Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Problems with Downloadable Content

Downloadable content and the perceived perceptions of it are generating quite a lot of press at the moment, especially those that are ready to be downloaded the first day of a game's release. First BioWare caused uproar by daring to have a Mass Effect 3 squad member that fully integrated into the game, then Capcom offered twelve characters for Street Fighter x Tekken that were already on the disk.

For some gamers these are basically the same thing. “We're having to pay for something we should have gotten for free!” is the comment most seen in news stories. As far as I'm concerned they are polar opposites.

Capcom's trick with Street Fighter x Tekken is an interesting one. That was finished and on the disk in its entirety on release. Now the business side of this does make a certain type of sense. It was likely budgeted into the game's development as DLC, but was completed before the game itself. So removing the time factor, and if we were still before downloadable content existed, those twelve fighters would never have seen the light of day. The budget just wouldn't have stretched to include them. Also, Sony and Microsoft charge developers to release DLC, so by including it on the disk they are cutting that overhead down considerably and all you do is download a file for a couple of kb to unlock it.

However, with the fact it was finished in time for the game going gold and made it onto the disk it's understandable to see why some people feel it is a bit of a cheat. The content sitting on the disk they already own seems wrong, even if it wouldn't have existed if it wasn't for the budget only including it as content to be bought separately . The impression you get from the likes of Gearbox who brought us four extra instalments of Borderlands was because they wanted to offer their fans more. A chance to explore more of Pandora and a chance to try out some new ideas for gameplay. Budgeting it into original development and including on the disk to keep overheads down will certainly give some the impression that its just a money grab.

On the other hand, the 'From Ashes' DLC for Mass Effect 3 would have been cut content, and the vast majority of Day One DLC falls into this category. A factor a lot of people forget is that games, especially triple-A games, are finished months before we get our grubby mitts on them. They have to go through verification, manufacturing and shipping. What do you think the development team are doing during all this? Yes, the programmers are probably working on patches to smooth out some code that they didn't get chance to during development. But what of the designers? The artists? Just twiddle their thumbs? No, they want to be working so they get to work on content that can be available Day One.

But they just ripped it out of the game!

I can hear the detractors starting their argument already. "But the level was originally part of the game." You're right. Most of the time Day One DLC was part of the game, until it was cut. Why was it cut out? Because the development team didn't have enough time to finish it for their incredibly harsh deadlines and something had to give. The main game is out the door so now they do have the time. It's already designed and it can be anywhere from 10 percent to 70 percent finished. I'm not going to sit here arguing that they're not doing it for the money. Of course they are, they're a business. But this isn't something they've taken from you. In days before DLC this is simply content you would never see. Maybe learn about in an interview after the game's come out and you'd sit there thinking "Damn that would have been cool." Isn't it better that we actually get to play that content now instead of it being consigned to some designer's archive?

But there will always be people that feel they are being ripped off by DLC. However, DLC isn't anything new, it's been around for years. Just under a different name, what with it not being downloadable and all. Back in the old days when the only place you could get games was a shelf in a store, they were called add-on packs.

The original Half-Life added Opposing Force and Blue-Shift. BioWare's first 3D RPG, Neverwinter Nights, had three add-on packs, plus digital only "Premium Modules" which were basically DLC before the term was coined. I could keep going, but my point is a simple one. Quake did it, so did Dungeon Keeper. There's always been the option of extending a game beyond its original gameplay. DLC just makes it that much easier to do, and for those games that don't fair quite as well sales-wise, they now have the ability to offer their fans something more.

There are the developers that take it a little too far. Costume packs seem to exist solely to take advantage of over-enthusiastic fans, and in my opinion are at the same level as Oblivion's infamous “Horse Armour”, especially the like of Final Fantasy XIII-2's N7 armour which charged you twice, one for the male and again for the female costume. People seem to be willing to pay though and at the end of the day the developer took the time to make it so they should be paid for it.
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