DLC: A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

I reviewed Evolve  recently and my thoughts started to swirl around the controversial DLC choices that plagued the game’s release. Gamers were asked to pay a ridiculous amount of money for extra content coupled with the already steep $60-$100 priced tag for the game itself. It caused quite a commotion among the gaming community as virtual pitchforks were gathered and a torrent of protesting players raised their torches, but this is nothing new to the current pricing structure of many AAA games. In fact, since DLC started to rise in popularity, there have been many examples of questionable DLC practices, including the Call of Duty franchise, Street Fighter X Tekken‘s content keys, and Metro: Last Light’s ludicrous extra content. Publishers have made it a point to say that this is the new standard and it’s here to stay.

Buying difficulty settings? Next they'll want me to buy the UI...

Buying difficulty settings? Next they’ll want me to buy the UI…

And with that declaration, it seems DLC has become more and more synonymous with lazy development and/or corporate greed with every major scandal. It’s gotten to the point where whenever a retailer mentions “pre-order bonus” or “season pass”, most gamers will cry out “start the witch hunts” almost reflexively. But these extra add-ons aren’t so black and white. It’s the main reason why I wanted to write this article, because I believe there is currently a misconstrued link between DLC as a form of content and DLC as a business model in the gaming community. I know this is pretty common sense and that there are many successful examples of DLC that are great business-wise and content-wise, but I think it’s important to understand that DLC, when done right, is beneficial to gamers and why a majority of DLC isn’t as harmful to the gamers as is the popular belief.

This is an expansive topic so,  for the uninitiated, I’m going to break down what exactly DLC is and how it’s classified. DLC stands for downloadable content and it refers to any extra, purchasable content that is made available at or after a game’s commercial release. Community created content, expansion packs and microtransactions are considered separate beasts even though certain elements tend to overlap; the reason I don’t include expansions as DLC is because DLC is more for individual content while expansions are usually large extensions of a game with mechanics being added in. From here, DLC is divided into two overarching categories: cosmetic DLC and gameplay DLC. The former is pretty self-explanatory by its name alone, but what exactly does the latter include? Gameplay DLC can range anywhere from guns to characters to in-game boosts; it includes any form of DLC that affects the gameplay itself by adding more tools for the player to use on a mechanical level.

Call of Duty is the strange amalgamation of both.

Call of Duty is the strange amalgamation of both.

So businesses want to create DLC that will supplement their games and they want to charge customers for their time and labor. That’s perfectly fine and it’s the basic principle of the rational economic exchange, but it’s also where the controversial side of DLC is introduced into the equation. Many publishing companies have been accused of trying to cheat customers out of their hard earned cash by overpricing or undercutting the consumer when it comes to how “additional” content is handled. And here’s where DLC becomes tricky. Additional content, just like any other product, is a contest of values — the publisher tries to tie a monetary amount to the perceived value of their product while the consumer does the same. Greed and expectation will surely interfere with this evaluation, as will the base product’s reputation, but this is where the controversy stems from.

Evolve, being the main case study here, is a perfect example; 2K Games not only charged the previously mentioned amount for the initial release, but is also asking for up to $130 total for all the additional DLC announced that didn’t come with the most expensive package (split up into convenient bundles of course). This includes skins, characters, maps, monsters and gameplay modes. Gamers were outraged at the shocking amount of extra content and their prices, compounded by the fact that a lot of this DLC was already completed and was being withheld from the game’s completed build just to suck more money from those who already bought the game at MSRP (Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price). It’s underhanded and dubious to be sure, but what cases like Evolve end up doing is becoming a “rotten apple” and spoiling the concept of DLC’s as a whole.

Woo! A small portion of free stuff!

Woo! A small portion of free stuff!

