The DLC Issue: A History of Add-on Content

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How DLC all started…

Throughout the history of video games, people have wanted more of the really good ones. Originally the only way to get more of a game was in a sequel. Pacman had such demand for more that they made Ms. Pacman. Multiple Mario games, several Zelda games, and even into the 90s with the Rayman series, the only practical way was to make a whole new game.
But with the rise of more stable base engines, and more powerful systems, many games could be expanded upon. Before DLC, these were called ‘expansion packs’.

Expansion DLC C&C
C&C 3 and it’s Expansion, Kane’s Wrath

You would typically buy an expansion pack in the form of a physical disc, in a case, in a store. I remember especially the Command & Conquer and Red Alert series’ and their incredible expansions. The developers made these often full campaign expansions on the same engine as the base game. Which allowed them to tell a new story without having to build a new engine from scratch.
Thanks to this, the players got more of what they wanted (game) and the company got more of what it wanted (money). It was a good relationship at the time.

But, like any abusive relationship…

Like an abusive marriage, which rarely starts out that way, eventually the side with the most power starts making more demands. In this case the industry has taken a position of power. The DLC problem really started with the first paid DLC from Microsoft’s game division. The one though that really shed light on the potential for abuse was Bethesda’s most famous nonsense: Horse Armour.

DLC Oblivion horse armor armour
Elven style Horse Armour from the DLC for Oblivion

For the low (but still just not worth it) price of $2.50 USD, you could purchase a set of virtual barding for your horse in Oblivion. Bethesda seems not to have learned from this, which we’ll get into later. Ever since that, the marketplace for DLC has expanded dramatically, containing both good and bad DLC.
For the sake of clarity, what I and most gamers define as ‘Good DLC’, is a piece of content that adds real value to the game. A prime example is ‘story content’, such as Old World Blues for Fallout: New Vegas. Rockstar has been steadily releasing story DLC for GTA Online since its’ release, and have not had many complaints about them.
On the other side, a ‘Bad DLC’ is something that is either completely pointless, too expensive, or both. Nobody wants to spend real money on a virtual object that serves no purpose.

Modern DLC

In the modern day the marketplace seems to have vastly more useless paid content than good DLC. Getting back to Bethesda for a moment, the Creation Club is an even more egregious assault on our wallets. Cashing in on the popularity of independently made mods, the CC accepts money in exchange for community made content. While this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, the fact that most of it is actually worse than what’s freely available makes it pointless.

DLC mods Nexus free game mods
Front page of the new Nexus Mods

Putting aside the CC, the increase in officially produced expensive garbage is more of a problem, being industry wide. Bethesda is not the worst offender here. The trophy for that shame belongs squarely on the desks of EA’s Executive Branch. In fact I think I’ll make those trophies, and you can download them for $50 each.
In addition to the glut of useless crap you can buy for large amounts of money, they have a line of unlockable little things. This massive collection of unlockables is often already there in your hard drive when you install the game. You pay money to use things that are already there. While this function has been around in various games for years, in the past they’ve been purely aesthetic, or at the least, non-essential. The skins available on a MOBA like LoL are a good example. The skins make the game more visually interesting, but don’t have any measurable impact on the difficulty.
EA’s latest work with unlockables, including but not limited to Loot Boxes, is actually specifically designed to do the opposite. The microtransaction system announced for EA Sports UFC 3 was designed with purchasable moves and boosts. One could purchase these, use them, and win against a player who hadn’t invested the money in such things. This is known as ‘pay to win’ gameplay, no matter what obscurantism EA tries to hide behind.

Gambling

Just as everyone’s forgotten about the unstructured gambling with CS:GO items on Steam, now we’ve got a different kind. Random contents in Loot Boxes are gambling in a similar way to a scratch ticket you get in a corner store. Except that you have no chance of getting money back by ‘winning’, and you always get ‘something’.
The question about whether this is legitimately a form of gambling comes down to whether it has the same addictive properties of a typical lottery. Even the simplest, or least exciting form of gambling can become addictive. And as a result of that it ruins lives when people spend all their money on it. I’ve not heard of anyone being financially ruined by loot boxes or DLC yet. But there have been a few people who’ve famously purchased every add-on for a few games.
This also raises concerns about whether the business model of Blizzard’s WoW counts as gambling. I personally know people who have had it from the beginning, spent the monthly fees, and bought every expansion. It’s certainly addictive, but is it gambling?

Money

So now that everyone is on the same page about the fact that this is going on, we have to ask why. And ask we have. The fans are revolting! But no, seriously, we’ve asked many members of the industry about this. They all seem to make the excuse of having to make more money. Certainly the cost of making a video game has gone up since the early days, and we know they have to turn a profit to develop new stuff.
That said, the excuse that they have to keep charging their customers money for every game, forever, is complete nonsense. Furthermore the idea that anyone unable to afford to participate in such a system doesn’t deserve to enjoy the game is just mean. This kind of ‘punishing people for being poor’ is actually a sure indication that these companies are making paaaalleeennnttyyy of money.

DLC burger meme
Welcome to DLC Burger, can I take your money please?

If they were truly desperate for money they wouldn’t be robbing their customers. The smart ones would be participating in crowd-funding initiatives. Or they would have better product sponsorships. Generally speaking, if the larger studios were dealing with the financial situations common in the Indie scene, they would be emulating the Indie scene.

Independence

Speaking of the Indie game scene, we may not even need the big studios anyway. Over the last few years the Indie market has put out almost as many games as the big studios. Most of these games have been heralded as being impressive and innovative. In the meantime the mainstream producers have had a slew of complaints, many completely valid and obvious.
Now of course the Indie scene isn’t pure gold, but neither is the mainstream. The fact remains that the Indie studios are putting out quality content that people want to play.
So do we need the big studios anymore? Well, in a way. Many of the more complex Indie games are built on engines made by big studios for their own games. That said, if the engine is the only part of a game with lasting value, you’ve made a bad game.
As I’ve previously discussed, Fallout 4 was a great platform, but the Vanilla game left much to be desired. If you consider the modding community to be crowdsourced content creation, a fully modded Fallout 4 might be considered an indie game. Some even go so far as to completely abandon the story and the timeline and make a whole new experience.
The true strength of the Indie scene is that the creators are gamers themselves, making games they want to play. They are truly artists in the literal sense. And in the case of crowdfunded projects like Yooka-Laylee, they create games directly for their customers, following their guidance.

Solutions then?

The most obvious solution is for game developers to pay attention to the customers. They already have market analysts of course, but copying what makes money is an incomplete system. In a restaurant, you make the food, and the food makes the money. If a restaurateur spends all his time thinking about how to make money, he’ll neglect the food and he won’t make a dime.
You make what the customer wants and they’ll buy it. In the case of Yooka-Laylee, the game wasn’t a huge commercial success. But among the people who contributed to the crowdfunding campaign, for the most part they got exactly the game they wanted to get. It’s important, I think, to realise and accept that there is no universal game. Everybody likes different things and you have to make what they’ll want.
If you’re worried about losing money on a huge project because people may not buy it, maybe it’s not worth doing. Whatever the case, we the gaming community would appreciate if you cut it out with the extortion racket. Making people pay for a game over and over forever is a terrible business model. It WILL blow up in your faces eventually.
If you enjoyed this, have a read of our article ‘The Five Worst Trends in Modern Gaming‘.

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