As developers find themselves wedged between the limitations of physical media and the lack of widespread popularity of digital distribution, the ability to expand upon released games through downloadable content is becoming more and more important to a game's continued success. However, despite the snowballing popularity of add-ons and expansions, the quality of the downloads available to players is wildly variant in quality and relevance. I'd like to highlight a few ways I believe DLC is being well handled, as well as pointing out a few areas that are proving detrimental to the format.
When it comes to multiplayer games, it is admittedly a great deal easier to give fans something they want. First person shooters allow plenty of room for new map packs, weapon loadouts, or variations on versus modes, be they cloned from other successful games or developed originally to tie in with a game's gestalt. Because of this, I won't be addressing the multiplayer side of things to any great extent.
Single-player expansion, however, is a much more complicated realm, and deserves a closer look. The core of a single-player experience tends to lie firmly in the realm of story-driven narrative, and because of this, demands that continuations of that experience include a similar narrative to make them appealing and worthwhile to play. This seems to be catching on with many developers, but at the same time, mistakes are being made.
One great example of a game with good solo mode add-ons is Borderlands. With three expansions to date, and more promised despite the widespread assumption of a forthcoming sequel, Gearbox has managed to keep its fans happy while still introducing new characters, story elements, and gameplay concepts. While the expansions each have smatterings of problems, some of which actually stem
from the carryover of existing gameplay, the DLC in Borderlands consistently makes it a point to not stray too far from the familiar while bringing in the fresh.
The Zombie Island of Doctor Ned, for example, takes place in an area that is revealed to be the source of the lumber that goes into making Jakobs firearms, which most players should be familiar with by the time they get there. The Underdome, while not immediately geographically relevant, is revealed early on to be a joint venture between Mad Moxxi and her former lover, Marcus Kincaid. And, while T-Bone Junction and its environs are a completely new area to explore in Secret Armory Of General Knoxx, one can see the top of the Underdome upon first visiting Moxxi's Red Light, thus placing both a bit more firmly in the Pandora the player knows and, hopefully, loves. Characters return in various fashions in all of the Borderlands expansions, but are worked firmly into events rather than just popping in as a cameo, with a wink and a wave, before disappearing.
Bioware seems to be putting a similar amount of thought into their expansions for Dragon Age: Origins, if a bit more haltingly. Return To Ostagar was an interesting way of visiting the backstory of the deceased King Cailan, but Cailan himself wasn't the most exploration-worthy character in the first place. The forthcoming "Awakening" expansion seems more promising, with its own story and characters tied in, so hopefully, some lessons were learned.
Bring Down The Sky, Bioware's first shot at DLC for the original Mass Effect, was another good attempt with some shortcomings, namely the inability to play it in an existing saved game after a certain point. Despite this, and the adventure's relative lack of impact on the game's story, events that transpire (or fail to transpire, for players who do not complete or even play the content) still get nods, similar to those given Mass Effect's main story events, in Mass Effect 2. That, and it showed some strong attempts to be creative with existing game assets, most of which succeeded. Between the Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises, Bioware looks set to produce some stunning post-release content in the next year or two.
Also of note is Criterion's handling of Burnout Paradise's expansions. While not particularly story-driven at all, both the free and pay-to-play content did an amazing job of widening the scope of the Burnout Paradise world, without proving jarring in its integration. All of the later-edition cars, and the addition of motorcycles, were kept from being game-breaking, the latter getting their own sets of challenges for players looking for something new. Big Surf Island, an entire additional area devoted to stunt driving, fit the existing motif by tying into the already well-known Big Surf section of the city, despite being all-new, making it much easier to accept and enjoy for long-time fans.
While GTA IV bored me rather quickly, Rockstar still managed to crank out two sizable, self-contained follow-up episodes for the game. Both The Lost And The Damned
and The Ballad Of Gay Tony
introduced new storylines to the familiar world of Liberty City, while managing to cross over and expand upon what players had already experienced in a rich, well-concieved manner.