“But, but if Evolve or Call of Duty are allowed to continue this kind of behavior, then gaming will eventually become bogged down in $100 purchases and incomplete games.” That’s an argument I’ve heard way too many times: the slippery slope. Maybe it’s just because I tend to lean on the more optimistic side of the spectrum, but until a majority of games are representative of this, I believe creative and business integrity will still remain in some form and persist. It’s one of the reasons why I believe the backlash against cosmetic DLC is a moot point. It’s purely for vanity’s sake and does not affect the gameplay in the slightest; skins and the like are optional and though it may at times feel at times like a publisher is extorting your money by holding your love of a game hostage, if you don’t enjoy the skins, then don’t purchase them. One particular instance that sticks out in my mind is when Final Fantasy XIV introduced their cash shop. Players were outraged that a cosmetic store was opened as the producer promised there would be no RC purchases. However, it is completely filled with vanity items. Whether it’s indicative of a developer disfiguring their game later on by selling game altering DLC is something time and your wallet will tell. This just applies to cosmetic DLC though; gameplay DLC is a different story.

Remember this gal? Doesn't seem too bad now does she?

Remember this gal? Doesn’t seem too bad now does she?

Some of my favorite experiences from games came in the form of DLC, especially when it came to storyline expansions and interesting new approaches to certain pre-built mechanics. Games like Dragon AgeMass Effect, Bioshock, Sleeping Dogs, GTA and the Total War series offered incredible continuations to their campaigns because the developers enjoyed their universe and wanted to expand on it. For those games we just can’t get enough of, DLC takes us back into the fray of our beloved characters and their dramatic revelations. These examples were priced well for their release and gamers and critics alike celebrated in their distribution as it allowed the story to go on into incredible tangents. And this doesn’t just apply to storyline DLC alone; there are some games that are made better by the inclusion of guns, maps and characters as they add to the overall complexity of the game without completely breaking it. Saints Row IV comes to mind with their Patriotic and Dubstep DLC packs; those weapons and skins compounded the silliness of the game and were a delight to experience.

Kasumi ended up being of my favorites.

Kasumi ended up being one of my favorites.

This is why DLC exists and why it should be nurtured as the gaming industry moves forward. Sure, politics and producers will inevitably veer the original purpose of DLC off course, but they must remember that if the content is great and it matches or exceeds our expectation, then we’ll be willing to pick it up at a reasonable price. DLC business practices might falter here and there, but the concept of DLC as an extension of an enjoyable series must not be overlooked. Like with most things in life, it’s all about moderation. There is always going to be a scandal about corporate greed interfering with good DLC or a developer who just ships add-on after add-on with only money signs for eyes; on the flip side, there’s also going to be DLC packs that hit its audience with a price and quality that is so excellent in its delivery that it becomes as notable as the base game.

Now, at the end of these sorts of arguments, there’s usually the cliché rally cry, “vote with your wallet.” While I do agree with this statement, I do so to a certain degree; I know as a gamer, it’s never that simple. Developers and publishers are usually two separate entities and one tainting the other is a very common occurrence in this medium. Case in point, Electronic Art’s business practices as a publisher usually lean on the side of being questionable at best, yet I thoroughly enjoy Bioware’s titles. In my opinion, sometimes the value of a product justifies the purchase despite the knowledge of who is involved in making it. So, instead of giving the flat response of “vote with your wallet”, I would instead say do the research on a game coming out and its DLC. I’t nothing profound or even particularly eye-opening, but sound advice is still a pretty good bet. Critics — and yes, this is a shameless plug — can help gamers if they’re on the fence, but as with any criticism, it should be measured against your own values. If you think the game’s worth your time and money, go for it and then if you enjoy it, maybe the DLC can help further that enjoyment along another couple of hours.

(If you want a great satire on the current nature of DLC’s in the gaming industry, check out a game titled DLC Quest. Also, if there’s anything I didn’t touch on in the article or if you want to ask a question/reply, leave a comment down below! I would really appreciate it and I’m always glad to discuss video games.)

Written and edited by Tim Atwood

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