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The Dark Side of DLC

Downloadable content is sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we get things like the Shivering Isles. On the other hand, we also get stuck with things like Horse Armour. Whilst it can be used as a means to add even more content to a complete experience, there is a dark side to DLC. There are those who would corrupt it and exploit this just to make a quick buck, at the cost of quality.

Let's use Dead Space 3 as an example. There is no hint of originality to its add-on content. I don't mean it's artistically bankrupt; it just completely lacks anything of substance to help differentiate it from the core experience. I'm fine with costume packs and such, so long as they're priced properly. However, every single downloadable weapon and suit is a re-skin of the ones in the game. Its story DLC, Awakened, contains no new environments, no additional weapons or suits, and a few re-skinned enemies. It exudes laziness from its every pore.

Then of course, you have microtransactions and "time saver packs". Apologists may defend these and say they're harmless because "you don't have to buy them", but I'd say that'd be missing the bigger picture. Certain harmless aesthetic options are fine in my book, but it's the pay-to-win scheme that irks me. Defenders of such a strategy will tell you that you don't have to buy these add-ons, and this is true. However, my beef with them isn't that I feel pressured to buy them, but rather that they are essentially taking away from the core experience. Paying real money to add in-game money is about as stupid as it sounds, really.

However, it's when you stop and consider what this really is, it's really quite underhanded. We don't need the Xbox Live Marketplace to do this; it's called a cheat code. Remember those? The little codes that were in the actual game that did this exact same thing? In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, you had a cheat code for everything: more money, more health, faster advancement through the game, etc. These things saved you time. This same concept has since been stripped from games and rebranded as "time saver packs", "epic resource packs", and "microtransactions". These things are marketed as something to give an extra edge towards players, but that's just bullshit. I love the idea of cheat codes. Not everyone has the time or is willing to do everything in a game. That's fine; that's their prerogative. However, players shouldn't forget that this used to simply be a part of game. Cheat codes simply manipulate the game in such a way that it makes the game easier or more fun. This very same concept is now being sold to us under a different name. However, no amount of marketing shtick can cover up what it really is. The most egregious example of this Capcom's "GameBreaker DLC" for Dead Rising 2: Off the Record. It's almost as absurd in its usage of downloadable content as DLC Quest... only one is a parody.

If all the content in the downloadable is already in the game, what are you really downloading? If nothing is actually added, how can it be called an add-on?

This of course speaks to a larger problem with downloadable content. Adding "more of the same" DLC isn't just lazy and dishonest. It serves as a replacement for real add-ons of substance. Instead of giving us something new and exciting, publishers like EA are fine with just adding a new coat of paint and calling an old car new. Instead of releasing something genuinely new and interesting like Shivering Isles (which I shall forever hold as my DLC high water mark), developers settle for half-baked add-ons.

What's worse however, is when the core experience itself is forced to compromise it's content in order to make way for add-ons. I'm tired of seeing games short on content with add-ons that feel cleaved straight from the game. Stop and think about some of the more recently released games. When a game tries to make up for a lack of variety through paid content you have to download, you know something is wrong. Instead of making a great game and adding more, publishers strong arm the player into buying what they cleaved out of the original experience, just so they can feel justified in their original purchase.

This lends itself to the backwards mentality that players should be punished, and not rewarded. Instead of rewarding players with nonessential extras as a way of thanking the player, companies will instead punish them by holding back content and giving them an incomplete experience. Now, at first glance, this might seem like the same thing, but it isn't. The difference is in the details. When you're game feels complete, and your add-on is just even more icing on the cake, you're doing it right. When it feels like the content was already part of the game to begin with, or you feel you aren't getting the whole picture-the complete experience-without it, you're doing it wrong. Proper DLC shouldn't feel like the missing 10% to your game's 90%; it should make you feel like you're getting 110%.

Let's look at some examples. Games like Rage and Borderlands 2 give you extra goodies for pre-ordering. Games like Uncharted 3 and Dead Space 3 block off entire parts of the game, restricting your access to certain features. Either way you look at it, you are being denied content. However, with the former two examples, you aren't being punished; you're being incentivised. When you have to hold half the game to ransom, players will either not buy it at all out of spite, or buy it begrudgingly. Both are bad, and cause developers to lose goodwill with consumers.

With the advent of the online pass, it's becoming extremely commonplace to punish instead of incentivise. These take what's already in the game, restrict the player's access to it, then market it as if it were an add-on, forcing players to actually pay more without adding anything or changing the core experience at all. Some try to alleviate this by bundling it with extra goodies, but this is only getting it half right. Publishers need to drop the "online pass" aspect and stick with the extras. Instead of forcing me to buy new or pay extra to play with a friend, reward the player for doing so by just giving them those extra bits of DLC. Encourage them with positive reinforcement, not strong arm tactics!

Look, I don't hate DLC and I don't want it to go away, either. I want it to get better. Like so many other corrupted ideas, downloadable content is just a misused tool that can be used for good. I don't mind buying a few extra costumes for Borderlands 2 months after release. I think it's really neat that developers can continue to support games, giving them a longer life cycle. I don't mind that we get little throwaway things like costume packs and extra vehicles, so long as they're priced appropriately. The Zodiac Tournament DLC for Sleeping Dogs gives me customisation items, missions, and a new area to explore, all for the same price (five dollars) as Dead Space 3's re-skinned outfit and gun packs. At the same time, that same game gets away with selling Awakened for $10, which is less than two hours of backtracking through the same places you backtracked through in the main game. Undead Nightmare costs $10, and for that, you get a brand new campaign that completely alters the game's dynamic and world, along with a bunch of new content. A Call of Duty map pack gives you maybe a third of that content for an extra third of the price. It's bad enough that are games are being made worse as a result of these add-ons, why do they have to suck and be poorly priced as well?

As the quality of add-ons suffer, so too do the core experiences. Stripping away content from your game and selling it as DLC is the video game equivalent of a bartender watering down their drinks. You might make more money in the short-term, but people will eventually go elsewhere, and you’ll lose money in the long run.
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About Kenneth Cummingsone of us since 5:17 AM on 03.22.2013

My name is Ken. I have a deep passion for art and storytelling, video games in particular. You can follow me on Twitter here: