Once, DLC felt fresh and exciting. Now it’s a constant headache
Not so long ago, DLC felt fresh and exciting. Today, it’s more like a constant headache
Early on in the previous generation, DLC was a fair proposition: extra content for your favourite games, made in the downtime between projects, and sold on an entirely optional basis.
“I think adding to game worlds after release is glorious,” says Dan Marshall, creator of The Swindle at Size Five Games. “Anything that stops that empty, gut-wrenching feeling of ‘it’s over’ as the credits roll on something you loved is a great thing.”
And so we got fresh maps for Call Of Duty, massive new campaigns for Fallout and Mass Effect, a screwball zombie spinoff to Red Dead Redemption, and a side story to Bio Shock 2 that was perhaps better than the game itself.
There were speed bumps along the way. Right from the get-go, Oblivion’s bizarre horse armour was the most micro of microtransactions. There were complaints that content was already baked on the disc and that your purchase was little more than a few-kilobytes-big key to unlock it. And DLC appeared so quickly after the game’s launch that it seemed suspiciously likely it had been held back to be sold separately.
But early experiments in selling extra content was largely innocuous, and mostly seen as beneficial to players. In recent years, however, DLC has begun to mutate into something new. Today, this extra content has become confusing, exclusionary, and increasingly pernicious.
Perhaps the most insidious trend is the move from content to consumables. These purchases don’t buy you bonus campaigns, characters and multiplayer maps, but one-use items, in-game currency, and instant unlocks of hard-to-obtain content.
Square Enix sells a $1 ‘headshot reticule’ that helps Lara aim her gun in Tomb Raider, while Ubisoft sells a ‘Premium Health Boost’ to give Arno extra durability for five minutes. Mortal Kombat X has easy Fatalities on sale, Dead Space 3 offers crafting ingredients at a premium, and Grand Theft Auto V lets you top up a fake credit card with real money.
When quizzed, publishers will offer the same defence of these addons, like they’re reading from a well-worn script. “It’s not about making more money, it was actually about saving people’s time when doing the grind,” Dan Greenawalt, creative director at Turn 10, said when quizzed about Forza 5’ s suspicious microtransactions. Over on Play Station, Sony’s president of Worldwide Studios, Shuhei Yoshida, tweeted that Gran Turismo 6’ s microtransactions were “just offering an alternative path to busy people”.
And when Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare retroactively added the option to buy your way to unlocking later content, producer Brian Lindley sold it by saying, “Now you have the choice to play your way”.
Which seems reasonable. “I can see people wanting to get through games easier,” Marshall says. “They’re a big time investment.” But he believes that charging for that is inexcusable when such routes used to be available for free through options, difficulty modes and cheat codes, the latter of which are now practically extinct.
Plus, these microtransactions always come with a psychological nag that maybe this stuff isn’t as optional as you might think, even if every publisher will
He believes that charging players is inexcusable when such options used to be available for free
argue that you can always unlock it in the course of play. Free-to-play on mobile has taught us that developers won’t get anywhere in selling coins and consumables if the game itself is too generous. These games must be abrasive to the touch, with enough grind, or pointy enough difficulty spikes, to inspire such a purchase.
And when it’s in the game’s best interests to increase the scarcity of certain resources, boost the difficulty of certain sections, lengthen the grind to get the next car, or reduce the payout of currency in an effort to encourage sales, not everyone will trust that the developer’s intentions are pure.
“I find it unacceptable when a game creates a problem and then sells the solution,” says Adrian Chmielarz, co-owner of The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter studio The Astronauts. “Cannot finish this mission? Buy some temporary invincibility! Cannot finish a level in 20 moves? Buy ten more moves!”
Those special extra-powered guns, and all other types of DLC, are as likely to be sold on a console’s web store as they are to be part of exclusive preorder deals, or exclusive to one console or another, or sold in glossy special editions that come with 12-inch figurines.
Increasingly, we’re seeing publishers hide the best bits – like a pair of Alien: Isolation levels that let you relive classic scenes from Ridley Scott’s original movie, or the option to ‘be’ Goro in Mortal Kombat X – as well as balance-breaking extras – like 25 extra lives in Sonic Lost World – in these exclusionary deals.
It’s certainly not to Marshall’s taste. “I don’t like the idea of screwing over customers because they favoured Console A over Console B: I want as many people to enjoy my games as possible,” he says. “Preorder bonuses tie into that. What, so I’m missing out on content in a product I purchased because I couldn’t afford the game until a month after release? Sod that – that’s just awful.”
