The Merit of DLC

DLC: three letters that can stir a heated debate between gamers as quickly as health care reform can between politicians. It’s no secret downloadable content has been received with much ambivalence among the gaming community. On the one hand, it’s an easy way for publishers to siphon every penny it can from desperate consumers. On the other hand, it enables developers to continue providing top-notch content to its dedicated fanbase. But are either of these claims really valid? With the recent announcement of Game of the Year (GOTY) editions for Borderlands 2 and Halo 4, now seems as good a time as any to evaluate the merit of DLC in the gaming world.

Before even getting into DLC itself, let’s discuss the broader issue: corporate greed. Personally, I feel the term is tossed around a bit too liberally, but the public at large seems to have forgotten the purpose of all corporations is to turn a profit. “Corporate greed,” I feel, should only be used to describe extreme circumstances, such as illegal activity like denying employees overtime pay when they’re required to. Otherwise, it’s just business, whether poor or exceptional.

Given the purpose of any company is to profit, DLC is a natural evolution in a world where everything is going digital and products can be downloaded rather than sold at brick and mortar stores. The trouble in the past with turning profits on unlockable content for video games was that there was no way to release it without mass producing a new cartridge or disc. For obvious reasons, that just wouldn’t work, so publishers had to ensure developers put enough content into games to keep players invested in the games, thus providing a great value and urging more consumers to purchase their product.

borderlands 2 goty header

This is perhaps the biggest change from older generations to modern games. Look at Borderlands 2. It released last year with a main quest (and a hefty dose of optional missions to complete along the way) and four playable characters. Since then, it has released four playable DLC packs, introducing new areas and missions, multiple enhancements such as an increase in level caps, and has released two new playable characters. These are all available via purchase only, and most all of it will be included in the Borderlands 2 GOTY edition.

I cannot speak for any other gamers, but I have refrained from purchasing Borderlands 2 specifically because I suspected they would release a GOTY edition as they had with the original. Seeing how much more content I received by purchasing the former’s GOTY edition, I opted to hold off on Borderlands 2 in lieu of dropping $60 for the main game, then forking over additional sums for the myriad DLC packs. The value provided in the GOTY edition is simply far greater than what the original release offers, so much so that I almost feel as though I’m being ripped off for buying the game early.

Now, take an older game like Goldeneye 007 (the original Nintendo 64 release, not its current gen reimagining). The revolutionary first-person shooter offered unlockables such as a fourth difficulty level, two non-story-based levels, cheats, and maps and characters in multiplayer. Compare that to modern shooters: the supplementary levels are offered in the form of paid DLC, as are the characters. In Call of Duty, additional multiplayer maps must also be purchased. In short, the old “play to unlock” formula has been altered to “pay to unlock.”

Goldeney 007 level unlock

Is this a bad thing? In some ways, yes. Many publishers are notorious for nickel and diming their consumers by practically forcing them to purchase DLC to even receive a full gameplay experience (EA is a frequent target of ridicule). This is where that “corporate greed” term might apply. Why should consumers have to shell out extra money just to get an experience that should already be included?

Still, the fact remains that not all companies are looking to make a quick buck. Take Irrational Games. Their latest endeavor, BioShock Infinite, offered players a complete, mind-blowing experience, all for the standard price of $60.  The DLC for the game is entirely superfluous for a complete experience, and is really just icing on the cake. The first piece is a non-story combat DLC that allows players to earn money and unlock character models, music, and the like—things unrelated to gameplay that provide something a developer wouldn’t normally offer in a game. The next two DLC packs Irrational intends to release tell a different story that is largely unrelated to the game and certainly not required to fully enjoy the main game.

Furthermore, consider how long it would take to release a game if they crammed in all the planned DLC and released it as a single package. Development cycles are typically longer than they used to be, due partially to the amount of work it takes to program more detailed environments (for example, programming a single car in a level on Call of Duty takes longer than programming an entire level on a 16-bit system). Many gamers already pitch hissy fits about release delays; imagine how bad it would be if they waited until they could release all the DLC with the game (apparently about a year, using Borderlands 2 and Halo 4 as archetypes).

EA Mario Zelda

For many, DLC will either be accepted or rejected no matter what. Some love the extra content (and apparently forget how extra content was handled in previous generations), while others think all DLC is a ripoff and refuse to indulge publishers. Of course, everyone is entitled to do as they please with their money, but it’s really how the company handles DLC that dictates its merit. Some, like Irrational Games, took the appropriate measures to ensure consumers were getting a full product with the main game. The DLC is just for those who loved the game so much that they want more. Other companies purposely withhold content that is integral for experiencing the game as it is meant to be; these are usually the companies who release day-one DLC and include DLC on a disc but lock it so gamers can’t access it without a code.

Despite what gaming companies do, DLC serves one real purpose to the consumer: provide something to look forward to after s/he has completed the game. Perhaps developers should revert to the “play to unlock” model, but it’s simply not as profitable. But for a company to earn my money on DLC, it has to be something worth buying and not something that should have been included in the first place. That’s why I held off on buying Borderlands 2, and why games like that will never earn my purchase until they release the whole package.