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DLC: The Downside

So I've had a go at Transformers: War for Cybertron, and I love it. It's tight, versatile, fun, and the first game ever where I want to melee someone when I also have the option to shoot them (this includes games which revolve around melee). Kudos to High Moon for making what is, in essence, a bloody brilliant game. I'm almost certainly going to buy it, and I'm looking forward to having a shot at the multiplayer.

But hang on. It only has six PvP maps?

Unreal Tournament 3 has 15-or-so deathmatch maps and 30, 40, possibly even more, for the other game modes combined. Granted, I don't actually like most of them, but still. UT2004 has over a hundred in total, plus another, oh, well over fifty and possibly over another hundred in Community Bonus Packs, ChaosUT maps and other random downloads. My UT2004 install is actually so bloated with mods I acquired on whims that it weighs in at over twelve gigabytes (original size: about five and a half). While I hate to go all "in my day", it seems that you got a lot more content for your purchase in the past.

You see before you the greatest multiplayer map ever made.

Now. I'm sure TWfC's maps are big, beautiful and well-designed, like the single-player ones. In fact, Cybertron is fantastically brought to life in the game, but that's not the point I'm trying to make. Several modern (and rather interesting) games, such as Modern Warfare 2, have short singleplayer campaigns in favour of selling themselves as multiplayer experiences, and with the way multiplayer is presented today, I find myself somewhat put off. The advent of DLC has left me notably shaky about buying modern games for their multiplayer components, especially when I already have the entire Unreal series and TF2.

TF2 is the model multiplayer game, isn't it? Constantly tweaked and expanded by its parent company, well-loved to an almost meme-like degree within the gaming community, instantly recognisable and an absolute blast to play. It's also very cheap, considering the sheer amount of content you get for the price. With games like this in existence, never mind sitting on my hard drive, it's hard to countenance the idea of buying a game at 30 - or even using my normal tactic of waiting until I find it on sale or preowned and picking it up for 10-15 - and then paying extra (probably about a fiver) for every couple of new maps and characters they release.

DLC delivered this way has a couple of problems. The obvious one is that the game becomes less and less justifiable as a purchase. Getting the most out of it requires spending more money over time, almost like a subscription. I'm not personally bothered about additional character models, and balance changes can be implemented via patches. In my opinion, the most important thing required to keep a multiplayer game fresh and interesting is a healthy supply of maps, whether that's by introduction of new ones over time or massive variety in the game itself.

A picture of something I mentioned earlier to break up the text. Oddly, the bit they're standing in seems shaped like the back corner of Reflection from UT3.

A small digression to emphasise the point. Map design is everything in multiplayer, whether it's tactical control point combat or simple deathmatching. Not only is it difficult - it has to complement the playstyle and weapon balance of the game, as well as providing an interesting and reasonably varied combat experience - but the replayability of a game hinges mightily on how good its maps are, and their number. For example, I don't play UT3 that often because I don't like its maps that much, even though it has the best feel, weapon balance and graphics of the series. If a game only has six maps but they're all fantastic, it might well survive, but a 100% awesome map rate isn't particularly likely. On top of that, of course, it helps to have a variety of maps simply so that people don't learn them all inside-out within ten hours of play, which makes the learning curve steeper for other players who join the game further down the line.

This isn't a problem at all if the DLC is free. Putting huge effort into supplementing a game's single-player with a vast variety of multiplayer maps pre-release is only going to waste money and time if the game doesn't take off too well. It also helps earn goodwill for the publishers/developers involved, and can help generate more sales of the original game in future. It can, however, raise worries of funding for the work it takes to make this content, and that of course is where the idea of paid DLC comes in.

Returning to my original point, then, paying for a game in full knowledge that you'll be expected to pay more in order to make the game continue to be interesting feels, for me, a little like I'm being cheated. I think Dragon Age had this problem particularly badly, where an NPC would offer you a quest that you couldn't actually take on unless you paid EA a fiver. That's not only irritating and unfair, it's an immersion-breaker to boot. For shame.

Look, see? Penny Arcade (and everyone else) agree with me.

Another, perhaps subtler, problem with paid DLC is that it runs a risk of dividing the community somewhat. Depending on the game's matchmaking system, the idea that some people might not be able to participate in other people's games (and vice versa, if they've bought different DLC packs) or join certain servers is a bit offputting. In a system where players host single matches rather than playing on servers, for the few days immediately following a DLC release, it's going to be difficult for those who didn't buy the packs to find games on the original maps, as everyone's trying out the new ones. In a free content model, this doesn't apply at all, as everybody's going to get the new stuff.

Perhaps the worst kind of paid DLC is that which allows players to gain advantages over opponents, by granting new and superior abilities or weaponry. I don't know of any specific examples of this happening, but I can foresee it. This sort of thing tends to upset everybody who didn't buy the overpowered stuff, and can turn a community sour quite easily. Microtransaction-powered MMOs can fall into the same trap, too.

It's a shame, really. You can certainly see why paid DLC exists, and can't really fault the developers for creating it; they have to make money somehow, after all, and they still have to get paid even when they're making free content. For a smaller, publisher-dependent developer (i.e. not Valve), it may be the only real option, especially in today's recession. But it does have a lot of downsides, and I personally would be a lot happier about plunking down a significant amount of money on a game with a pretty short single-player and a new, yet-to-be-expanded multiplayer experience if I knew that I wouldn't have to pay for it to be expanded either.
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About Son of Makutaone of us since 4:02 PM on 04.07.2010

Salutations! Name's Adam. I live in Oxford, I'm about to stop being a student, and I've just started writing for www.gigagamers.com (join us!). I play all sorts of games, with FPSs being perhaps my favourite genre. (Perhaps.) I have a pretty awesome gaming laptop and an Xbox 360, and I'm kind of eyeing up the PS Vita, although I recently bought a bass, so I probably ought not to splash out another load of money...
Steam ID:nickj01


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