need to spend a small fortune on the game, but even so, the overall investment into the game is likely around $120, which is the cost of two games at full retail price on release date.
Since the game is so expensive, logically one would think it was a horrible flop. That is not the case, in fact, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure was a monumental success. For the first six months of its release, the character packs were consistently sold out leaving parents and kids scrambling all over town to find the characters they wanted. Activision celebrated huge profits between the game, accessories and the toys that made it the third most profitable game in North America and Europe during the first quarter of 2012. They have sold 30 million of the Skylanders toys worldwide. The toys were so popular that they outsold many of the highest selling action figures. Not being a company not to capitalize on a successful property Activision is releasing the sequel, Skylanders: Giants this holiday season. Much like the Call of Duty franchise, another annual series that features heavy DLC content, Skylanders: Giants will feature 40 toys and more variants. The new game will include re-releases of old characters and the figures will be much larger than the previous iteration. Whether the new toys will be more expensive than their predecessors remains to be seen, the starter packs will remain the same price though. It being a holiday release means Activision will sell plenty of toys this Christmas, and subsequently games.
This brings back the issue of what is good and bad DLC? Obviously, personal taste and opinion factors hugely into what makes DLC attractive, but an easy rule is that if it is simply an unlock code for information on the disc then that is bad DLC. While in a sense it is true that gamers are only entitled to what a developer/publisher gives them access to on a disc, it is also true that it is money grabbing and evil to charge people to buy unlock codes to access information already on the disc. Thus, DLC that is only several kilobytes is generally no good even if it is only a dollar. On the other hand, if extra content is a significant size that adds plenty of additional gameplay to the game then it is generally acceptable. Now whether it is worth playing is another question, but at least it shows that the developer put time into crafting the DLC.
One hotly contested topic is day one DLC, which is extra content that is released on the day that the physical copies hit store shelves. Many gamers fly into a rage at the announcement of day one DLC often arguing that the content should be on the disc, and they should not have to pay additional money on top of the price of the physical copy. That would be true in the case of unlock DLC, but if the DLC is large then that generally signals that the content is something that could not be put on the disc. For a game to meet its release date, a copy of it must be certified and given the gold status. That means the manufactures can start producing disc to distribute around country and globe. This sometimes means that content a developer wanted to include on the disc, but cannot finish it in time to make the release date will be cut from the disc. Now that there is an easy means to distribute the content digitally, developers can continue to work on the content, finish and polish it then offer it to gamers.
Not even ten years ago, that was not possible, but games still cost roughly the same price or were even more expensive back then. In addition, no one is forcing anyone to buy DLC. There is still a choice, if gamers do not find DLC worth their money or do not agree with it philosophically then they can speak with their dollars and not buy it. If gamers as a whole found DLC so repugnant and did not buy it then there would not be any DLC, but it sells, so developers still produce it. While there are horror stories of early DLC that were nearly outright scams, it has gotten much better in the last few years as companies have learned what will fly and what is successful. Therefore, it makes the DLC that companies offer much more palatable.
If anything, DLC is interesting and good because it allows developers to utilize existing game assets to add additional story or extra content to a game, thus making them profitable even with higher production costs. While most games do not need additional story beats or alternate costumes, it is good to know that if something resonates with a gamer then there is a chance that they can purchase additional content for a small price without having to wait for a sequel (if one ever happens). That is the current present of DLC, but what is fascinating is what the future could offer. With the looming next generation of consoles, beginning with the WiiU this October, the future of DLC is open. While the current DLC that companies offer ranges from meh to great, it is all within the realm of the current game meaning that all DLC relates primarily to what has happened in the game proper. Taking the idea of using existing game assets, engines and builds and continuing the story is one aspect of DLC, but what about taking that idea and following tertiary characters in their own little game. The DLC game could break in tone from the original game and possibly even in gameplay. Say, for example, in Darksiders if they released DLC that follows Ulthane in his own story that has him doing a Cooking Mama type game where he serves hungry Hellguard angels in a bar at Anvil’s Ford. Alternatively, create a new character that has nothing to do with the original game but uses existing character models to create a small game that did not merits its own game for whatever reason. Effectively developers could create short stories using elements of the larger game. This may be unreasonable and most likely is unreasonable, but what if that is what DLC could be? That would certainly be worth ten dollars.
The success of games like Skylanders among younger gamers is what will change the attitude on DLC going forward because these kids are being raised on paying extra for content in games. Granted, this is in the clever guise of toys, but the Skylanders characters are DLC nonetheless. While older games decry any sort of DLC regardless of the proximity to a game’s release date, these younger gamers have no problem spending ten bucks on an extra character. It may be because it is not their money that they are spending, or may be because Toys for Bob figured out a way to make buying DLC palatable if there is a physical memento of that purchase, or maybe it is because kids just want to keep playing a game forever. Regardless of the reasons, these young kids are acclimating to paying for extra content and when they come of maturity and start spending their own income on games then developers and publishers will not have many issues selling them day one DLC that unlocks disc content. This is not to say that insidious DLC such as that is okay or letting developers off the hook for not putting sufficient content on retail releases, but simply a way of examining the way that gamers interact with games has changed. No longer is it simply “I bought the disc so I have the game” it is now, “I bought the disc, so now I have access to a complete enough game, but there will be extra content later that I may want to buy”. Therefore, the way gamers have to interact with games is changing, primarily due to advances in technology since it is easy to distribute content globally without the need to produce something, companies can continue development on games and offer that to gamers in the form of DLC. Whether gamers decide to purchase that content is up to them, but the production of DLC is not going to stop. In the end, is it that terrible to spend ten bucks on a lengthy DLC mission when gamers could be playing a game that costs them five times the amount of that to complete the basic story of the game?