Then there are season passes which bring the tumultuous world of preorders to DLC. And they come with the same ups, including Borderlands 2’ s generous slate of content and Mario Kart 8’ s clearly advertised schedule, but the same downs, such as Destiny’s disappointingly slim The Dark Below pack, and Ubisoft binning Assassin’s Creed Unity’s pass mid-’season’. And if anyone actually bought The Evil Within’s season pass, it’s doubtful they were happy to see it go on sale before a single expansion was even released.
If you’re really lucky, a game will try to use every one of these business practices: both Evolve and Watch Dogs offered such a convoluted mess of bonuses split between platforms, season passes and special editions that consumers needed to consult charts and FAQs just to figure out how to get hold of every goodie on offer. Nowadays, researching a game before purchase involves far more than simply reading reviews.
The reasons for the changes we’re seeing happen in the world of downloadable content are obvious. Season passes stop you selling your game to CEX, preorder bonuses get you on the hook before the embargoed reviews hit, and special editions bring in more revenue. Or, as Marshall puts it, “Games take a lot of money to make”.
“It’s a race to the bottom in terms of pricing – people’s Steam libraries are full to bursting with games they haven’t even played yet, and games are going into bundles quicker than ever,” he says. “They’re priced low, and have an outrageous markdown during sale times, and ‘I’ll wait for a bundle or the Steam sale’ is a prevailing attitude. You need to sustain the company, which means making money in these other ways.”
And the influence of mobile, where in-app purchases have moved beyond the point of boundary-testing curio to become everyday concerns, can’t be understated. Especially when the ‘buy tokens’ screen in Forza 5 looks practically identical to the same page in EA’s free-to-play iPhone
“You need to sustain the company, which means making money in these other ways”
racer Real Racing 3 and Assassin’s Creed Unity’s microtransactions smell unmistakably like the sort of things offered in Ubisoft’s cash-hoovering iOS offerings.
Will players put up with the same free-to-play tricks when the game has a £40 entry fee? Chmielarz doesn’t think so. “A lot of people spend a lot of money on free-to-play or microtransactions and then realise it’s all empty memories,” he notes. “So they will be much more careful in the future.” However, he warns that “as long as people keep paying for extra lives or super-shields, microtransactions are not going anywhere”.
He puts the reasoning behind these business models down to “one group of humans successfully exploiting certain weaknesses of another group for money. In the case of games, you could write a book or ten on all the psychological tricks used to get people to spend money on microtransactions. Sadly, because games are a deeply engaging medium, the exploits are fairly easy to pull off”.
As Chmielarz says, so long as people buy season passes and special editions and premium health boosts, publishers will keep selling them. And we’ll see even more mutations in the way DLC is made, advertised, and sold.
With Nintendo’s Amiibos, for example, we’re seeing the emergence of the ‘plastic toy as DLC’ concept – once the exclusive purview of standalone games such as Skylanders and Disney Infinity – creep into other genres. A Toad Amiibo unlocks a special mode in Captain Toad, a Fire Emblem Amiibo unlocks new heroes in Code Name:
STEAM, and Splatoon figures unlock special challenges in the gooey Wii U shooter. What will this mean for future Mario and Zelda games? Budgets continue to balloon, and games can fail to hit their publishers’ expectations even with millions of sales. Marshall is only too aware of the knock-on effects. “I’m not surprised to see developers poking at the walls of what’s acceptable to see what happens,” he says. “They’re thinking, ‘Can we get away with charging for this? It might help fund the next game’.”
So expect more game publishers striking deals with Microsoft and Sony to arrange platform-exclusive content. More standout content held back from regular consumers in order to appease seasonpass holders. More bonus guns and balance-busting vehicles exclusively available via some prohibitively expensive special edition. And more microtransactions that look to the world of mobile for guidance on which game features you can get away with charging for. (Spoiler alert: it’s everything.)
Evolve’s DLC plan led to Turtle Rock talking about The Behemoth, a post-release DLC exclusive, weeks before the main game had even launched
Size Five Games’ Dan Marshall is currently working on The Swindle. Tomb Raider’s array of DLC offers boosts to climbing and rate of fire
MortalKombatX’s Goro was only available if you bought the right special edition from the correct retailer. At least Destiny’s DLC is available to all
FROM TOP Plants Vs Zombies:Garden Warfare producer Brian Lindley; Adrian Chmielarz of The Astronauts
At launch, there were nine different editions of WatchDogs on shelves and in download stores. There were PS4 exclusives, too, and a season pass