Valve, it goes without saying, has done a wonderful job of following up on its big titles. Half-life 2 alone is already two huge episodes deep into DLC territory, with a third ep promised and leaving fans salivating, some would say overlong. Left 4 Dead got a new campaign to slaughter through, as well as two campaign-only levels getting versus mode treatments. Similar content is already on the way for its sequel, including a matched pair of missions for both games that cross over with one another and shed some light on the infected world as a whole. Team Fortress 2 has gotten piles of updates over its lifetime, with all sorts of new gear to wear and equipment to play with for all the character classes.
Even Phantasy Star Universe, while not that great a game, did fans quite a service with the Ambition Of The Illuminus add-on. Not only did it continue the original game's story with new characters, and your own, online character in the spotlight rather than that douchehat, Ethan Waber, but it did so for two extensive story arcs, with plenty of story-expanding sidequests and alternate mission outcomes on top of that. Sega and Sonic Team managed to keep the game barely worth playing for a good two years, which is pretty good considering how much it's possible to polish a turd.
All of the above crews should be applauded for continually supporting their games' DLC, which is another critical element to the success of the medium. Bioshock, for instance, promised DLC following the game's release, but 2K produced little more than some mediocre, albeit interesting, plasmids, and the opportunity to challenge the game without vita-chambers to rely upon. At best, this resulted in one more playthrough for devotees, most of which were probably done after going through one time apiece for each of the endings. The Jedi Temple download for The Force Unleashed was similarly disappointing, being an overpriced, throwaway mission. Cheap cash-ins like this, especially when followed by abandonment of the fanbase, mar the image of downloadable content in general, and fortunately seem to be becoming less and less common. At the very least, the practice seems to be limited to a mere handful of content producers.
Just as sloppy as quick-buck-and-run DLC is the occasional release of "director's cut" material following a game hitting the shelves, as it typically screams, "We rushed this game and should have been able to fit this on the disc." The most egregious, recent example I can think of this behavior is Assassin's Creed II, which features downloadable extensions Ubisoft openly admitted
it had intended for the retail release. Had I purchased ACII at full price (or at all), I would be more than a little miffed upon being told I'd purchased an unfinished game, and that I'd have to spend more
to get the rest of it. A respectable studio would've pushed the game back a month or two to actually finish it, offered the game at a lower retail price, or offered the extra content for free, be it openly so or obtainable with codes included in new copies of the game. Rock Band 2 managed to do quite well by offering a sizable download pack a couple months after the game's release via the latter method, and a similar, if less extensive, tie-in was worked into Dragon Age: Origins in the form of a bonus suit of armor usable in both DA:O and Mass Effect 2.
Even more sinister, and seemingly popular with Namco Bandai, is the pay-to-unlock strategy, wherein the customer pays money to download a file that opens up content already available on the game disc
. The earliest example I can recall, at least in this generation, were the extra level packs in Beautiful Katamari. Sure, the game itself was initially retailed at a relative bargain price, but paying for the keys to unlock the full game ended up costing a bit more than a $60, fully unlocked title would have set you back. Another affront, again by Namco, was the "console exclusive" Star Wars character nonsense in Soul Calibur IV. It worked with Soul Calibur II, given the actual exclusivity of Link, Heihachi, and Spawn to their respective console versions, but merely waiting to charge people for a character that obviously had a roster slot, and therefore data already on the game disc, was completely untoward. It's fine to offer a lazy way out for those who don't want to spend time unlocking modes and characters through legitimate gameplay, but making paying extra the only way to acquire disc-bound content is an insult.
Thankfully, these less than savory tactics seem to be on the decline, as more reviewers and players call the culprits out on such shenanigans. More and more companies are putting out well-conceived, thoroughly developed expansions for their titles, and certain developers are toying with the idea of more persistent content that works with multiple titles, such as the downloadable and exportable songs for the Rock Band series and more recent iterations of Guitar/Band/whatever Hero. Things are looking bright in the realm of downloadable content, and while digital distribution may be much closer a reality for PCs, digital extension seems to be doing a great job overall of bridging the gap between physical and digital media for consoles.
In all honesty, getting to force choke Xianghua was almost worth the money. Almost.